Thursday, 22 October 2009

In Search of Mrs Woffington (Part 2)

One of Dublin's grand Georgian thoroughfares

Apart from our trip to Teddington in Part 1. we also made a slightly more ambitious journey to Dublin, where Mrs Woffington was born and bred. Mainly I wanted to see the site where the famous 18th-century theatre, Smock Alley, had stood in the 1700s. It's still a narrow street but what I didn't realise was that there's a contemporary studio theatre on roughly the same spot (my photographs of it are here).

Wandering around Dublin with a modern A-Z and a photocopy of an 18th-century map was fascinating and memorable, but as with our trips to London, we had trouble finding anything much dating from Peg's childhood in the 1730s. Yes, Dublin is a truly magnificent Georgian city, but constantly we stumbled across the problem that the street plan was extensively remodelled by the Wide Streets Commission from the mid-1750s, so that the Dublin of the early 18th century no longer exists.

With a photocopy of Rocque's map of Dublin from 1756: the street plan of Temple Bar remains virtually unchanged but the buildings are different

The circumstances of Peg's childhood are surrounded by conjecture, but following the sudden death of her father (one writer claimed he fell off a ladder), debts began mounting and the Woffington family (mother, Peg and baby sister Polly) were forced to eke out a living in a low cabin, with Peg selling watercress door-to-door.

At some time around 1727 she seems to have been discovered by a celebrated rope-dancer called Madame Violante, who had set up a tumbling booth in Fownes Court and Peg got her first theatrical engagement, as a singer. Take a look at the picture below of Fownes Street Upper and despite the modern facades, the upper sections of the buildings are clearly early 18th-century panelled houses. These narrowly escaped demolition in the 1980s when the state transport company, CIE, proposed that a new bus station be built across the site.

Fownes Street Upper, Temple Bar

Of course, there was one thing we knew existed during Peg's lifetime and that was Dublin Castle: a powerful social and political symbol with a complex history. In the 18th century it would have been the Protestant Ascendancy's seat of power; early in the century it hosted the viceregal levee: a formal reception held just after the grandee had risen from bed, usually held on a Sunday. The Castle would also host the usual round of banquets, state balls and 'drawing rooms' (card parties for ladies), with the season ending on St Patrick's Day with a special ball.

The Castle as Peg would have known it: from Charles Brooking's
map of Dublin in 1728

Dublin Castle's 13th-century Norman Record Tower, 2007.

As you can see from the picture above, Dublin Castle is a Norman construction which has much in common with the castles of Wales with their round towers; the Castle still had a moat (formed by the River Poddle) in the Georgian period, but by this time it was redundant and filled with rubbish.

The British administration never rebuilt the medieval castle as a single piece of architecture however; derelict parts were patched here and there, resulting in the mix of buildings we see today. Under the gaze of the Wide Streets Commission, the gate at Cork Hill (below), the Guard House and Court Marshall Room were all completed in 1751, and the Upper Castle Yard itself was extensively remodelled, so even this isn't a true picture of early 18th-century Dublin. Only the old maps can come close to recreating the Dublin that Peg knew as a child and young woman.

Upper Yard, Dublin Castle, 2007

James Malton: Upper Yard, Dublin Caste, 1791.

Further Reading:

I was lucky enough to find several fantastic books that really helped me to imagine Dublin before the work of the Wide Streets Commission. I can highly recommend Peter Pearson's The Heart of Dublin: Resurgence of an Historic City which is an utterly passionate account of the unknown areas of Dublin; I'm indebted to Pearson's work throughout this blog post. I was also hugely excited to find - in the bargain bin of Dublin's City Hall gift shop - A Directory of Dublin for the Year 1738, published by the Dublin Corporation Public Libraries in 2000. I got a thrill when I looked up Margaret Woffington in the index and found her listed as 'actress, Theatre Royal, Aungier Street' and a resident of Jervis Street: a surprisingly well-to-do area, judging from the professions of her neighbours, north of the river. And although it depicts the new Dublin emerging in the final decade of the 18th century, Colin Smythe Ltd's pocket-sized edition of Malton's Georgian Dublin: 25 Aquatints is simply a joy to behold.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Picturing Britain: Paul Sandby Review

I'm pleased to say we made it to Nottingham (home to Robin Hood, above) just in time to catch the last few hours of the Paul Sandby show. It was held at Nottingham Castle's splendid Art Gallery (below) and seemed to be attracting quite a few crowds right to the last.

The show started off with some of Paul's (and his elder brother, Thomas's) early topographical works. This was particularly fascinating for me because the beginning of Sandby's career coincided with the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion; the army's Board of Ordnance was ordered by the Duke of Cumberland to make a 'compleat and accurate survey of Scotland... that a country, so very inaccesible by nature, should be thoroughly explored and laid open'.

Paul Sandby: The taking of Jacobite prisoners

Sandby's role, in 1747, was as chief draftsman, mapping the recent war zone, Culloden, which he did so with the greatest detail. But his sketchbook, showing the military dress of an English soldier, and his off-duty works of Edinburgh street life, really bring the period to life and reveal Sandby's eye for comic detail.

This combination of technical dexterity, wry humour and urban commentary brings Sandby straight onto the patch of William Hogarth - something easily seen in Sandby's Twelve London Cries Done From Life (published 1760) showing such down-and-outs as the milkmaid, entertaining the vulgar crowds with a raree-show (or peepshow), the raucous mackerel-seller, and the hawker of a low ballad about the celebrated prostitute, Kitty Fisher. The accompanying collection of satires on Hogarth I have mentioned already and are crammed with vicious and obsessive detail.

Paul Sandby: View to the East from the Gardens of Somerset House

But perhaps Sandby's greatest achievements are the depictions of cities such as London and Nottingham, particularly his breathtaking views (from the East and the West) from the Gardens of Somerset House (above) which find Sandby committing to paper an incredibly accurate view of 18th-century London. Thanks to Sandby's camera-like eye, these two large canvases give a great sense of space to the viewer, as if they are actually standing on the riverfront terrace outside old Somerset House, admiring the magnificence of the London skyline.

Later views of Windsor have the tinge of romanticism that was less appealing to me than his honest images of 18th-century city life. Other highlights were Sandby's view of rush-hour at the tollgate near his home and a small watercolour of an artist's studio in St George's Row, Bayswater, which could have been either Sandby's own, or his 'dream studio', complete with a grand classical archway.

After such an enjoyable exhibition, it seemed only right to make a detour to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - established 1189 AD and reputedly the oldest pub in England (above) - which consists of a series of caves, hewn from the rock on which Nottingham Castle sits. We had a drink in the rock lounge, which seems to have been the original brewhouse, judging from the passageway/chimney above our heads (used for winching the kegs up into the Castle).

There's plenty to occupy the tourists including The Pregnancy Chair (below): believed to have the power to make any woman who sat on it conceive a child, and the Cursed Galleon: covered by what looks like 50 years of dust and deadly to anyone who attempts to clean it!

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Monday, 19 October 2009

Sam and Dave: Georgian Poster Boys

Last week we were a bit startled to see the front of St John's House in Lichfield adorned with pop art takes on Samuel Johnson (above right) and David Garrick (above left), with a dictionary definition in the middle. It's a bold look for a grade II* listed Georgian building.

The three works are part of Lichfield's 52 Weeks of Art project and will be displayed on the front of the new boutique bed and breakfast for the next month. They're part of a series of 26 artworks - designed by professional and developing artists, students and schools - which will be popping up around Lichfield over the next six months. To quote St John's website:
The series will depict different art styles of the 20th century but with a twist as they all have a link to Lichfield. The first three duly show reworkings of Andy Warhol, with a pop art version of Samuel Johnson; Rat le Bek with a street art interpretation of David Garrick and Joseph Kosuth with a dictionary definition of the historic uses of the poster.
What next? A Banksy-style portrait of Erasmus Darwin?

Photograph © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Friday, 16 October 2009

In Search of Mrs Woffington (Part 1)

As this Sunday marks Peg Woffington's birthday, it's about time that I blogged about the several research trips we've done in search of the elusive actress.

I've blogged before about the trip we did to the Garrick Temple at Hampton, but I haven't yet uploaded my photographs of nearby Teddington, which was also on our historical hit-list that day, being the location of Mrs Woffington's villa, and the place where she settled in the last years of her life.

According to Janet Camden Lucy's Lovely Peggy (which, despite the whimsical title, is the only really scholarly biography of Peg Woffington), the burial register confirms that Mrs Woffington died in London, but her request to be buried in Teddington suggests a strong affection for the place.

In the 18th century, Teddington - a riverside village between Strawberry Hill (where Horace Walpole had his gothic castle) and Hampton Wick - was a fashionable summer retreat for wealthy Londoners. Peg's villa was said to have been built by Sir Charles Duncombe at the start of the century and it was known as Teddington Place House until 1851, when the name seems to have been changed to Udney Hall.

Demolished in 1946, it must have been an impressive residence, with ceilings painted by Verrio and panelling by Grinling Gibbons. It stood in what is today Udney Park Gardens (above), adjacent to St Albans Church, and I had expected the site to be right on the banks of the Thames (much like Pope's villa in nearby Twickenham), but it could be that the course of the Thames has changed slightly over the years.

We also spent some time picking our way through autumnal leaves and cobwebs in the graveyard of Teddington's parish church, St Mary with St Alban, before realising that Woffington's memorial tablet (above) is actually inside the church, just within the north chancel arch. It describes her as a 'spinster, Born Oct. 18th 1720' and informs us that an infant nephew, 'Master Horace Cholmondeley, aged 6 months' lies in the same tomb.

Local legend says that Woffington also endowed some almshouses, long known as Woffington Cottages on the High Street, two of which were tea rooms for a while, though now closed. The church is also connected with another 18th-century luminary, Dr Stephen Hales - inventor of the surgical forceps - who was Perpetual Curate from 1709 to 1761.

Part 2: Mrs Woffington's childhood in Dublin.

Top: Margaret Woffington by JB Vanloo, c. 1742
Other photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Word of the Week: Irish Legs

Thick legs, jocularly styled the Irish arms. It is said of the Irish women, that they have a dispensation from the Pope to wear the thick end of their legs downwards.

From: Captain Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

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Monday, 12 October 2009

Displacement Activity #256

Lichfield really is very beautiful in Autumn, and so I went for a walk today and took pictures of Minster Pool instead of getting on with the pressing business of finishing my novel. To be honest it was a welcome distraction from writing about the failed invasion of Britain by the French in 1744.

Another pleasant distraction was this invitation (below) which I received last week from our friend Dr Erasmus Darwin. It seems I am to attend a Christmas supper at his house in December where he will be serving Yorkshire Christmas pye, plum porrige, tansy pudding, potted cheese and sack possets. I can't wait...

Photograph © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Crossing Swords with Hogarth

Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby, source: Wikimedia Commons

Before it closes on October 18th, I hope to catch the Picturing Britain exhibition at Nottingham Castle which gathers together the work of an extraordinary - and largely forgotten - 18th-century topographical artist called Paul Sandby. Marking Sandby's bicentenary year, the show encompasses the Nottingham-born artist's accomplished landscape painting (he was known as a staunch defender of English landscape) and, perhaps most interestingly, his satirical works.

Sandby was a critic of Hogarth, who became the target of a series of savage prints in the 1750s and early 1760s. These find Sandby ripping into The Analysis of Beauty, casting Britain's most popular artist as an inane fool in a harlequinade and a fitting subject for A New Dunciad. It's jaw-dropping stuff, even by today's standards.

Paul Sandby, Satire on Hogarth, shown as a devil fanning the fire at the mouth of hell.
Source: Monster Brains

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Monday, 5 October 2009

Word of the week: Pattering

The maundering or pert replies of servants; also talk or palaver in order to amuse one intended to be cheated. Pattering of prayers; the confused sound of a number of persons praying together.

From: Captain Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Georgian Gems at the Literature Weekend

Not long now until Lichfield's Literature Weekend (Oct 8th-11th). New Zealand actress and novelist Barbara Ewing will be visiting to promote her novel The Fraud: a story of celebrated portrait painter Filipo di Vecellio who entertains the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth in his fashionable London home, but whose success conceals a swarm of dangerous secrets (Oct 10th, Wade Street Church, 5pm to 6pm, £5).

On the same evening, David Nokes visits to talk about his biography of Samuel Johnson, a book that attempts to get behind the figure that, to some extent, Boswell created (Oct 10th, The George Hotel, 8pm to 9pm, £6). If Nokes' previous book, Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography, is anything to go by this should be a revealing look at Lichfield's famous son.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Iceland's Bell (Part 2)

Icelandic turf houses, early 19th century

Meanwhile - and almost as an aside - Laxness has set his story in motion. As the cord-thief Jón Hreggviđson unwillingly cuts down the bell, he cracks a scurrilous joke about the king. That’s a criminal offence. The legal action that ensues becomes the driving force of the whole novel, expanding, twisting back on itself, and eventually, over three decades drawing the whole of Icelandic society into its coils – right up to the king himself. It’s a classic Icelandic narrative gambit. Throughout the 1940s, Laxness was engaged in editing new editions of the medieval Icelandic sagas. The single, rash, action leading to a legal dispute that embroils the whole nation (and punctuated by set-piece courtroom battles at Thingvellir), is an archetypal Saga narrative. Laxness conceived Iceland’s Bell as a modern saga, and the famous line from Njál’s Saga (known to every Icelander) is a sort of unspoken ground-bass to Iceland’s Bell: “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste”.

Laxness borrows a literary style from the sagas, too. We never read his characters’ thoughts or inner emotional conflicts. Like the anonymous saga-poets, Laxness simply describes their words and actions – and lets us infer the emotions for ourselves. Instead of manipulating the reader’s feelings, Laxness prompts them. The effect is clear, objective and yet, at the book’s great climaxes, overwhelmingly moving.

And make no mistake, this is a story of epic range and emotion. Jón Hreggviđson’s decades-long struggle for justice is its backbone, and there’s no doubt that Hreggviđson – an illiterate, impertinent peasant-farmer, with seemingly endless reserves of stoicism and a head full of garbled medieval ballads – is the novel’s central figure. Hreggviđson (and the lawsuits he pursued from 1683 to 1715) really existed, but Laxness makes this near-forgotten 17th-century criminal a figure of universal significance.

Grettir: 17th-century Icelandic illustration

He’s the eternal underdog; resourceful, facetious and seemingly indestructible. Icelandic readers will have found traces of favourite saga-characters in his make-up – the buffoonish Björn from Njál’s Saga, the bullish Grettír the Strong, and of course the great trickster-poet Egill Skallagrímsson. English readers might be reminded of Baldrick. But Hreggviđson is very much his own man. Whether conscripted into the Danish army or wrestling with trolls on an Icelandic heath; flogged, abused, and pushed around by the mighty, he always comes back with the proud assertion that he’s descended from the saga-hero Gunnar of Hliđarendi – and throws in an apposite verse of his favourite Elder Ballad of Pontus.

Against his story, and intertwined with it, another very different narrative unfolds. And for many readers, the romance of the Lady Snaefriđur, “Iceland’s Sun”, and the King’s Antiquary, Lord Arnas Arnaeus makes Iceland’s Bell one of the greatest love-stories in modern literature. Snaefriđur (literally “Fair as Snow”) is one of Laxness’ most beloved creations: daughter of Iceland’s senior magistrate, sister-in-law of the Bishop of Skálholt, she’s universally admired as Iceland’s loveliest and most nobly-born heiress.

Skalholt Cathedral, 1789

We meet her first as a figure of fairy-tale enchantment:

She wore no hat, and her head shone with dishevelled hair. Her slender body was childishly supple, her eyes unworldly as the blue of heaven. Her comprehension was still limited only to the beauty of things, rather than to their usefulness, and thus the smile she displayed as she stepped into this house had nothing to do with human life.

"Snaefridur, Iceland's Sun" - costume design from 1950 National Theatre of Iceland dramatisation

But Snaefriđur will soon learn about human life, and in full measure. Like Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, the commanding heroine of Laxdaela Saga, she’s proud, determined and idealistic. She’s also in love – and is prepared to break the law, and bring about her own social and financial ruin, rather than betray her emotions. One night at Thingvellir, she springs Jón Hreggviđson from the condemned cell and sends him with a ring and a message to her beloved in Denmark. Determined that if she can’t marry the “best of men”, she’d rather have the worst, she marries the brutish drunkard Magnús of Braeđratunga. Meanwhile she sacrifices her wealth, dignity and youth to pursue a long series of lawsuits against her true love, Arnas Arnaeus – who has ignored Hreggviđson’s message (but taken up his case), returned the ring, and quit Iceland in pursuit of a higher calling.

Fire in Copenhagen, the final volume of Iceland’s Bell is dominated by his story, just as the second, The Fair Maiden is dominated by Snaefriđur, and the first, Iceland’s Bell, focuses on Jón Hreggviđson. Court Assessor Arnas Arnaeus, the Royal Antiquary, is the highest ranking Icelander at the Danish court, and at first sight he’s little more than another Jacobean dandy:

The aesthete in him spoke out from every seam, each pleat, every proportion in the cut of his clothing; his boots were of fine English leather. His wig, which he wore under his brimmed hat even amongst boors and beggars, was exquisitely fashioned, and was as smartly coiffured as if he were going to meet the king.

But he enters Hreggviđson’s turf hovel in search of something more precious to him than his own status – fragments of old Icelandic parchments. His passion is the ancient literature of Iceland; to him, the proof that his stricken country once created great art. In his elegant Copenhagen townhouse, he collects a library of Icelandic sagas, ballads and poetry.

Copenhagen c. 1720

Meanwhile he pays court (Fire in Copenhagen opens with a gorgeous set-piece description of a royal masque in the Danish capital), marries into money, and struggles to improve the lot of the Icelanders – making powerful enemies along the way. It’s all of it necessary to protect his priceless manuscripts, and sacrificing the love of his life is just part of the price he decides to pay. The tragedy of their love is that Snaefriđur understands this too:

“Snaefriđur” he said as she turned to leave. He was suddenly standing very close to her. “What else could I have done but give Jón Hreggviđson the ring?”
“Nothing, Assessor”, she said.
“I wasn’t free,” he said. “I was bound by my work. Iceland owned me, the old books that I kept in Copenhagen – their demon was my demon, their Iceland was the only Iceland in existence. If I had come out in the spring on the Eyrarbakki ship, as I promised, I would have sold out Iceland. Every last one of my books would have fallen into the hands of my creditors. We would have ended up on some dilapidated estate, two highborn beggars. I would have abandoned myself to drink and would have sold you for brennivín, perhaps even cut off your head -"
She turned completely around and stared at him, then quickly took him by the hand, leaned her face in one swift movement up against his chest, and whispered:
She said nothing more, and he stroked her fair and magnificent hair once, then let her leave as she had intended.

Laxness based Arnas on the great Icelandic antiquarian Árni Magnússon (1663-1730). Magnússon (pictured above), like Arnas Arnaeus, built a collection of Icelandic manuscripts in Copenhagen; and like him, led a troubled personal life. And his collection, too, was badly damaged in the Great Fire of Copenhagen in 1728, which forms the dramatic climax of Iceland’s Bell. But unlike Arnas’, it wasn’t completely destroyed. Three decades after Iceland gained independence, and Iceland’s Bell was published, the Danish government started to repatriate the Magnússon collection. Today, the manuscripts are protected by the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík, and the room that houses them in Reykjavík’s Culture House is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of European literature.

Great Fire of Copenhagen, 1728

Halldór Laxness doesn’t have quite such a happy end in store for his characters. But he wouldn’t be the writer he is if he didn’t somehow find hope in even the bleakest of circumstances. At one point in the novel, Arnas comments that his countrymen’s “one and only task is to keep their stories in memory until a better day”. In the closing pages of Iceland’s Bell, his life’s work is in ashes, Iceland is more abject than ever, and he has sacrificed love and career in vain. But one thing – one person – has survived it all; the indomitable Jón Hreggviđsson and his head full of poetry. Together, they ride to the harbour where Hreggviđsson, pardoned at last, is to take ship back to Iceland. And as always, the illiterate cord-thief has a verse for the occasion:

“Now I shall teach you an introductory verse from the Elder Ballad of Pontus, that you have never heard before,” he said.
Then he recited this verse:

“Folk will marvel at the story,
There on Iceland’s shore
When Hreggviđsson’s old grey and hoary
Head comes home once more.”

After both had memorized the verse, they all sat in silence. The road was wet, causing the carriage to sway from side to side.
The Assessor remained lost in thought for some time, then finally looked at the farmer from Rein, smiled and said:
“Jón Marteinsson saved the
Skálda. You were all that fell to my lot”.
Jón Hreggviđsson said: “Does my lord have any messages he would like me to deliver?”…
“You can tell them from me that Iceland has not been sold – not this time. They’ll understand later. Then you can hand them your pardon”.
“But shouldn’t I convey any greetings to anyone?” said Jón Hreggviđsson.
“Your old ruffled head – that shall be my greeting” said the Professor Antiquitatum Danicarum.

Arnas Arnaeus gives his life to the written word. Jón Hreggviđsson can’t even write, but his nation’s literary culture bubbles, unquenchably, beneath his “old ruffled head”. It takes a writer of Laxness’ vision to point out that a nation’s literature can survive without books – but not without its humanity. When Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, the Swedish Academy’s citation was:

For his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.

None of his novels embodies that spirit more stirringly than Iceland’s Bell. And nothing captures the spirit of the novel better than Laxness’ response to his career’s crowning moment. As the telegrams of congratulations poured in from around the world, Laxness realised that he couldn’t respond to them all. So he decided to respond only to one – a message of “lycka til!” [congratulations!] from the Sundsvall Society of Pipe Layers, in northern Sweden.

In other words, sewage-workers. Praised by the whole world, Laxness was moved above all by the idea that “men who bent double over pipes, deep in the ground, should climb out of their drains in the midst of the winter in Sundsvall, in order to shout ‘hurrah for literature’”.

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Monday, 28 September 2009

A Viking 18th Century

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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