Norvik Press is looking forward to the forthcoming publication of our translation of Selma Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka. Here is a little about the background to Mårbacka and a preview of a chapter from the book.
The property of Mårbacka in the Swedish province of Värmland went through several incarnations. It was a fairly modest farmhouse when Selma Lagerlöf was growing up there, becoming immersed at her grandmother’s knee in the storytelling that was to be such a central aspect of her own life. Financial difficulties led to the family’s loss of the house, but Lagerlöf, by then an established writer, was later able to buy it back, rebuild it and make it the centre of her world.
Today, the house and gardens at Mårbacka are open to the public in the summer months and attract visitors from all over the world. In the Mårbacka shop they can purchase translations of her work, including titles from the Norvik Press ‘Lagerlöf in English’ series.
The book Mårbacka, the first part of a trilogy written in 1922-32, can be read as many different things: memoir, fictionalised autobiography, even as part of Selma Lagerlöf’s myth-making about her own successful career as an author. Soon to be available from Norvik Press in my new translation, it is part family history, part ethnography and folklore, part mischievous satire in the guise of innocent, child’s-eye narration, part declaration of filial love. Above all it is a testimony to the love that the place and its stories and people inspired in Lagerlöf and her nearest and dearest. Its power of attraction can clearly be seen in the taster chapter below, a draft extract from the section at the very heart of the book, ‘Old Buildings and Old People’.
In this season of Nobel Prizes, Norvik Press gratefuly acknowledges funding from the Swedish Academy for the translation of Mårbacka and several of our other Lagerlöf titles. The author herself won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. We also thank the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation and the Barbro Osher Foundation for recent grants to the Lagerlöf project.
THE RAISED STOREHOUSE
All the old folk on the farm declared with one voice that the building next in age after the stone huts was the old raised storehouse. But it was not built there by the first permanent resident; it had surely come into existence some hundred years after his time, when Mårbacka was turned into a proper farm.
The farmers living there then had presumably put up a raised storehouse as soon as they could, because it was expected that a farm of any importance would have one.
At any rate, it was an extremely modest example of its kind. It was supported on low posts with no form of decoration. The door was low, so you had to stoop to enter. But the lock and key were all the bigger by comparison. They would not have been out of place in a prison.
The storehouse had no windows, only some little openings with shutters. In summer, when they wanted the windows open, they used screens of twigs to keep out the flies. They wove the thin twigs into a lattice, until they had a square big enough to fill the window. Not much light found its way through the gaps, but at least it was not completely dark.
The storehouse had two storeys, and the upper one was much better appointed than the lower. That must have been where the farmers kept their most treasured possessions once upon a time.
It was likely that the storehouse was just the same in Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s time as it had been originally. It might have had a new roof, but other than that it had been left in peace. The staircase was not replaced, even though the steps were so narrow that you could scarcely get your foot on them, and the window openings remained unglazed.
The place looked magnificent in autumn. On the lower floor there were big bins full of freshly milled flour. Beside them stood two vats, full to the brim with pieces of meat and bacon in brine. Alongside these were ranged tubs and buckets of different types of sausage – pork, beef and potato – made after that autumn’s slaughter. Tucked in the corner were a barrel of herring, a cask of salted laveret, another of vendace and usually a firkin of salmon, too; in addition to this there would be pots of salted beans and salted spinach and firkins of yellow and green peas.
On the upper floor stood great tubs of butter, which had been filled over the summer and were to be saved for the winter. Cheeses were ranged in long rows on shelves above the window openings and aged smoked hams hung from the ceiling. The homegrown hops were kept in a sack as big as a bolster, and malted grain in another. A whole year’s supplies were assembled there.
In the food store it was the housekeeper who ruled the roost. The food store was hers, and its key was seldom entrusted to anyone else. Miss Lovisa Lagerlöf might be allowed to preside over the pantry and the milk store, but the housekeeper preferred to go to the storehouse herself.
It was she who reigned over all the proper cooking, too. Making jams and cordials and baking biscuits could be left under Miss Lovisa’s supervision, but if there was a joint to be roasted or cheese to be made or crispbread to be baked, then it was the old housekeeper who would take the lead.
The little ones at Mårbacka had a huge amount of love and unlimited respect for her. In fact it was quite possible that they considered her the person of the highest standing on the whole farm.
After all, the children could observe that whenever relatives came to visit, they would immediately go out into the kitchen to say hello to the housekeeper, and whenever anything of note happened in the family, Lieutenant Lagerlöf would call her in and tell her about it, and when Daniel and Johan were going back to school each new year and autumn, they were always told to go and bid the housekeeper goodbye.
The children also heard strangers say that Mrs Lagerlöf was very fortunate to have such a faithful servant in her kitchen. Nothing in her charge was ever overlooked or neglected.
Nowhere, moreover, was there such Christmas beer, such crispbread and such good cooking to be had as at Mårbacka, and everyone agreed that this was all thanks to the old housekeeper.
So it was no surprise that the children considered her the mainstay of everything. They firmly believed that without the housekeeper, everything would go wrong at Mårbacka.
But one day, little Anna Lagerlöf discovered a secret she found really alarming. She could not bear it alone, but had to tell her sister Selma that she had overheard two of the maids talking as if the housekeeper were married and had a husband.
There is no describing how much this troubled the two little girls. For if the housekeeper was married and had a husband, they could not be at all sure of keeping her at Mårbacka, could they?
How would it be for their mother, who relied so much on her excellent help? And how would it be for them, accustomed as they were to her giving them some tasty little treat each time they went into the kitchen? And how would it be for the whole farm?
It was vital that they find out the truth of the matter. They agreed to ask Nanny Maja, the new nurserymaid, if the housekeeper could possibly be married.
Well, Nanny Maja knew the whole story. She had heard it from her mother, who had been in service at Mårbacka at the very time it all happened.
It was the honest truth, though until then the children had never heard a word about the housekeeper’s marriage. And her husband was alive and living in Karlstad, where he was a carpenter. So he was not even conveniently dead.
And this was supposedly how it came about: when the lieutenant and his brother went off to school in Karlstad, old Mrs Lagerlöf sent with them her faithful housekeeper Maja Persdotter, to take care of the boys and cook their meals. There in the town she made the acquaintance of a carpenter, who proposed to her.
And Nanny Maja’s mother said that the spring the housekeeper came home and told her mistress she was getting married, the old lady was downcast and fearful, for she realised she would be losing her greatest treasure. ‘And what sort of husband are you to marry, Maja?’ she enquired. ‘Do you know him to be a good man?’
Oh yes, she had assured herself of that. He was a master carpenter with his own workshop and his own house. He had put his home in order so that they could marry at once, and he would make the best of husbands.
‘But how can you possibly feel at home there, in the barren streets of a town,’ said old Mrs Lagerlöf, ‘as someone who has spent her whole life in the countryside?’
Oh, that did not worry her either. Things would be so good for her from now on. She would be able to live such an easy life and would not have to bake or brew but could simply go to the market and buy everything she needed at home for the housekeeping.
When old Mrs Lagerlöf heard her talking like that she realised the housekeeper had been seized by the urge to get married and there was nothing to do but prepare for the wedding. And the wedding was held at Mårbacka, the bridegroom came and appeared to be a wise and able fellow, and the day after the wedding he travelled to Karlstad with his bride.
But a fortnight later, or perhaps it was scarcely even that long, Mrs Lagerlöf took up the key to the food store to go out and carve some ham for the evening meal. And she never took up that storehouse key without thinking of Maja Persdotter and wondering how she was getting on. ‘If only I had not sent her to Karlstad, then she would not have met the carpenter,’ she thought, ‘and I would still have my excellent assistant and would not need to run to the food store twenty times a day, as I have to now.’
Just as she was about to enter the storehouse, she happened to glance towards the avenue and the road, for there was an unobstructed view in those days. And she was rooted to the spot, for who should be approaching beneath the birches but someone so like Maja Persdotter, her faithful helpmeet and servant ever since her young days, that the storehouse key fell from her hand.
The nearer the stranger came, the more her doubt faded. And when the woman stopped in front of her and said ‘Good evening, ma’am,’ she could not but believe her own eyes.
‘Why, it’s you, Maja Persdotter!’ she said. ‘Whatever are you doing here? Have you not got a fine husband?’
‘He does nothing but drink,’ replied the housekeeper. ‘He’s been drunk every day since we got married. He drinks the pure alcohol he uses for his work. Such a ne’er-do-well is too much to bear.’
‘But I imagined you would have nothing to do but go to the market and buy everything you needed and be spared all that work?’ said Mrs Lagerlöf.
‘Honoured mistress, I promise to coddle and care for you, if only you’ll let me return home again,’ said the housekeeper. ‘I’ve been longing to come back to Mårbacka day and night.’
‘Come in then, so we can talk to your master about this,’ said the old lady, and she was so happy by this point that there were tears in her eyes. ‘And by the grace of God we shall never again be parted in this life,’ she added.
And so it proved. The housekeeper stayed at Mårbacka. Her husband must have realised that it was not worth trying to coax her back. He never came to get her, but let her stay where she was. She removed her wedding ring from her finger and put it in her clothes chest, and the matter was never spoken of again.
Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s young daughters should have been reassured once they heard all this, but they remained anxious for a long time afterwards. After all, with the carpenter still being alive, what was to stop him turning up one day to order his wife back? And whenever they found themselves by the storehouse where they had an unobstructed view up to the road, they always expected to see him coming. Nanny Maja had told them that if he came and demanded his wife back, she would have to go with him.
They did not really know how old the housekeeper was. She had forgotten what year she was born and the date recorded in the church registers was said to be wrong. Now she was over seventy, but the carpenter might want her back with him even so, outstanding woman that she was.
And then how would things be for Mårbacka?