Photo: Studio Smiletime
Written by Heta Muurinen
Translated by John Calton
The Imagination encounters the University
Kaari Utrio got interested in history when she was seven and happened to come across the book Jokamiehen maailmanhistoria (‘Everyman’s world history’).
“I had always loved stories, and what is history but stories?”
In primary school Utrio wanted to be a history teacher and couldn’t see herself in any other profession. In lower secondary school she read Pyhä Birgitta by Eila Pennanen. She immediately got interested in the Middle Ages.
“It was like a bolt from the blue, the Middle Ages are my thing.”
When Utrio started university she faced a shock. None of the lecturers had even heard of the Annales School whose works Utrio had been reading, along with other international research, in the lower secondary school.
“I wasn’t interested in the politics of the past, I was interested in how human societies work.”
Mediaeval research didn’t really exist and there wasn’t too much written on the subject.”
Utrio laughs: “I waded through the 15-kilo books by the then connoisseur of Finland in the Middle Ages, Jalmari Jaakkola, even though a lot of the ‘facts’ presented in his books came off the top of his head.”
For her MA dissertation Utrio was given the topic of the correspondence of Louis XIV’s diplomats.
“I begged the assistant of General History, Martti Lauerman, to let me write about Britain in the Middle Ages instead.”
Utrio researched Henry II’s family politics – the way the king married off his children to boost his own position. She only got the permission to research the subject on condition that she’d focus on comparing the Latin and English chronicles.
“I was deeply disappointed with the University’s views but not the teaching. They taught methodology well.”
The teaching staff in the history department was male-dominated. The only woman was the professor of Archaeology, Ella Kivikoski.
Utrio did her Master’s in Finnish history under the supervision of Professor Eino Jutikkala, who specialised in Finnish peasant life but for whom, to Utrio’s disappointment, women and everyday life were of marginal interest.
Even though it was the student’s firm intention to become a historian, at the viva in the final stages of her studies the future began to become clear.
“I did the viva with Professor Jutikkala. I did alright. Finally he asked me what I was going to do next. I told him defiantly that I was going to write historical novels. To which he answered that I was more than capable of filling in a few of the gaps.”
Her answer wasn’t just plucked out of thin air. Utrio had almost by accident embarked on her writing career whilst studying. Through her mother’s involvement with fashion magazines, Utrio began penning novel series for the Finnish women’s magazine Eeva.
“I wrote it on the basis of my Master’s dissertation in general history. Back then it was just paid labour. I didn’t for a moment think 'oh gosh I can’t write for toffee!'”
The University has changed a great deal since Utrio’s time there.
“Nowadays research on the Middle Ages is voluminous and covers more than just the affairs of state. I’d like to think I had a small part in that."
Written by Heta Muurinen. Translated by Tomi Setälä. Revised by John Calton.
Kaari Marjatta Utrio
Born July 28, 1942, Helsinki
Master of Arts (Finnish and General History), 1967