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Hjalmar Bergman: Farmor och Vår Herre (Thy Rod and Thy Staff)

The Swedish title actually translates as Granny and the Dear Lord, a translation which has been used in translations into other languages, so I am not sure why Thy Rod and the Staff has been used in English. The book starts with Granny (who is introduced that way – she is seventy eight), whose real name is Agnes Borck née Storm. She talks frequently to the Lord, not so much as a subordinate human to her God but more as an equal, whom she not infrequently has cause to criticise for his action (or lack of action). In short, she is a strong, independent woman. As a child, she carefully saves up her money in a clay savings box, made by her father. When, at the age of sixteen, she opens it and finds eighteen Rix dollars in it, she plans to take the money. However, her father, who is broke, sees it and seizes it. She immediately reports to the local constable that the money was stolen from her (not saying by whom). The constable has words with her father and he then gives her back sixteen of the dollars, keeping two for himself. The next day she sets off for the nearby town and never sees her father again. She take service with Grundholm, a local builder. Grundholm is building a house for Jonathan Borck, one of an extensive family headed by the Councillor. Jonathan is the first in the family to have a house built for him but he has extended himself too much and cannot afford to finish. The family leap into help him and the house is finished. Grundholm is a good builder but has one serious flaw. He always makes a serious mistake. In a previous house, he forgot to build stairs to the upper floor (they had to build an outside staircase for this purpose). In Jonathan’s house he has added a large room, but it is surrounded by other rooms and has no access to the outside. As a result it is both dark and hot. When Agnes, who by this time is dating Axelsson, one of Grundholm’s workmen, visits the house, she ask him about the room. He says that it is a punishment corner for badly behaved children (he is a bachelor). Soon after, he proposes to Agnes. She accepts but has to get out of her engagement to Axelsson, which is easily done (he will remain her general handyman for the rest of the book) and also get out of her one year contract with Grundholm, which is less easily done but she uses a clever trick to do so.

However, there are a couple of problems. Firstly, she expects opposition from the family but, on the contrary, they are quite welcoming, perhaps too much so. Then, during the engagement, Jonathan goes bankrupt so cannot afford to get married. Agnes shows her mettle by rounding up help from the family and Jonathan is spared and the marriage goes ahead. Initially, there are no children and Agnes, with the large house, frequently looks after her nieces and nephews. The family is generally cordial to her, calling her little sister-in-law, even the Councillor, her father-in-law, but they do seem to keep her out of key family secrets. Eventually, it is decided that she will host the family dinners, as the Councillor is getting too old to do so. She gets pregnant twice but both die shortly after being born. The family feeling is that she is cut out to be an aunt but not a mother. She then has four who survived. We have seen her at the beginning with three surviving children – August, a bachelor, who manages most of the family businesses (badly), Axel, the mayor, who spends too much money and Frida, married to a retired major, who is also a spendthrift. Axel and Frida both have children. However, at this point, we learn that there is an eldest son, Gabriel, and it is only much later that we learn what happens to him. Agnes is very fond of him, perhaps too much. For example, when a teacher mocks him, she boxes the teacher’s ears. He will later go away to study but, when he returns, Agnes falls in love with him (the term is used in the text). When a distant relative on her father’s side comes to stay, Signe, Gabriel starts an affair with her and a child, Nathan, is later born, who is sent off to foster parents but later adopted by Agnes.

Meanwhile, things have not been going too well for the rest of the family. Some die in odd circumstances. For example, two elderly sisters, who have always got on, argue about which bridge to cross on the way home from church. They cannot agree so decide to walk across the frozen river. They are warned that the ice is not safe. It isn’t. One relative, who wastes his money on gadgets, comes to Jonathan for help. He had helped Jonathan previously. On Agnes’ advice, he declines to help and the man goes bankrupt. Jonathan buys up his property as he buys the property of other relatives who are having financial difficulties. The first part of the book deals with all the family vicissitudes, the problem with Nathan and the financial difficulties Jonathan and Agnes face, which she sorts out.

The second part of the book is, perhaps, less successful. It takes place mainly on the day of Agnes’ seventy-eighth birthday. She is waiting to see her grandchildren. With one exception – Nathan, who had been away in the USA for many years – they do not come, though her children do. It is also the day she is selling the house. Much of the story is arguments over the sale of the house – they feel that she has sold it too cheaply and are trying to use devious means to get her to break the contract. There is also some sort of family reconciliation, particularly with Nathan. The book ends after party, with Agnes still very much in place. It is a fine bourgeois story, with the strong character of Agnes dominating the book, a typical Bergman heroine. She is not loving or endearing but determined and strong and we can only admire her, particularly in her dealings with God, where the book begins and ends.

Publishing history

First published 1921 by Bonnier
First English translation 1937 by Jonathan Cape