Tag Archives: Norway

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Eleven years ago, in January 2011, I joined a cruise at Tromsø, Norway, going north and then east to Kirkenes, a few kilometres from the Russian border, far inside the Arctic Circle. It was an amazing trip in many ways, not least because of the dark landscape through which we sailed. This was a time of the year when the sunrise was also the sunset.

Sunrise/sunset Kirkenes Norway January 2011

When I was given The Mercies for Christmas I was intrigued to find that it was set in the same area, on an island, Vardø, which we had sailed passed. The dark story matches the darkness of the landscape. In the early seventeenth century, there were dark deeds afoot, cruel attitudes to people who had little power, and men who would profit from the misfortunes of others.

The Mercies

On the remote island of Vardø there was a small community, living off the sea, far away from King Christian IV in Copenhagen. The king wanted to unite his kingdoms, even the farthest reaches, through the power of the church. 

In 1617, on Christmas Day, a sudden, brief and brutal storm destroyed the fishing fleet that had set out from Vardø, and the men were all lost. They left behind a village of women who had to find ways to live out the rest of the winter and continue their lives thereafter. When they were almost out of food, the women set about fishing and managed to survive until the spring. 

This part of the story is narrated from the point of view of Maren, a young woman who lost her fiancé in the storm, along with her brother and father. We see how the women work together to survive until they begin to divide into the pragmatic group, led by Kirsten, and the church group headed by spiteful Toril.

In pursuit of controlling the people of Finnmark, the king’s Lensmann, a fanatic known for ridding the seas of pirates, summons Commissioner Cornet from Scotland to bring the people of Vardø to order. On the way through Bergen he picks up a wife, Ursa. Her point of view now joins Maren’s. Ursa is naïve and unskilled in the arts required of a wife on Vardø. Maren comes to her aid and the two become friends. Ursa’s husband begins his campaign of bringing the women to order. He is a fanatic Calvinist, and so he sees the independence of the women as a challenge to the church’s authority.

The plot takes on a darker form as first the Commissioner goes after the Sámi peoples who live in the area, including Maren’s sister-in-law. And then he finds witchcraft among the women of Vardø. Two of the women are arrested, imprisoned in the grim Vardøhus and when one, Kirsten, will not confess, she is given a public trial by ducking. If you float it is proven you are a witch, if you don’t you probably drown. You lose, you lose.

As the two young women draw closer and the search for more witches looks as if it more of the women of the island will be arrested, tortured and put to death, the two women are forced to act.

 

Off the coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, January 2011

Fanaticism, more than the dangers from the elements, or the harshness of life on the island, threatens the women of Vardø. This novel is based in historic truth. There was a storm, and witchcraft was ‘discovered’ and prosecuted in Finnmark, prompted by King Christian IV. There is a memorial to the women on the island by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. You can see it in the illustration for the review of The Mercies by Sarah Moss in the Guardian here

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is the first adult fiction book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She earned many awards for her children’s fiction, including for The Cartographer’s Daughter (2014). Born in 1990 and currently living in Oxford, Kiran is also known for her poetry.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, published in 2021 by Picador. 342pp

Thank you, Sarah, for another interesting novel set in the past, featuring women who are determined to live as they decide.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

My friend M is a golfer, and when we go for country walks I have to ask her to slow down a little because her pace is so fast. She is a writer of influence, recently acknowledged by the production of a festschrift in her honour. Now retired she undertakes research for and edits the magazine of her chosen charity. She also looks after her grandsons most weeks. Miming a grandmother the other day one of her grandsons bent over, held a stick in his hand and shuffled across the room, looking for all the world like that road sign.

230 road signM tells this story with puzzle in her voice. The image of the old person is stronger than the reality. And again: ‘It’s not as if we are like Mrs Pepperpot,’ said one of the grandmothers at a recent community performance. We were exploring our experiences of being grandmothers. I had heard of Mrs Pepperpot. She evoked an image of a small neat woman with a tight bun. Old. But I had never read the stories.

It is time to look at the 19th in the series of older women in fiction, this one for children. And time to ask whether she shapes young people’s understanding of older women.

230 Mrs P cover

The Stories

Mr and Mrs Pepperpot live on a hillside in Norway. He is out all day working in the fields. Her role is domestic. In the first story she has a busy day ahead.

Firstly she must clean the house, then there was all the washing that was lying in soak and waiting to be done, and lastly she had to make pancakes for supper. (7)

In this first story, and every story about her, Mrs Pepperpot unexpectedly becomes the size of a pepperpot. This change inevitably brings a problem for her to solve, not least because she never wants anyone to see her when she is small.

Her creator was Alf Proysen, a Norwegian writer and musician who lived from 1914 to 1970. The Mrs Pepperpot stories first appeared in 1959. She is completely of her time. Her role in the Pepperpot household and her priorities were what was expected of an old woman before the second wave of feminism.

230 Alf Proysen

Mrs Pepperpot

It is established from that first story that Mrs Pepperpot’s priorities are domestic, and in particular the smooth-running of the household. The most pressing of her duties is the production of the food for Mr Pepperpot on his return from work.

‘Now for cooking supper,’ said Mrs. Pepperpot; ‘my husband will be back in an hour, and by hook or by crook, thirty pancakes must be ready on the table.’ (12)

In every story her sudden reduction in size produces a problem she must solve: match-making at midsummer, picking bilberries, finding lost items, spring cleaning.

What I like about Mrs Pepperpot

This little old lady is feisty. She may suddenly be reduced in size, but she still does what she set out to do. She uses a mixture of techniques and any allies she finds, including the animals. She bullies, bribes, nags and schemes to do to what she needs. And she uses magic. And then she grows back to her original size.

As both the diminutive and full size versions of herself, she demonstrates the following qualities

  • Resourcefulness
  • Adventurousness
  • Lack of daunt
  • Inventiveness
  • Quick thinking
  • Straight speaking
  • Determination
  • Guile

She doesn’t complain about her peculiar shrinking habit, just gets on with it. This old woman has the wit and the wisdom to be active and to manage difficult situations. She is also a learner.

As you know, Mrs Pepperpot can do almost anything, but, until last summer, there was one thing she couldn’t do; she couldn’t swim! Now I’ll tell you how she learned. (298)

What I don’t like about Mrs Pepperpot

Three things really worry me about these stories.

Mrs Pepperpot’s life is circumscribed by her domestic duties, especially food production and house maintenance.

I could construct a case that the size thing indicates the invisibility of older women. Older women often make things happen without appearing to, and without upsetting the perceived order and hierarchy of their community.

Mrs Pepperpot does not challenge her situation, visit the doctor, consult mental health specialists, but rather meekly accepts her lot, albeit making the best of things, and still fulfilling the all-import domestic functions of her role as grandmother.

Final thoughts

So does it matter that the Mrs Pepperpot image is dominant as an image of older women? Does it influence the beliefs of the young? While there is much to enjoy in the stories I would want the brave and redoubtable Mrs P to have an opportunity to escape from her life. And I would want young readers to have a more varied version of older women.

Mrs Pepperpot Stories by Alf Proysen. I used a collection published by Red Fox in 2011, collected from stories published from as long ago as 1959. 464pp

Illustrations are by Bjorn Berg. (Cover by Hilda Offen.) No translator is acknowledged. That’s not good.

Related

This is the 19th in the series older women in fiction. Two most recent posts are:

Josephine Tey The Franchise Affair

Barbara Pym Quartet in Autumn

The full list of older women in fiction compiled from readers’ suggestions can be found here: Older women in fiction series.

Over to you: Have you read Mrs Pepperpot? Is she an acceptable model of an old woman? Do children you know think of old people as cronky?

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Feminism, Learning, Older women in fiction, Reading