Set against a stark Icelandic landscape, a servant woman convicted of murder reveals the truth behind her story as she awaits her execution. There were no prisons in Iceland in the late 1800s, and so Anges Magnúsdóttir spends her last days on an isolated farm, regarded with deep suspicion by the farmer’s wife and daughters and the rest of the community.
Novelist Hannah Kent never set out to prove the innocence of a character she took from the pages of Iceland’s history; instead she wanted “to discover something of [Agnes’s] life story, and in doing so explore her ambiguity and complexity.”
For Discover Great New Writers, Miwa Messer spoke with Kent about her debut novel, the “complicated” relationship between fact and fiction in Burial Rites, and how the volcanic, other-worldly island landscape became almost a character of its own.
Burial Rites is based on the true story of an Icelandic woman convicted of murder. When did you first hear about Agnes Magnúsdóttir?
I first heard about Agnes Magnúsdóttir ten years ago, when I was living in Iceland as a seventeen-year-old exchange student. The first few months of my stay there had been quite difficult. I was living in a small Icelandic town where I felt conspicuous as a foreignor, yet also socially isolated. I didn’t speak any Icelandic at that stage, it was winter, and the days were gripped by darkness for up to twenty hours at a time. It was during this early period of loneliness that I happened to drive through a very striking place called Vatnsdalur, a valley covered in hundreds of small hills. When I asked my travelling companions if the area was significant for any reason, they told me that it had been the site of the last executions in Iceland, which had taken place well over 150 years ago. Immediately curious, I asked them what had happened, and was told that a young man and woman had been led out to the hills and beheaded by broad axe for their role in the brutal murder of two sleeping men. It seemed like a dark and tragic tale, yet there was something that deeply intrigued me about the woman they mentioned: a 34 year-old servant woman called Agnes. For some strange reason I felt a kinship with her. Possibly I saw a fragment of my own experience of loneliness and social isolation in her story then, for it resonated with me immediately. I thought of her frequently during the rest of my exchange (which ended up being absolutely wonderful), and in the years that followed I realised I had many burning questions about the murders and about Agnes’ role in them. I wanted to know what circumstances contributed to such a sorrowful fate, and what sort of woman she had been.
What compelled you to eventually write a novel about her?
While I had been immediately curious about Agnes on first hearing about the executions, it was some years before I decided to write a novel based on her story. In an early attempt to answer the persistent questions I had about the murders and execution, I did a little light research and began translating and reading a few articles about the case. While I soon discovered more details about the crime, something about the records troubled me: in many accounts of the murders Agnes was either portrayed as an unequivocally evil woman, or was hardly mentioned at all. Where I looked for her character, I found only a monstrous stereotype. My decision to write about Agnes was triggered by a longing to find the real woman behind the grotesque caricature of a black-hearted manipulator. It was never a desire to re-open the case in the hope that she was actually innocent. I wanted to instead discover something of her life story, and in doing so explore her ambiguity and complexity.
What kind of research was needed to accurately portray nineteenth-century Iceland?
More than I could ever have anticipated. I read a huge amount of material – everything I could get my hands on – to become familiar with what life was like in nineteenth-century Iceland. Not only did I study history books, but I also read diaries by foreign travellers to the country, fiction by people such as Halldór Laxness, many scholarly articles with very dry titles like ‘Infant Mortality in Nordic Countries, 1780-1930′, song lyrics, recipes, old newspapers – if it was about Iceland, I read it. It was an enjoyable process, but a slow one: most sources required translation before I could even gauge their usefulness. In the end, the most difficult things to research were aspects of mundane domestic life. What did people eat? Did they celebrate birthdays? If so, how? What were their shoes made out of? Did the men shave or grow beards? Did everyone use chamber pots and how heavy would one be? These are the things a historical novelist needs to know, sometimes even more so than the political climate or social customs, although these things are important too.
I also spent six weeks researching in Iceland’s national archives and libraries, where I was able to study censuses, ministerial records and ‘soul registers’, and where I learned most of the facts of Agnes’s life. I also spent some time visiting the places where the novel is set. It was a very intense, very rewarding process, and as I researched the times that Agnes lived in, I found myself drafting scenarios and scenes that were suggested to me by my reading. Some of this imaginative speculation later mirrored the actual facts of her life with eerie resemblance. Overall, it took me about two years of full-time research and study before I felt confident enough in my knowledge of the events and that time in Iceland’s history to begin writing.
Is the novel largely fact, or is a significant portion direct from your imagination?
The relationship between fact and fiction is a close and complicated one in Burial Rites. When I decided to write a novel about Agnes Magnúsdóttir and the historical events surrounding Iceland’s last execution, I promised myself that I would honour every fact that could be corroborated. In other words, I decided to keep my imagination on a leash, only giving it free reign when the facts contradicted one another, or were nowhere to be found. That said, everything in the novel is somehow anchored to my research, even if it’s largely fictional. I never discovered what exactly Agnes was doing from the age of 6 to 16 for instance (the records for those 10 years were destroyed), but my wider research into the lives and experiences of other pauper and illegitimate children informed my speculation. Every creative decision, every fictional aspect of the novel can be directly linked to something I encountered in my reading.
Interestingly, the stranger elements of Agnes’s story are the parts that I have not fictionalised. For instance, several characters have important dreams which are discussed in the novel, and form part of the narrative. All of these dreams were taken from several local histories and accounts of the murder – none were made up. It’s astonishing what some people think to write down, and what else is neglected. In many ways I think of the novel as a speculative biography. It’s only a suggestion of how things might have been, but it is informed conjecture.
The Icelandic landscape has a large presence in the novel. What role does it play, and what impressions has it left on you?
It would be impossible to write an Icelandic story without including the country’s landscape. I’ve never been anywhere else in the world where the natural world is made even more beautiful through its inherent hostility. The weather, the mountains, the northern sky – it all has a presence that cannot be ignored or shut out as it can be in other places. The very light of the place commands your attention. Living there, you find your days shaped by the natural world in ways that it does not in other countries, whether it’s the midnight sun preventing you from sleeping with its warm blush coming through your curtains, or a howling gale shutting you inside for days on end. I think the lack of trees contributes to this unusually strong presenceof the land and weather. The view is often unobscured, and when you stand in that landscape, amongst the valleys and mountains and fjords, you realise that you too are visible for miles. It creates a mixed yet exhilarating feeling of vulnerability and awe.
When I researched Burial Rites I often came across references to the landscape in letters and diary entries. People would agree to meet at a certain time or place ‘weather permitting’. It was a constant phrase, and I slowly realised the extent to which people’s lives were governed not only by the seasons, but by day-to-day rainfall, winds, northern lights. I wanted to make sure I captured the force of the Icelandic landscape in Burial Rites, whilst also honouring its splendour.
How do Icelanders feel about this book?
I have had only support from Icelanders so far, which is wonderfully assuring. From the archivists, librarians and locals who assisted me in my research, to those who have got in touch with me since the book has been released, everyone has so far been enthusiastic about my novel. Many are simply curious to know why a young Australian chose to write about events so far away in time and place from her own experiences. No doubt that there will be a number of Icelanders who disagree with the way in which I’ve portrayed characters (some may be descendants of the historical people they’re based on afterall), but I can accept that. I haven’t set out to offend anyone, or to subvert a well-known story for the sake of controversy. I hope they see this book as the ‘dark love letter to Iceland’ I intend it to be.
Who have you discovered lately?
I am completely in awe of Eleanor Catton. I read her debut novel The Rehearsal earlier this year, and was stunned by its originality and ambition. She’s young, but the quality of her prose suggests an extraordinarily mature intellect: it is staggeringly good. I’m currently reading her second novel, the Man Booker longlisted The Luminaries, and am once again taking huge pleasure in Catton’s use of language and her artful command of structure. I’ve also been reading the Patrick Melrose quintet by Edward St Aubyn, and have been recommending the series to anyone who will listen. Acerbic, horrifying and filled with darkly funny observations, St Aubyn’s books are filled with characters so vile, so hideously malformed by their own self-interest and self-righteousness, that you cannot possibly put them down. As soon as I finish the final novel I have plans to read them all over again.
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Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.