Farm story 5: Law book> autograph album > sketch book

Child's drawing in,

When I first came to the farm, the only book I found which wasn’t a bible or book of psalms was, Laws of the Kingdom of Sweden with Punishments in Force from 1864 . On the inside cover Chrijonsson has written in beautiful copperplate script that he is the rightful owner of the book. Underneath, the signee proudly adds that he is a junior school teacher at Rönnäng chapel in Stenkyrka parish on Tjörn. He writes with the solemnity of a young man in a position of responsibility and dates his statement the 17 May, 1878.

Initially, the signature in the book had me flummoxed. How on earth would you pronounce a name like that? But after some thought, the scales fell from my eyes. The writer had been using a shortened form of his first name, Chri for Christian, and had simply missed out the space between first and second names. On the next page and dated fifteen years later, I found Christian had signed his name again but this time he’d spelled it Kristian JonsSon. This was confusing, but I already understood that Swedes, so fussy with their tax forms, were remarkably lax when it came to the spelling of their names. When I’d come to Sweden in the 1980’s, Carlssons with a C and Karlssons with a K were all mixed up together in the telephone directory for the simple reason that they sounded identical. Their order was determined by the initial of the subscriber’s first name – not the second. So relatively speaking, someone changing his name from Christian to Kristian was no big deal.

But why the capital letter in the middle of his surname - JonsSon? In the 1890’s every generation in a Swedish family constructed a new family name, or patronymic, for itself. Children took their fathers’ given name and added son if they were boys and dotter if they were girls. So the capital letter S in Christian’s surname was simply a way of making it extra clear that he was Jon’s son, just as a son of his would be called Christiansson (or Kristiansson).

Most of the scores of signatures in the book are of Olle’s eight surviving aunts and uncles, all of whom were brought up on the farm. The signatures of Olle’s grandparents, Olof Johansson and Elisabeth Pettersdotter, figure only occasionally and his father’s name appears only three times. It was his aunts who were the keenest scribblers. Looking at the reverse side of the front cover you can see that Magdalena has written her name twice, once as Magdalena Johansdotter after her grandfather and once, rather daringly, as Magdalena Olsson, rather than Olsdotter, after her father. Later for a change she signs herself Miss Magda Olson. All these alternatives were perfectly legitimate in the 1800’s, but in 1901 came the first of several laws which tried to regulate this chaotic situation. The result was that women started to adopt their husbands’ surnames on marriage, and that permanent surnames became more common.

Before this date you could pretty much adopt any surname you fancied as long as it didn’t belong to the aristocracy. There wasn’t even a set procedure you needed to follow – you just told everyone that in future you wanted to be called Knut Knutsson or Anders Andersson, or the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The system must have driven many a tax inspector or registrar of births, marriages and deaths to drink.

Schoolteachers at the end of the nineteenth century would sometimes take on other roles to make ends meet, helping parishioners with their accounts, letters or legal matters and it looks as if Kristian tried to help Olof decipher a particular passage in the law book. This was because the law book was printed in the old Germanic Fraktur typeface, a sample of which you can see in the photo above, and which was fiendishly difficult to read. The paragraph which was neatly copied out in modern script, presumably by Kristian, dealt with what constituted a legitimate as opposed to an illegitimate child. For centuries the Church had fought a constant, but losing, battle against pre-marital sex and in this book the Swedish legal system clarified the status of the resulting children. The passage stated that a child conceived by an engaged couple would nevertheless be legitimate, as long as the guilty pair got married before the birth. So why did the family want to have this point of law confirmed? Perhaps it was because Olof and Elisabeth, Olle’s grandparents and the couple who bought the volume from Christer, got married in October 1867 and had their first baby the same year. They may have wanted to have the baby’s legitimate status confirmed to avoid any future problems for, cruelly, an illegitimate child could not expect to inherit from his or her parents.

I learned a lot from that book – not about Swedish law but about the children and young people who grew up there. When the book arrived on the farm it was already fifteen years old and once it had served its legal purpose it became a sort of cross between an autograph album and an exercise book. In the first five pages the signatures of four of Olof’s children appear. The first, squeezed in above the original Chrijonsson signature, belongs to Magdalena Olsson the oldest daughter in the family. The second, written on the flyleaf opposite the Foreword, was that of her younger sister Beria Charlotta Olsson, who carefully added the words Mölnebo, Tjörn and the date, 1894. There is also some evidence of younger children’s handiwork - some scribbles and figures. However, there’s not a single bad word or rude picture to be found anywhere in the book and equally surprising is the fact that I found few boys’ signatures. Perhaps they were kept busy helping their father on the farm, or as there were only three boys as opposed to six girls all keen to practice their penmanship, the boys never got a look in.

Over the page, facing the Judge’s Rules, you can find the words written by the girls’ father , This belongs to Olof Johansson. Underneath, in the most beautiful handwriting, his wife signed herself Petter Elisabeth Olsson, a new and even more confusing combination of her father’s and her husband’s given names, although elsewhere she is uniformly known as Elisabeth Pettersdotter.

Wherever there is any blank space we see repeated copies of signatures, written below the originals. Under the beautiful script in which Christian had first signed his name, someone had imitated his C’s, and on the title page there are no fewer than nine elaborate capital B’s, three or four beautiful J’s and other assorted capital letters. (Four of the daughters of the house were called Beria, Beata, Johanna and Jenny, which makes them chief suspects in the case.)

Had Olle’s family been a nest of criminals, refining their craft to forge a will or the deeds to a relative’s land? Surely this was unlikely in this respectable family of regular church goers and conscientious confirmation candidates. It’s simply that over time the book’s function changed. The whole family, both adults and children, used the broad margins and generous flyleaves of this large volume to add new flourishes to their signatures and to improve their penmanship by copying the handwriting of others. Good handwriting was important, not least among people who rarely needed to write. To many, a good signature indicated how well-educated you were - even how intelligent – so it was well worth practising.

But it wasn’t all practice signatures in the big law book. The sisters had obviously gone through a pious phase when they carefully wrote improving maxims in the margins. Some are familiar, like Pride goes before a fall, but others are less so, like Bad company destroys good manners. Friends were also invited to add their autographs. Nearly every signature is neat, and some are beautifully written in copperplate script. They must have been well-drilled at school and there’s a high degree of uniformity in the style. But almost none of the many signees could write in a straight line – due perhaps to a lack of practice on unlined paper.

Near the back of the volume one little girl was lucky enough to find an entirely blank page which her sisters had missed. She must have been thrilled. What she produced was the only drawing in the book, a full-page pen and ink sketch of an elegant lady seen from the side, with a large hat and carefully drawn earring. The top of her dress is elaborately pleated, and she has a swelling bosom and a tiny waist and is holding a long, closed parasol with two tassels. But it’s the skirt which draws the eye - an enormous ruched and patterned triangle. But inspiration deserted her when it came to drawing feet and the lady seems to be standing on two chicken claws. The artist may well have copied the picture from an English book or magazine and there are five short, random, English words written to the left of the figure – Bad, bed, led, dad and sad.

Assuming that the picture shows contemporary fashions, the young artist was practising at some time in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. Looking at the ages of the six sisters I think the artist is likely to have been the youngest, Augusta, born in 1892. It’s quite possible that the lady she drew was Margareta, otherwise known as Daisy, the Crown Princess of Sweden, who had the same icon-like status in Sweden at that time that Princess Diana had in the 1990’s in England. Like Diana, Daisy was English, born Princess Margaret of Connaught and one of the many granddaughters of Queen Victoria. She married Prince Gustav Adolf of Sweden in 1905 and managed to be beautiful, stylish and lively, giving the stiff Swedish royal family a more human face. But like Diana she died tragically young. In 1920 she suffered an ear infection followed by a couple of unsuccessful operations, which resulted in the blood poisoning that killed her at the age of 38. She was eight months pregnant and left five young children.

But perhaps the sketch wasn’t of poor Princess Daisy at all, but of a little girl’s fantasy princess who inhabited a glamorous world far away from the trials and tribulations of a small family farm on the west coast of Sweden.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023.

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