Iceland, 1829, 34-year-old Agnes is found guilty of murdering Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jonsson and subsequently sentenced to death without appeal. When government officials decide it is too expensive to keep Agnes in prison she is sent to Kornsá, a farm in the valley she grew up in, to live imprisoned with Jón and his wife Margarét and their two daughters Steina and Lauga.
Agnes’ short-lived time at Kornsá has a huge impact on her, its residents and Tóti—the young priest sent to provide spiritual comfort on her journey towards death—that lasts long after she is gone.
Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (Picador, August) is a moving and sensitive portrayal of a complex woman who has lived a difficult life. Kent first heard about Agnes’ plight on a Rotary Exchange to Iceland when she was just 17 years old and the story stayed with her upon her return to her native Australia. “Something very immediately drew me to this woman of whom I knew absolutely nothing. That fascination and sense of kinship I think had to do with recognising something of my own emotional experience in her story. I had a difficult time in the first six months of my exchange; I was in a small fishing village in a very tight-knit community and I had the strange feeling of being both very conspicuous and very much the outsider. After hearing this story of a woman who in much more extreme circumstances would also have been an outsider, conspicuous but also completely isolated, I couldn’t stop thinking of her and I thought perhaps I ought to write something about her.”
Searching for truth
Kent began writing the story of Agnes as the dissertation for her PhD in creative writing (at Flinders University, Adelaide). A research-heavy project, Burial Rites was written to “privilege that research, so I was always clear that the imagination and fictionalisation would come second”, but after two years of tracking down information on Agnes, Kent still only knew four facts about her: her name, her father’s name, that she was a servant and the date she died.
“The more research I did the more I was struck by the way in which she was so often represented as nothing but a monster, either entirely absent or there only as a caricature or stereotype. I grew frustrated at the lack of humanity; there was never any mention of the reasons why she might have ended up in this tragic situation. When I started this book it was never with the aim of finding out if she was actually guilty, what I really wanted to find out was a little bit about her life; to find the human behind the stereotype, to hunt for the ambiguity and complexity. I didn’t want to necessarily provide a sympathetic picture of her, but an empathetic one.”
Kent then threw herself into research on 19th-century Icelandic life to “see what circumstances could have placed Agnes in a position that perhaps left her with no choice but to commit such a terrible crime. She was illegitimate, her mother had several other illegitimate children, she was abandoned at six years old, passed around from farm to farm and so I think empathy came about very naturally when I finally did have the facts of her life. It was very easy to imagine how hard it would be to not have any family, to always be on the move and to be very vulnerable, especially as a woman.”
It is through Agnes’ passages in the novel that we learn about the real nature of her relationship with the murdered Natan, and Kent says that their romantic relationship came about from her research-based intuitive feeling that Agnes would have been seeking an intellectual equal. “From ministerial documents I learnt that Agnes was both a poor servant and also very intelligent and ambitious, so I thought about what frustrations she would feel—she wasn’t allowed a formal education and the people she lived with would have been completely focused on survival over education. I then came across Natan, who is very well documented as being both a womaniser and a thief, but also a talented doctor and a poet, and I knew the arrival of this man in her life would have changed things for her, he would have been someone she would hope could provide her with an opportunity to advance herself.”
In Burial Rites the tough and strong-willed Margarét suggests that, “it takes a man, a good man, to know how to manage a woman who has made her bed among the stones,” and the novel expertly explores the position of women and the underlying patriarchal ideology of the time. “Which I first encountered when I saw the way Agnes was so easily derided as a monster . . . it’s that old dichotomy of women either being angels or monsters.”
Rights sold 16 languages
Editor Paul Baggaley, Picador
Agent Gordon Wise, Curtis Brown
1985 Born in Adelaide, South Australia
2004–06 Bachelor of Creative Arts (Honours, First Class), Flinders University (2008 BCA. Honours Year)
2009–current PhD (Creative Writing), Flinders University
2009–13 Co-founder and publishing director of Kill Your Darlings