MY LATE, beloved spiritual director, Fr Alan Butler, was fond of saying that a priest had two abiding responsibilities: to teach people to pray, and to prepare them for their death. This “charge” has been much on my mind as I’ve read Hannah Kent’s beautiful and haunting study of the last few months of the life of the convicted murderer Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
Agnes is a servant woman in her thirties found guilty of murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson, and, as she awaits her fate, she asks for a young Lutheran minister, Thorvardur Jónsson, AKA Revd Tóti, to be her spiritual adviser.
While few, if any of us, can have counselled someone condemned to execution, Kent’s book captures, with real power, the intimacy and anxieties that exist between those who know that their death is near, and those who are called to support and counsel them. Kent’s ability to capture the inner lives of “confessor” and “confessed” is quite extraordinary.
Burial Rites is set in 1820s Iceland, and is based on a true story. Agnes was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and most of the characters in the book, including Tóti and the farming family whom Agnes lodges with as she awaits execution, are drawn from the record.
The action unfolds primarily in the north-Iceland coastal farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their daughters Lauga and Steina. Margrét and Jón are, understandably, horrified when ordered by Jón’s superior District Commissioner Blöndel to take charge of a convicted murderer under their own roof. Their fear that, somehow, Agnes will infect Lauga and Steina with her wickedness hangs in the air like the tang of sea water.
Kent’s fiction is based on a careful study of the available records and histories, and her love for Iceland’s austere and capricious beauty is embedded in page after page of evocative prose. This is a world of “badstofas” (“communal living rooms”) and (the now famous yogurt) Skyr, where the Icelandic sagas are as likely to be quoted as the Bible.
© Nicholas PurcellThe Australian writer Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites. Her writing was influenced by her experience of living in Iceland, aged 17, on a Rotary exchange
Kent, however, is no Romantic. In 1829, Iceland was still part of the kingdom of Denmark, and is riven with snobbery and class prejudice. District Commissioner Blöndel looks down on his subordinate Jón and his wife because they use dried fish-skin instead of glass to “glaze” their windows. Fascinatingly, these distinctions become even more acute because the harsh Icelandic conditions — even in harvest time, when much of Burial Rites is set — mean that master and servant, farmer and labourer, live side by side. The communal space — the badstofa — is occupied by both Jón and Margrét’s family, their servants, and a convicted murderer.
At the very heart of this story, however, is the remarkable personality of Agnes and her emergent relationship, first with her spiritual adviser, Tóti, and then the wider community at the Jónsson farm. Kent uses first-person narrative to reveal Agnes’s inner thoughts, reserving the third-person to drive the story forward. In less accomplished hands, this approach might be messy, but Kent uses the device to reveal Agnes as a thoroughly three-dimensional person who, if capable of violence, is more sinned against than sinning.
If Agnes is wretched — and the extent to which that is true the reader must decide — she has been made so by the use and abuse of others. The intensity of her inner narrative as her execution draws nearer finds a tender counterpoint in Kent’s descriptions of the growing sympathy of Tóti, Steina, and, especially, Steina’s fearful mother, Margrét.
Assistant Pastor Tóti is a man utterly out of his depth. Indeed, with his training barely complete and with many other better qualified ministers available, he cannot understand why Agnes has requested him as her “Father/Confessor”. Agnes’s rationale for requesting Tóti is, we later discover, simple and affecting, and reflects her deep need for kindness.
For anyone who has ever been a callow young priest or minister, Tóti’s early fumbled attempts to counsel Agnes, a woman who has witnessed dreadful things, is almost too painful to witness. This is a book that, in its early stages, ought to be in the hands of ordinands as a “how not to minister” study guide. None the less, his growth as a person — a “parson”, if you will — is almost as affecting as our discovery of Agnes’s emotional hinterlands. Their relationship becomes an object lesson in how pastoral intimacy is one of the profoundest human connections.
In an age when “true crime” — from the podcast Serial through to ITV’s Quiz — has a vast audience, Kent subverts the expectations of the genre. While some might read Burial Rites in expectation that Kent will finally get to the truth about a crime that still resonates in Iceland today, Kent lets her fictionalised characters lead. She is determined not to allow Agnes simply to be cast as the wronged woman who does something terrible in a moment of revenge or desperation. The emotional charge of this novel is laid, as with so much real life, in the relationships between human beings.
Kent’s take on the Agnes Magnúsdóttir story is fictional, but no less “truth-bearing” for that. It is this truth-bearing that ensures that, when Agnes faces her end at the edge of an axe, we do so, too, and the reader can never be quite the same again.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is published by Picador at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-4472-3317-6).
BURIAL RITES — SOME QUESTIONS
- “These people did not see me.” Where is the line between a person and their actions?
- How does the cold, at times harsh, landscape of Iceland feature in the novel?
- “They say they’re carrying out God’s law, but they’re only doing the will of men!” How can Christians avoid falling into this trap?
- In the early 19th century, Iceland had near universal literacy. How does this affect the characters and their interactions?
- “The silence where a name should be”. How important are names to our humanity?
- “A thinking woman cannot be trusted.” Does this idea persist today? If so, how?
- How do the sagas interact with Christianity in the novel?
- How does Toti provide spiritual help to Agnes? Is he successful?
- How do Lauga and Steina feature in the novel? Which is the “better” sister?
- “Criminal. The word hangs in the air.” How do words like “criminal”, “murderer”, “pauper” affect the way we view people?
IN OUR next reading-groups page on 4 December, we will print extra information about our next book, The Well by Catherine Chanter. It is published by Canongate at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-78211-466-6).
When an older couple, Mark and Ruth move to a smallholding in the countryside, a hill farm — The Well — they hope for a home for themselves and their grandson. But, when Britain experiences severe drought, they discover that, inexplicably, it rains and remains fertile on their land alone. Their good fortune gives rise to understandable envy from some, while others begin to view their land as sacred, and Ruth as a modern-day “chosen woman”. In this context, a terrible crime occurs. The Well is a novel that asks questions about how we can protect not just the landscape around us, but also justice and democracy.
The author and poet Catherine Chanter read English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and creative writing at Oxford Brookes. After a career as a political lobbyist, she trained as a teacher, and now works for a charity that seeks to re-engage vulnerable children with education. In addition to two novels and a short-story collection, Chanter writes poetry that has been published widely. She won the Yeovil Poetry Prize (2010) and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize (2013), and was named an Observer New Face of Fiction (2015). Chanter grew up in the West Country, and has described herself as “passionately in love with the English countryside”.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
January The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
February Brighton Rock by Graham Greene