About The Author
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide. She is the co-founder and deputy editor of Australian literary journal, Kill Your Darlings.
She travelled to Iceland as a teenager, as part of an exchange programme, a trip which was prove the inspiration for her first novel, which she wrote as her PhD. She received guidance from 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks and the completed draft won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.
Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, nearly 200 years ago. At that time, Iceland was in a union with Denmark; Agnes is awaiting confirmation of her sentence from the
Danish king, having been convicted for her role in the death of Natan Ketilsson.
The small north coast community in which she lives has no faciilties to hold a prisoner, so she is sent to work on a nearby farm, much to the alarm of the family with whom she is billeted. The family are extremely wary of her, but a young priest sent to help Agnes make peace with God before her execution slowly teases out the complex story that led to Natan's death.
Burial Rites was shortlisted for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Hannah talks about the reason why the real Agnes was demonised more than the others implicated in the murder, the importance of language and literature even when you have nothing else and a visit to Iceland can never be forgotten.
Author photo © Nicholas Purcell
Questions & Answers
How did you come across the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir?
It was quite by accident. Ten years ago, as a seventeen year old, I was living in the north of Iceland as an exchange student and struggling to find my place in the fishing town where I had been sent. I was quite shy, I had not yet learned enough of the language to express myself, and I was struggling with double-barrelled feelings of conspicuity and social isolation as the foreignor in a tightly-knit community.
It was during these first few months that my host parents took me to visit relatives in Reykjavik. I spent most of the car trip gaping out the window at Iceland's astonishing landscape of fjords, sweeping pastoral valleys, and dark-sided mountains - all of which were utterly unfamiliar to me. I fell into a kind of reverie at the imposing beauty of the place. On our way back, we drove through a valley mouth pimpled with hundreds of small hills, and my host parents told me that it was the site of Iceland's last execution. I immediately pressed them for details, and while they could not remember anything specific, they did tell me that it had been a woman called Agnes, and that she had been beheaded in the early nineteenth century for the murder of two sleeping men.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was in an intensely reflective frame of mind when I heard this, or maybe it was because I saw something of my own experience in the story of a woman cast out of society, but for some strange reason I felt an immediate fascination and kinship with Agnes. Even as my exchange experience improved dramatically, thoughts of her persisted. I wanted to know what had led her to such a sorrowful end upon those strange hills. I wanted to know what sort of woman she was.
Even in the early 19th century, Iceland had almost universal literacy. Did this help with your research of historical records from the period?
It didn't help as much with research as it did with characterisation. Most of the historical records on the crime and execution were written some years after their conclusion - even into the twentieth century - and while they were enormously useful, there was little to suggest that they would not have been written even if the servant class in Iceland had been illiterate. Priests and local authorities documented what they saw as important, and many poorer people - despite being literate - lacked the materials needed to write. Ironically enough, in a country that developed universal literacy, books were always luxurious items and were not available to everyone.
What I found much more interesting was the idea of universal literacy in a time of almost universal poverty and hardship. These were people who suffered hunger, disease, astronomically high rates of infant mortality, and lived in cramped turf homes, and yet who not only frequently read and memorised the sagas and Christian literature, but composed huge amounts of poetry. What sort of character does that create? How might that impact a person? Does it contribute to stoicism and an ability to survive, or does it infest some hearts with ambitions that are not within reach? How important does literature, language and reading become when you have nothing else? These were some of the questions that helped me realise the individual characters in the book.
Burial Rites was your response to a PhD project on female murderers in history. Do you feel the novel offers Agnes some belated redemption?
The novel was never intended to offer Agnes absolution. My decision to research and write her story came from my frustration at the way in which she was commonly represented in various sources and articles about the murder. While three individuals were convicted for the murders, it seemed to me that it was Agnes who was unequivocally condemned as the orchestrator of the attack by the community she had grown up in. Translating documents, I saw that words such as 'devil', 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe her. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil - a monster.
The swift categorisation of women accused of antisocial behaviour into 'duped angels' or 'evil monsters' by their societies was something I found to be common in my research into other representations of murderous women. I wanted to disrupt this way of thinking. Burial Rites was written with the clear intent to represent Agnes as ambiguous and complex, and to destroy the stereotype of the wicked woman rubbing her hands together and plotting murder. She's not innocent, but she's human.
Agnes was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Do you know if the case had any impact on the decision to abandon the death penalty?
The death penalty wasn't abolished until 1928, almost 100 years after the last execution, so my inclination is to say no. That said, it was a sorrowful event and there was no joy taken in the deaths of Agnes and her accused co-conspirator Friðrik, despite the fact that the community had rejected them. The execution before theirs on Icelandic soil was held over 40 years previously in the late 1700s. It was not a common occurrence. Most condemned prisoners were sent overseas because of Icelanders' dislike of public capital punishment and the difficulty authorities had in finding a willing executioner. With attitudes like these, I think abolition was always inevitable. Very few people saw the death penalty in a positive light, even in 1830.
With its remarkable landscape, Iceland often leaves a striking impression on visitors. What's your abiding memory? And what did you make of your first encounter with snow?
I actually find it quite difficult to articulate the nature of Iceland's grip on my heart, except to say that it is there and that it is unrelenting. Anyone who has visited or lived in Iceland will understand that one of the reasons the landscape is so memorable is because of its ineffability.
I have said that my first few months living in Iceland as an exchange student were difficult. In many ways the difficulty eased because I began to explore and engage with the landscape. Each day I'd walk around my small town, climb the mountainside to the cemetery and look out over the harbour and fjord, or go to the 'little forest' by the stream and sit on the snowy bridge. I had never known that it was possible to feel something of a spiritual connection to a landscape before, but I soon found an emotional and creative sanctuary amongst those mountains. Can you bond with a heavy sky over a glassy fjord, or northern lights, or a wind lifting snow from the ground? Perhaps it sounds quite mad, but I bonded with it all. I'm homesick for it, even when I'm there.
What have you learned from being mentored by 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks?
It was an absolute honour to have Geraldine Brooks' advice and wisdom inform the drafting process of my novel. As she resides in the US we communicated by email after she had read the first draft, and spoke in fairly general terms about the strengths of the novel and the areas that needed finessing. She approached the manuscript as a reader, which was wonderful. I'd become quite fussy with things at sentence level by the time she gave me some advice, and she helped me step back and consider the narrative as a whole. She picked up on every scene where I'd been lazy, and in doing so taught me that you must always be sedulous.
The most useful thing Geraldine said to me was to 'let a little more light in'. The novel is dark, but at first-draft stage the ending was almost unbearably grim. She advised me to work on the relationships between Agnes and those who surround her at the book's conclusion to give a suggestion of something transcending the tragedy. The novel is stronger for it.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be writing next?
I'm still in the early days of research and am a little reluctant to say too much, as there is a very real chance the story will shift before I'm done. That said, my next novel will be set in Ireland (in County Kerry), which is a place I've long been fascinated with. Currently it's likely to be set in the 1820s. I had a little play with superstition and folklore in Burial Rites, but this novel will be more firmly centred on the subject. I'm very interested in the ways in which disempowered individuals have used superstitious belief to emancipate themselves and subjugate others. The story I'm writing will allow me to explore the ramifications of this.