A Viking 18th Century

Sep 28, 2009 by

Today I’m delighted to welcome guest blogger Richard Bratby, a freelance journalist who writes for, among other things, the Birmingham Post, the Lichfield Mercury, Metro newspaper and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s blog. He will be here today and tomorrow talking about an area of 18th-century history that may be new and surprising to many of us. His focus is on the work of Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness (1902—1998) whose historical novel Iceland’s Bell is an epic tale of a nation struggling for survival during the 18th century.

Iceland’s Bell (Part 1)

If you love the 18th century, chances are you have a favourite historical novelist. It’s a boom area in literature – and an opportunity for readers to slip, for a few hours, into a world of classical terraces, elegant ballrooms, porticoed mansions and rolling parkland. But in the right hands, readers have shown themselves more than willing to move beyond Austen-esque Georgian England and into ever more exotic terrain. Rose Tremain’s 1999 Whitbread award-winner Music and Silence, for example, found a wide readership for a story set in the Royal court of 1630s Denmark.

So here’s a historical novel also set in part at the Danish royal court, covering (roughly) the period 1700-1730: the age of the Great Northern War. Epic in scope, it sweeps across nations and seas, a story of oppression, suffering and intrigue; of boisterous humour, deep poetry and star-crossed romance. It’s by a great novelist; in fact, a Nobel laureate. And yet it’s barely known in the English-speaking world. It’s called ĺslandsklukkanIceland’s Bell – and it’s by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness.

To be fair, until recently you’d have had to have read it in Icelandic, or maybe German. Incredibly, Iceland’s Bell was only translated into English in 2003 (it was first published in 1945). Philip Roughton’s translation (which I’ve used throughout this post; with Icelandic letters such as đ [pronounced ‘th’] used about as consistently as Blogger allows me; apologies to Icelandic readers) has only now given this extraordinary novel to English-speakers. But the 18th century-loving community still seems to have been rather slow to seize on it.

Maybe that’s because Laxness is best-known as a literary modernist; the author of powerful social-realist novels like Independent People (1934) and visionary psyechedelia (Under The Glacier – 1968). You certainly wouldn’t guess from the cover of the Vintage edition that this was a historical novel.

Maybe it’s because of the notorious English-speaker’s allergy to literature in translation (though if you can handle Tolkien’s imaginary names and places, you should be able to cope with Laxness’ genuine Icelandic ones). And maybe it’s because when you open Iceland’s Bell, you enter an authentic, brilliantly realised 18th-century world that’s startlingly different from anything in Austen or Georgette Heyer.

How different? Well, here’s the oldest surviving building in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík (below). It dates from 1762 – in other words, a good half-century later than the period chronicled in Iceland’s Bell.

At the start of the 18th century, Reykjavík simply didn’t exist as anything more than a tiny fishing settlement, and it doesn’t feature in Iceland’s Bell (for Laxness’ take on Reykjavík, try his enchanting coming-of-age novel The Fish Can Sing). But the fact that this was one of the biggest and most impressive residences in Iceland gives you some idea what to expect in the novel. True, it’s a story of noblemen, elegant ladies, country squires and great estates – but don’t picture Palladian mansions and jardins à l’anglaises. A couple of the locations featured in the novel survive today. Bessastađir, just outside modern Reykjavík, was the seat of the Danish regent, and it’s still the residence of the President of Iceland.


This is where Jón Hreggviđsson is imprisoned near the start of the novel, and although it was extensively rebuilt from the 1760s onwards, it’s still on the same site. Here’s how it looked at the start of the 19th century. Remember, in the period of Iceland’s Bell this was by some way the biggest and most impressive building in Iceland – and it wasn’t even as grand as the structures in this picture:

Bessastadir, c1834

Only slightly less imposing were the houses of the Danish Monopoly Merchants – the officials licensed by the Danish crown to control and manage all trade with its colony of Iceland. From 1602 to 1786 trade with Iceland was rigorously controlled by Denmark, and in the period of Iceland’s Bell all trade was forbidden except through licensed Merchants in designated monopoly ports. The result, unsurprisingly, was poverty and even famine. Most Icelanders were subsistence farmers or fishermen, living in turf-roofed cottages. (In the novel, Jón Hreggviđson is initially convicted as a “cord-thief”, and throughout Iceland’s Bell, a shortage of fishing-cord is reported as Iceland’s most urgent problem. Icelanders couldn’t even feed themselves without it). In such circumstances, the Monopoly Merchant’s houses were symbols of unimaginable power and wealth.

And when you look at the surviving examples – such as the Husiđ in the monopoly port of Eyrarbakki (1765), today a museum – it’s impossible not to do a double-take. This is the very house where Squire Magnús of Braeđratunga passes out in the pigsty after selling his wife for a keg of brennivín, in Part 2 of Iceland’s Bell (Laxness stayed in Eyrarbakki to complete the novel). It’s about as grand as Georgian architecture got in Iceland. And it’s not exactly Blenheim Palace:

This is the world in which Laxness chose to set his great historical novel. Like many of his literary choices, it proved controversial amongst his fellow Icelanders. Laxness was at the height of his career; ten years later, in 1955, he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He worked on the book over the period 1942-45. On 17th June 1944, after seven centuries of foreign rule, Iceland finally achieved independence from Denmark – though with the superpowers already positioning themselves for the Cold War to come, the young Republic’s future looked far from secure. National pride, and nationalist passions, were burning high. Now, at this historic moment, Iceland’s leading writer published a novel set in the most humiliating period of Iceland’s history.

Laxness makes his intentions clear from his very first page:

There was a time, it says in books, that the Icelandic people had only one national treasure: a bell. The bell hung fastened to the ridgepole at the gable-end of the courthouse at Thingvellir by Oxará. It was rung for court hearings and before executions, and was so ancient that no-one knew its true age any longer. The bell had been cracked for many years before this story begins, and the oldest folk thought they could remember it as having a clearer chime. All the same, the old folk still cherished it.

Thingvellir: photograph © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

Anyone who’s ever been on holiday to Iceland (and got further than the Blue Lagoon) will have visited Thingvellir – the breathtaking natural gorge where, for nearly a thousand years, the Icelandic Parliament, the Althingi met annually in the open air. Today it’s a World Heritage Site; a wooden church (dating from the 19th century) has replaced the 17th-century courthouse. The old bell, sent as a gift to Iceland by King Olaf of Norway in 1015, and known to Icelanders under colonial rule as “the nation’s sole possession”, really existed. And what happens next – like many of the events in Iceland’s Bell – really happened, too:

One year when the king decreed that the people of Iceland were to relinquish all of their brass and copper so that Copenhagen could be rebuilt following the war, men were sent to fetch the ancient bell at Thingvellir by Oxará.

The king’s hangman comes from Bessasađir with a work party of convicts, and the bell is cut down.

The pale emissary took a sledgehammer from a saddlebag, placed the ancient bell of Iceland on the doorstep before the courthouse, and gave the bell a blow…the bell broke in two along its crack.

Thingvellir church, early 19th century

The nation’s last remaining treasure has been hacked down and shattered. Laxness’ message could hardly be more clear. He hasn’t just set his novel in the darkest period in Icelandic history – he’s beginning his story at its absolute lowest point. But there’s worse to come. There’s a famine, and an epidemic. By the end of Iceland’s Bell, the island itself has been put up for sale by the king of Denmark – and even he can’t find a buyer.

Tomorrow – Part 2: A Hero, two lovers, and the Great Fire of Copenhagen.

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11 Comments

  1. Le Loup

    In regard to this blog's title: I have never seen the 18th century "s" used at the end of a word. Is this use documented?
    With respect & regards, Le Loup.

  2. curator

    Oh my goodness – someone else has read "Iceland's Bell." How wonderful! I recommend "Independent People" for those who enjoy Laxness.

  3. Mrs Woffington

    Hello folks, thanks for your comments – Le Loup, I must confess that I just took an 18th-century-style font off the 'net so that's probably a bit of artistic license rather than historically accurate. And curator, glad you enjoyed the post (part II is live now). I have only read The Fish Can Sing which I can highly recommend!

  4. weakspeaker

    Regarding Le Loup's observation, I found this from someone I assume to be an amateur historian: http://www.orbitals.com/self/ligature/ligature.htm

  5. Le Loup

    Beautiful buildings, love it.
    Le Loup.

  6. Le Loup

    Thanks for the link weakspeaker, very interesting and much appreciated.
    Regards, Le Loup.
    http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com

  7. Professor Batty

    There are ten novels by Halldór Laxness that have been translated into English. all are worth a look, most are tremendous.

    A list, with comments can be found here:

    http://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2007/12/top-ten-laxness-in-translation.html

  8. Mrs Woffington

    Fantastic folks, many thanks for you comments.

  9. RGB

    Thanks for the link and the comment, Professor Batty. Great to hear from a fellow fan. I've just finished Halldor Gudmundsson's biography and the new translation of "The Great Weaver from Kashmir", but have never been able to get hold of either "Salka Valka" or "The Happy Warriors" in English; at least, not for less than £90 a throw, online. Any tips?

    Meanwhile, hope to make it to Gljufrasteinn at last in November…

  10. Professor Batty

    @RGB ~ I did manage to get Salka Valka for under 100USD, but I got The Happy Warriors through an inter-library loan, I don't know if you have a similar system in the UK. The notable thing about Laxness is the uniformly high quality of all his novels.

  11. Professor Batty

    … and I'll be going to Gljufrasteinn next week!

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