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From Mothers’ Soil to City Concrete

Written by: Dagný Kristjánsdóttir |

“There were only two things that made me sad about being poor: not being able to go to the cinema, and not being able more or less to follow the latest fashions”.

Such was the seventeen-year-old Guðmunda Elíasdóttir’s experience of Reykjavík in 1937. Her dramatic memoir Lífsjátning (1981; Confession of Life), written by Ingólfur Margeirsson, also provides a focused portrait of the psychological consequences of the far too rapid and crude modernisation and urbanisation of Iceland. Guðmunda has no roots, cultural ballast, or particular morality, and she can only reflect on her reactions after she has reacted.

The Icelandic women writers of the period 1930-1965 experienced the same cultural upheavals as Guðmunda Elíasdóttir, but they attempted to analyse the processes they were exposed to, and attempted to trace connections back and forth in time in order to find a meaning in their strange daily lives.

A woman emerges

Olafsson, Sigurjón (1908-1982): Kona med kött. 1946. Stone sculpture. Listasafn Íslands, Reykjavík

Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir (1895-1967) wrote four books about the farmer’s daughter Þóra Gunnarsdóttir, Úr minnisblöðum Þóru frá Hvammi (From the Notes of Þóra from Hvammur), during the years 1954-1964. Whereas the traditional Bildungsroman leads either to the hero’s integration into his society or to his final break with it, Þóra’s story leads to a ‘neither/nor’ or a ‘both/and’ situation. The first part of her story describes her indomitable and optimistic belief that she has the same opportunities as her brother, while the final part has a melancholic atmosphere.

Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir was educated as a teacher and received further teacher training in Denmark and England. She was often ill, and she wrote many of her novels while ill in bed. Many of the other women writers of the time did the same, and they were consequently suspected of shirking their duties as housewives and of inventing illnesses in order to have time to write.

The Þóra books are a series of novels narrated in the first person, and the reader meets the little five-year-old Þóra at home, on the farm of Hvammur, in the 1920s. The narrator is a child, and the text is structured according to a child’s perception of time. The individual episodes are separated by weeks or years. Time only passes when something new happens. On the first page, little Þóra sits on the edge of the bed with her grandfather. They are reading, but then a shadow falls on the book and the sunlight disappears. Her mother has entered the room in order to drive Þóra out of it, so that she can help out with the daily chores on the farm. The sun always shines on Grandfather’s bed, which is a world unto itself: a world of light, books, knowledge, and stories. The mother represents darkness and drudgery, and a lack of love, insight, and knowledge. Þóra rejects the reality of her surroundings; she wants an education, she wants to be a man, she wants to go to Reykjavík when she grows up.

The reader follows Þóra’s fight for an education, but the hopelessness of this fight is clear fairly early on. Her socio-economic conditions contribute to Þóra’s defeat, but the presentiment of her fall is emphasised by the fact that Þóra’s favourite novel is Sigrid Undset’s Jenny, 1911, and this becomes an intertextual presence in the Þóra books.

Like Jenny, Þóra tries to live up to a high personal ideal through strict self-discipline, but cracks gradually begin to appear. Her repressed sexual urges make her more and more tense, a sinking sensation is conveyed textually through a stressed syntax and short, rapid sentences – and then the “fall” takes place. Þóra is seduced, or rather, raped.

As a mother, she repeats her mother’s dominating and unsympathetic attitude towards her own daughter.

The last book about Þóra frá Hvammi is set around the year 1959. The reader is presented with a staged melancholy in the form of Þóra’s monotonous lament, in which she continually returns to the past without gaining any insight into what went wrong. These are the post-war years with their great faith and confidence in knowledge, technology, and progress. It is a time of stereotyped fashion: men shall be masculine, and women shall be feminine. At the same time, a perverted family portrait is drawn, a society permeated by double standards, suspicion, repressed jealousy, and competition. This is clearly expressed in the style of the novel. It is characterised by melancholic duplications and mirror-effects, which hinder the movement of the text, its sense of time, and every kind of utopian vision. Þóra frá Hvammi, who began by not knowing which gender she belonged to, has conformed to the Cold War ideal of a woman.


In the novel Í skugga Glæsibæjar (1945; In the Shadow of Glæsibær), Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir presents a female artist, the pianist Agnes – a narcissistic figure, a bad mother, and an inconsiderate wife and lover on whom, at the end of the novel, all the ‘respectable’ people turn their backs. But even though other people’s opinions periodically affect Agnes, she remains unchanged because essentially she does not care.

Þóra frá Hvammi’s relation to art is much more complicated. “Now and again, I dream about trying to write a book some day, but I do not know whether I will ever dare to do so. Is it not like breaking in, all unworthy, into the shrine of poetry?” she says.

This idealisation simultaneously aids and impedes Þóra’s productivity and writing. Writing, for her, is not only like breaking into the shrine, but also like breaking out of its opposite, the profane, the irrational, the muddy, the (female-)bodily. The latter subsequently becomes the main theme in the Künstlerroman Mín liljan fríð (1961; My Beautiful Lily).

The artist of this novel is a fifteen-year-old girl from a coastal town in the south of Iceland at around the turn of the twentieth century. Her name is Lilja, and during the course of the book she turns out to be an extremely talented visual artist, a painter. She gets tuberculosis, however, and even though she receives treatment relatively early on, she does not get better. Shortly before falling ill, she stops eating. She does not want to live.

The depiction, at the heart of the novel Mín liljan frið, of an abortion is unique in Icelandic literature. The mother wakes Lilja up in the middle of the night. The girl has to go out and dig a hole in the corner of the vegetable garden. She helps her mother, makes coffee for her, and washes her blood off the floor, and in the end she falls asleep – sick with worry. She dreams that the sea washes over the town, the waves are as high as mountains, and they are bloody. Then an angel floats by and carries her up to heaven.

It is after this night that her anorexia begins: the girl starves her body, trying in this way to return to her child’s body and reject female sexuality. When the anorexia begins, Lilja stops painting, but her inner pictures become more beautiful and liberated than ever before: death becomes an aesthetic pinnacle and finale to her short life.

The whole of this novel, and the whole of Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s oeuvre, can be read as a text about the female artist’s struggle to identify herself with, and conquer, the language in which an ambivalent mother-image is buried: the mother as Madonna and Medusa.

The Other Woman

“But dear mother, no-one can write a modern story about Reykjavík in a thousand-year-old Norwegian language. We write in the Icelandic that is developing as we speak, and in a Reykjavík-language if necessary”.

This is the answer given by Svala, the main character of Þórunn Elfa Magnúsdóttir’s (1910-1995) Dætur Reykjavíkur III (1938; Daughters of Reykjavík), when her puritanical mother criticises her for using slang and foreign words, and for her lack of respect for the language. The examples of “Reykjavík-language” used by Svala and her friends at the start of the 1940s are just as striking to a modern reader as they were to Svala’s mother. At the same time, the literary and aesthetic debate between mother and daughter plays a particular, symbolic role. In contrast to Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s oeuvre, in which the daughters reject or repudiate their mothers, Þórunn Elfa’s daughters blame their mothers and accuse them of not loving them enough.

Þórunn Elfa Magnúsdóttir’s first novels are formally experimental, chaotic, and overwrought. The literary landscape of the 1940s in Iceland was dominated by Halldór Laxness’s majestic, epic works, and only a few readers were interested in a young female writer’s “Reykjavík-language”. Þórunn Elfa Magnúsdóttir turns, indeed, to psychological realism from her fourth novel onwards. Her texts gradually become more supple, but they lack the aesthetic ambitions and reflections that characterised her youthful work.

The novel Frostnótt í maí (1958; A Frosty Night in May), is the artistic pinnacle of Þórunn Elfa’s literary production. The book is about a six-year-old girl, Valva, who is sent away by her mother to grow up amongst relatives, who are nevertheless strangers, in another part of the country. The journey is traumatic. Valva’s entire life revolves around reversing this separation from her mother and reclaiming love, no matter the cost.

Þórunn Elfa Magnúsdóttir made her debut in 1933 with a collection of short stories. In her many novels, we meet good mothers and good sisters, but dangerous, narcissistic, and destructive women are at the centre of her authorship. Some of the young girls in Þórunn Elfa’s novels are encouraged, or downright urged, to get themselves an academic education, but this requires them to slave away, it is a fight against all the odds, and what is the prize that awaits them? Þórunn Elfa’s realism is conformism in the sense that her characters ‘choose’ what is feasible, but in this large and productive oeuvre we also find insightful passages, irony, and ambivalence.

“‘Oh my God, do you have to work?’ he asked, looking closely at her. ‘Do you have to work?’ he said again. ‘I thought you were a married woman, settled in life.’ ‘Yes’, was her only answer, but when she saw that he continued to ponder her situation, she added: ‘My husband is sick, he’s in the hospital.’”

(Þórunn Elfa: Sambýlisfólk 1954; Couples).

The day of anger

The highpoint of Oddný Guðmundsdóttir’s (1908-1985) literary career is the long novel Skuld (1967; Debt). It made use of magic realism before the western world had properly ‘discovered’ Latin American literature. The novel, by way of introduction, is about Una, who is more than 110 years old, and is thus the oldest woman in the country. She has raised three generations, has lived through the struggle for independence against the Danes as well as two world wars, and she continues to live, unable to die, because she is consumed by hatred. Those who die in anger and revolt cannot decay; the soil, according to popular superstition, will not accept his or her body. And old Una is not even able to die, so strong is her hatred.

The four novels Oddný Guðmundsdóttir wrote in the 1950s are about young, poor people from the countryside, who experience the explosive urbanisation and social revolutions as an existential crisis. They cannot identify with the norms of their parents’ generation, they long for a better life, but they loathe the newly rich, the winners, those who do well out of the war, the housing shortage, the shortage of goods, and the Allied forces. They join the radicals, the socialists, but this becomes deeply problematic as well, because they do not identify with the urban working class either. Some of them experience this multiple ‘homelessness’ as alienation, loss, inner emptiness, and existential disgust, for example in Svo skal böl bæta (1943; Even So Shall Bale be Bettered). Others feel they have been cheated, as in Tveir júnídagar (1949; Two Days in June), and still others realise that even though they are young, they must begin all over again – the struggle for existence turns out to be a different kind of battle than they thought, as for instance in Veltiár (1946; Happy Years).

These novels have two objectives. They want to describe the characters from the perspective both of social class and of psychological existentialism, but they end, textually, by pulling in opposite directions. It is interesting that in the novel Skuld, Oddný Guðmundsdóttirsolves these problems while, at the same time, abandoning the realist form of narrative, something that has undoubtedly contributed to her earlier texts being forgotten.

Oddný Guðmundsdóttir was one of the few women to sit the school leaving exam, early in the 1920s. In the 1930s she continued her studies in Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland, but despite her excellent education she chose to become one of the last itinerant teachers in Iceland. In one place, she explains that she chose this unsettled life in order to avoid having to put down roots, to avoid becoming deeply involved with places and people, which would prevent her from writing.

A world that did not exist has disappeared

Both Drífa Viðar (1920-1971) and Unnur Eiríksdóttir (1921-1976) made their debuts late and died young. These are not the only things they have in common; they both wrote a novel, as well as a collection of short stories that explore the theme of the novel.

Drífa Viðar’s texts are restrained, distanced, and characterised by a mild irony and subtle humour. Unnur Eiríksdóttir’s texts are temperamental and experimental, and move between realism and modernism. The self-deprecating treatment of existential issues is typical of Drífa Viðar. The novel Fjalldalslilja (1967; Lily of the Mountain Valley) is about the little city girl Halla, who is sent to stay with relatives in the countryside for the summer. The first part describes the summer, and in the last part of the novel she returns to the farm as a young woman. In the meantime, she has gone abroad to study art. In between Halla’s two sojourns in the countryside, modernisation has arrived. From one day to the next, the old way of farming has become anachronistic.

Unnur Eiríksdóttir’s novel Villibirta (1969; Confusing Light) also takes ambivalence and alienation as its main theme. The female protagonist of the novel is born early in the 1920s. She comes to Reykjavík just before the war in order to get an education, and she works as a maid, becomes involved with a man she has been warned about, gets married to him, and at the end of the novel has a child.

There is a marked difference between the Icelandic women writers born before 1910 and those born after 1920. Many of the younger women writers, like those a little older than them, grew up in the countryside, but after 1920 farming methods were modernised, and the old peasant culture became an increasingly distant reality and thus supplied material for a new kind of peasant Romanticism, as in the novels of Guðrún frá Lundi.

From the turn of the twentieth century, a lot of light foreign literature was translated and published in serial form in various journals. In this way, Icelandic readers learned to love gothic novels about English and German villains and heroes. There were only intermittent attempts to produce domestic light literature before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The publication of Icelandic books increased dramatically during the war. As was the case elsewhere in Europe, there was a serious shortage of goods in Iceland, but as a result of the Allied occupying forces’ injection of cash into the country’s economy, there was a lot of money in circulation. The war was a good time for all forms of domestic art, but as soon as consumer products again became available after the war, the situation was ‘normalised’. The light literature that had increased in popularity during the war, however, was here to stay.

Guðrún frá Lundi (1887-1973) was, while still writing, held in great contempt by the literary elite. She made her debut late, at the age of almost sixty, in 1946, but she managed to publish around one book a year until her death in 1973. Her last novel came out when she was eighty-six years old. Guðrún frá Lundi wrote voluminous novels. Her major work is the novel Dalalíf (Life in the Valley), which was published in five volumes in the period from 1946 to 1951 and is 2189 pages long! As the title indicates, the book deals with life in a valley in the north of Iceland, and follows three generations of farmers from the 1860s to the 1930s. The novel centres on the large farm Nautaflatir, the family that lives there, and the other villagers connected to this family. The novel also depicts the emigration to America of the 1870s and 1880s, the mechanisation of agriculture at the start of the twentieth century, the building of new concrete houses instead of the old turf huts, and the new values and expectations of the young generation. It can be difficult to locate a clear moral or political perspective in the work of Guðrún frá Lundi. Her books deal with moral conflicts, but her own position can hardly be called moral.

There is nevertheless one particularly problematic sore point in Guðrún frá Lundi’s books, to which she returns again and again. It concerns the farming community’s treatment of its weakest members, namely children and old people.

Guðrún frá Lundi’s popularity and financial success shows that the old world of the farming community had become a distant place in terms of both space and time, a stage populated by fictive characters on whom townspeople and inhabitants of the modernised countryside could project their private and social problems.

Many women writers of light literature emerged in Guðrún frá Lundi’s wake. Most only wrote one book, but three managed to become established: Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir (born 1925), Snjólaug Bragadóttir (born 1945), and Birgitta H. Halldórsdóttir (born 1959). Their novels have more in common with the genre of clichéd romances and adventure stories, and they do not possess Guðrún frá Lundi’s originality.

The Emergence of Modernism

In 1944, a new women’s journal was launched in Reykjavík. It was called Melkorka – the name comes from the Irish princess Melkorka who, in Laxdæla saga, was sold as a slave and pretended to be deaf and dumb in order to avoid speaking her master’s language. Female writers were associated with this journal, which was published until 1962. Other journals for women’s writing were periodically published, as well as a pioneering anthology of short stories by women, Pennaslóðir (1959; Pen-Trails), and women’s associations were launched, such as The Icelandic Women’s Union for Culture and Peace (MFÍK), which was founded in 1951.

Many issues were discussed by women during those years, in a rejection of the post-war ideology of women as carers and housewives. There were also many small out-bursts of frustration and opposition to the arrogance and obvious misogyny of the male literary elite. But the arrogance and contempt nevertheless had an effect, and the younger women’s literature of the 1950s and 1960s is often characterised by caution, distance, and self-censorship. Ambitious debuts were few and far between, and the women’s novels became in general shorter, sparer – every single word was carefully weighed. The short stories of Unnur Eiríksdóttir, Drífa Viðar, and Ásta Sigurðardóttir are all marked by linguistic self-awareness, formal inventions, and absurd or grotesque touches. Modernism was emerging, and it was the young urban women who prepared the way for it.

Translated by Brynhildur Boyce