Sussex author marks anniversary of first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature

To mark the 80th anniversary of the death of Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Seaford-based writer and performer Rose Collis is re-issuing her first book, Portraits To The Wall: Historic Lesbian Lives Unveiled, as a print-on-demand.

Thursday, 20th August 2020, 12:54 pm
Rose Collis
Rose Collis

First published in 1994, the book is an internationally acclaimed celebration of lesbian lives often concealed by history. It rediscovered the lives and loves, consorts and concerns, passions and politics of a diverse range of British and European women.

They include: composer Dame Ethel Smyth, who wrote the suffragette song March of the Women; Frances Power Cobbe, writer, suffragist, founder of the National Anti-Vivisection Society; Edy Craig, actress, writer, feminist and daughter of Ellen Terry, who established Smallhythe Place and the Barn Theatre; and Maureen Colquhoun, born in Eastbourne. From 1965 until 1974, she was a member of Shoreham District Council, Adur District Council and West Sussex County Council, and was the first out lesbian MP.

Some of the stories are tales which have become much better known since publication. Rose said: “25 years since I wrote about it in Portraits to the Wall, the relationship between Queen Anne and her female courtiers became the subject of The Favourite, the acclaimed film starring Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz which gained multiple Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations and awards.

“And in 1988, I was one of the few journalists to give column space to a book about a hitherto obscure wealthy lesbian of the manor, who had chronicled the minutiae of her daily life and loves, in four million words’ worth of coded diaries, translated by Helena Whitbread. Of course, now everyone knows her as Gentleman Jack – but back then, only a few of us paid much attention to Anne Lister. In point of fact, some sceptics even believed that the diaries were a hoax. Such was the level of awareness of, and interest in, lesbians in history at that time.”

Rose added: “This new paperback edition includes the entire original text and also features a new preface, plus reviews and new cover.”

It is priced £9.99 and available from Amazon.

As for Selma Lagerlöf: “‘I know what you’re probably thinking: ‘Selma Lagerlöf – is that a make of Scandinavian beer?’ And I admit until I chanced upon her in the early 1990s, I would have thought the same. But when I started to research her story, it was astonishing: she was a breakthrough cultural icon for her country in the early 20th century – which, let’s be honest, was not internationally renowned for its literary reputation. And for a woman to do that in that era was huge.

“Her children’s stories were worldwide favourites and eleven movies were made from her books. Most people might not have heard of Gosta Berling’s Saga, but it played a big part in launching the international career of one of the few famous Swedes you could name — Greta Garbo.

“On the face of it, Selma was an unlikely candidate to become an internationally-acclaimed writer. Born and raised on a large, remote rural estate in Sweden, her father was a social animal who threw large parties and invited many of the local down-at-heel ex-soldiers. It was listening to their booze-fuelled tales, and the legends told to her by her relatives and servants, that fed her imagination.

“She combined those old soldiers’ tales with the myths and legends her family told her and came up with a winning literary formula. While working as a teacher, she spent the next ten years writing Gosta Berling’s Saga, published in 1891.

“Over the next few years, she became the international toast of Swedish culture: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils became one of the world’s most popular children’s books.”

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