Kristmann Guðmundsson: Brudekjolen (The Bridal Gown)
Two families have grown up together in rural Iceland. Björn Isleifsson and his sister, Matthildur, were always intended to marry Hallgerdur and Valgeir Vidalin, respectively. However, it did not work out. Hallgerdur played around with Björn so, when he met Sigrun, he married her. Meanwhile, Valgeir met and married someone else. A considerable part of this novel is regret by at least some of the four. Björn and Sigrun have a daughter, Kolfinna, and Sigrun is expecting another child. Hallgerdur, owner of a farm, has married Torfe. Torfe was employed on the farm and became head man. In what might have been a fit of spite at Björn’s marriage, Hallgerdur proposed to him and he had no hesitation in accepting. Despite that, they only seen to have had sex once and the result was Finnur, a sensitive boy. Björn continues to visit Hallgerdur regularly and Torfe is very bitter about it. Hallgerdur encourages these visits, not least because she regrets not having married Björn, the handsomest man in the region. She considers Torfe to be a weak man, in part because he never demands sex. Valgeir, for his part, now lives in the town and has become a doctor.
The novel starts with Sigrun in labour and, as there seems to be a problem, the midwife has instructed Björn to fetch Valgeir. Of course, as in all such books, the weather is awful but Björn fetches Valgeir and they have a harrowing journey back, not least because Björn decides to take a short cut across the frozen lake beneath which, as Valgeir knows full well, there is a hot spring. Sadly, they arrive too late and Sigrun and her baby son are dead. Björn is, of course, devastated and, after building a coffin, he builds a special casket to store the bridal gown and remembers full well the day of their marriage when Sigrun was standing in the yard in her bridal gown. He remembers the pledge he made to her and admits that he has not kept it but vows to do so. We also get a legend about a bridal gown, recounted by an old woman, which adds to the mystery. But, after the funeral, life goes on. Björn keeps the shed where he has stored the casket, locked up but continues to see Hallgerdur. Torfe is becoming more and more jealous. Meanwhile, Finnur and Kolfinna are becoming close friends and playing children’s marriage games.
In addition to the two main families, there is also Barde, a poet and a drunk. He has let his farm run down, spending all of his money on drink, and he survives by helping out other farmers and eking out an existence on his own farm. He has a son, Skule, who is about the same age as Finnur and Kolfinna. Initially, all three are friends, though there is some rivalry, as Skule is tougher while Finnur is delicate and inclined to write poetry. As they grow older, there is some clear rivalry between the two young men for the affections of Kolfinna. She feels very much attached to Finnur but cannot help admiring Skule. Skule leaves Iceland for a long while when his father dies and returns a somewhat different man. In particular, he has new ideas about agriculture, picked up in Norway. As this book is about relationships, we also have Kristjan, the head man on Björn’s farm, who is in love with Matthildur and Björn himself, struggling with his conscience and pledge to Sigrun.
The complicated love life, often unrequited and always awkward is what drives this book, set against the background of a rural Iceland which struggles to survive but which is also, slowly, modernising. It is written in a conventional realistic style but the book and, indeed, the author sold well in his lifetime and the fact it was translated into English all these years ago shows that it must have hd some impact. It is still quite readable and, while not great literature, does show that Icelandic literature did not just spring up in the last ten years and that, in the early years of the last century there was more than just Laxness..
First published 1927 by Aschehoug, Oslo
First published in English 1931 by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation
Translated by Richard Beck