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Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen: Barbara (Barbara)

Barbara is a free spirit in a narrow fishing community in the Faroe Islands where free spirits are not welcomed. At the opening of this book, she is twenty-eight years old and the widow of two parsons, both of whom died in somewhat strange accidents. Some feel that they were not accidents. The beginning of the book also sees the arrival of the new – unmarried – parson, Poul Aggersøe. Jacobsen skillfully depicts the community into which Poul is arriving. Many of them are characterised by their views of Barbara. Many of the men like her, though some fear her. Some people think she was responsible for the death of her husbands; others do not. The main characters – the rector, his brother, the sheriff, the governor and his shiftless sons, the judge – are all superbly well-drawn and individuals in their own right, and not merely caricatures.

It is inevitable – we know it, Barbara knows it, many of the other characters know it and, eventually, the new parson knows it – that Barbara and Poul will fall in love and marry. Jacobsen, however, carefully builds up the affair before they marry. Gabriel, the store owner, is bitterly jealous while others are wary but everything, at first, seems OK. Then Andreas, son of the rector, who had gone off to Copenhagen to study, returns, ostensibly to study the conditions of the Islands on a Royal Commission. But it is soon apparent he has other intentions. Everyone knows but Poul is reluctant to accept it till the lovers are caught in flagrante delicto. But the story is about Barbara. Will she go off to Copenhagen with Andreas or will Andreas tire of her and return alone to pursue his career?

With the backdrop of the bleak Faroe Islands, the attachment to the Islands of its inhabitants, their love of but fear of the sea and the religious feelings of the community (which, it must be said, are by no means monolithic but have many varying shades), Jacobsen paints a fascinating portrait of a woman of free spirit who just wants to love and be loved. The customs and activities of the islanders are painted at times lovingly but, at times, mockingly but, on all occasions, the main characters are shown to be individuals, doubtless typical Faroese but characters in their own right. This was one of the first Scandinavian novels to be translated into English after the War and is, fortunately, still in print. It deserves to be.

Publishing history

First published 1939 by Gyldendal
First published in English 1948 by Penguin
Translated by Estrid Bannister (Penguin); W Glyn Jones (Dedalus); George Johnston (Norvik Press)