The story of Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir Hólm (2 February 1845- 14 November 1918) is the third in a three-series article of famous Icelanders that emigrated to North America and returned to Iceland.
by Dr. Soffía Auður Birgisdóttir Research Professor at the Research Centre at Hornafjörður, University of Iceland
„Ég var sú fyrsta sem náttúran dæmdi til þess að uppskera hina beisku ávexti gamalla rótgróinna hleypidóma gegn litterærum dömum. “
“I was the first to reap the bitter fruit of old, deep-rooted prejudices against literary ladies.”
Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir Hólm is the first Icelander known to have made writing a full-time profession. She was a prolific writer who wrote both novels and short stories and in addition, she published magazines and literary journals, both for adult readers and children. She also translated stories and essays from English and Danish into Icelandic. Torfhildur Hólm is a pioneer in many ways: She was the first woman to publish novels in Iceland; she was the first Icelandic author to write within the genre of the historical novel; she was the first Icelandic woman to edit and publish an annual literary journal, Draupnir, and her annual magazine for children, Tíbrá was the first of its kind to be published in Iceland.
Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir was born February 2nd, 1845, at Kálfafellsstaður in Suðursveit in East-Skaftafellssýsla, where her father, Þorsteinn Einarsson, was a Lutheran minister. Her mother, Guðríður Torfadóttir, was herself a minister’s daughter and in both her parents’ families, there was a long line of ministers, priests and bishops, back through many generations. This may offer some explanation of her enthusiastic interest in religious matters and the lives of bishops, which she chose as a subject for her long historical novels.
Torfhildur Hólm grew up with her well-to-do parents and an only sister, Ragnhildur, who was three years older, until 1862 when she, at the age of seventeen, moved to Reykjavík to get an education. In those years, women were prohibited to enter the higher-level schools, so Hólm enjoyed private tutoring in languages (especially English) as well as learning sewing and embroidery, which was regarded as a more fitting education for women. After four years stay in Reykjavík, Hólm sailed to Copenhagen where she lived for the next couple of years and continued to enjoy private tutoring in languages and embroidery. Back in Iceland, she worked as a private tutor herself in Reykjavík until she moved back home to Kálfafellsstað.
In 1872 Hólm moved with her newly wed sister, Ragnhildur, and her husband, Eggert Ólafsson Briem, to a small village in the North of Iceland, Skagaströnd, where her brother-in-law served as a minister. There she met Jakob Hólm, a store manager, whom she married in 1874, only to become a widow a year later; her husband died, in fact, on the day of their first wedding anniversary. She never remarried nor did she have any children, but years later she adopted a boy, Halldór Hólm, who was the son of her niece, Kristín Björnsdóttir, and born out of wedlock. Kristín had been Hólm’s housekeeper for many years and continued to live with her until Hólm died.
After the death of her husband in 1875, Torfhildur Hólm moved back in with her sister and brother-in-law, Eggert Ó. Briem. Briem, who was a writer himself besides being a minister, later became a great supporter of her writing. He read some of her works in manuscripts, corrected proofs and offered his advice. In the household lived also Eggert’s sister, Rannveig Briem, who became a close friend of Hólm. In 1878 Rannveig and her husband, Sigtryggur Jónasson, decided to immigrate to Canada and Hólm decided to join them. They were among the 1200 Icelanders who moved to Canada and America that year. Hólm lived in various places within the Icelandic settlement in Canada for the next thirteen years, for the longest time in Winnipeg. For the first nine years, she shared a household with Rannveig and Sigtryggur, but for the last four years she lived by herself.
In Canada, Hólm started to write enthusiastically with the intention of becoming a professional writer. Her conditions were quite favourable at this time, whereas she did not have to worry about finance nor heavy duties in the household while she was living with her friends. However, it must be remembered that at this time writing was a highly unusual profession for women in Iceland and although a few women had published short stories (mostly anonymously) and poetry, Hólm had no female tradition to turn to when she embarked upon the writing scene. The first book published by an Icelandic woman, a poetry collection titled Stúlka (Girl) by Júlíana Jónsdóttir, had been published in 1876, only six years before Hólm’s first book, the historical novel Brynjólfur Sveinsson biskup, which was published in 1882 in Reykjavík. In fact, although Icelanders can trace a rich literary tradition back through the ages, culminating in the “golden era” of the medieval family sagas, “modern” Icelandic literature was just in its first primitive stages in the latter half of the 19th century. The first novel, Piltur and stúlka (A boy and a girl), by Jón Thoroddsen, had been published in 1850 and it is only in the last decade of the 19th century that a flourishing period occurs in novel writing, within the framework of realism, which had made its way to Iceland through Icelanders who studied in Denmark. But although Thorfhildur Hólm had no path to follow, at the outset of her writing career, she makes her own and breaks new ground in many ways.
Hólm’s writing career started when she, after having settled in Canada, began to collect and write down the folk stories and tales that she heard among the Icelandic settlers. These stories were not published until 1962 when librarian Finnur Sigmundsson edited a book titled Þjóðsögur og sagnir (Folktales and myths), based on Hólm’s manuscripts and wrote an introduction about her life and work. Few of these stories had been published before in Icelandic papers that were edited and published in Canada by the settlers. The editor of the first Icelandic paper of that kind, Framfari, was Halldór Briem, brother of Eggert and Rannveig, and in his paper, Hólm’s first fictional works appeared. Her first publication was a poem, “Kirkjugarðshugleiðing” (A meditation in a cemetery), which appeared in Framfari, on April 17th, 1878. She also published some stories in Danish and English papers in Winnipeg.
In 1880 Hólm had finished writing her first historical novel, Brynjólfur Sveinsson biskup. The novel was not published until 1882, in Reykjavík, at the author's own expense. The historical novel, in the modern understanding of the genre, was a form unknown in Icelandic literature when Hólm decides to write the stories of famous Icelandic bishops, starting with the story of Brynjólfur Sveinsson, who lived in the 17th century. The question of why Iceland’s first female author chose to write historical novels, focusing on powerful men instead of writing about subjects that were perhaps closer to her heart, so to speak, is an interesting one. When Hólm is writing her novels, the realistic novel is flourishing in Iceland, and the 19th century movement that fought for liberation of women and women’s rights is gaining much attention in Iceland. Hólm was not only sympathetic with that movement, but she also wrote and spoke out on its behalf, being herself the prime example of an independent woman that supported herself. In the last two decades of the 19th century, many important landmarks were made in the battle for equal rights for women in Iceland. In June 1885, the first newspaper article by an Icelandic woman is published, and in December 1887, a woman gives the first public lecture. Both were the works of Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, who along with Hólm, was the most noticeable woman to advocate women’s rights in Iceland. The subject of both the article and the lecture concerned the rights and education of women. In 1895 two magazines that promoted women’s issues and women’s rights were launched: Framsókn (Progression), was published monthly for the next seven years, and Kvennablaðið (The women’s magazine), was also published monthly for the next twenty-six years. Besides writing about subjects related to women’s rights, these magazines published short stories and poems written by women, and their importance for the women’s movements cannot be overrated. However, these two magazines were not the first ones to be edited by Icelandic women; here, like in many other ways, Torfhildur Hólm was a pioneer. From 1891-1908 she edited and sponsored the yearly literary magazine, Draupnir, which published both Icelandic literature and foreign literature in translations. In this magazine, Hólm published two historical novels, Jón biskup Vídalín (1892-1893) and Jón biskup Arason (1902-1908), as serials. In 1901-1917 she also edited and sponsored the monthly magazine Dvöl, and in the years 1892 and 1893, she published a yearly magazine for children and young adults, Tíbrá, which was the first of its kind in Iceland. In 1894 the Icelandic Women’s Organization (Hið íslenska kvenfélag) is established; in 1907 Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir founds the Women’s Rights Association of Iceland (Kvenréttindafélag Íslands); and in 1914 the first Icelandic Women’s Labour Union (Félag íslenskra verkakvenna) is established. This battle for women’s rights in Iceland culminates in 1915 when Icelandic women are granted the right to vote, with limitations, but in 1918 they gain full voting rights, without any limitations – Iceland being the first country in the world to grant women the full rights to vote and run for government.
So why did this first Icelandic female author of novels choose to write about religious matters and the lives of bishops instead of focusing on issues that related to the question of equality and the rights of women, the issues that were debated everywhere around her and it was a debate in which she herself participated by writing articles and giving speeches. Hólm’s choice of subject matter for her novels has been explained by the fact that in her family were many ministers and bishops, as mentioned above, thus enhancing her religious interest. Also, it has been pointed out that the fact that she was far away from her fatherland probably enhanced her interest in its history, as well as adding a nostalgic tone to her description of it. Some truths may be found in these kinds of speculations, but perhaps the simple fact that she was the first Icelandic woman to embark upon novel writing somewhat limited her options. Perhaps Hólm was eager to prove herself as being “worthy” of the title of a professional author and eager to avoid harsh criticism, criticism that would probably have been much harsher if her subject matter was unconventional or provocative in any way. Hólm might have reasoned that a historical subject, researched in a “scientific” way, centering on the lives of famous Icelanders, with religious and ethical context, would be more easily accepted than stories originating from the lives and experiences of women. It is quite possible that Hólm was, by her choice of subject matter, avoiding disturbing the readers or being rejected as a serious author. On the other hand, Hólm might simply have asked herself: “What can a heroine do?” and found few answers, whereas she had no tradition to turn to. In her historical novels, Hólm describes the lives of the bishops with special interest in their religious visions and she especially dwells on the tragic aspect of their lives. She does not emphasize the political and patriarchal power that the bishops inevitably had, but rather she stresses their human condition.
The four voluminous historical novels are, without a doubt, what Hólm is especially remembered for as a writer. But she did write other stories, short stories that were published in magazines and literary journals, and two short novels (or novellas). And in these stories, she did, in fact, address the subject of women’s position and the lack of equality between the sexes. In these stories, she writes about love, marriage and the relationship between the sexes.
In May 1889, Hólm said her farewells to friends in Winnipeg and sailed back to Iceland, where she arrived a month later. The same year she published her next novel, Elding (Lightning), a historical novel on the Christianisation of Iceland in the year 1000. In 1891 Torfhildur Hólm became the first Icelandic woman to be granted an honorarium from the Icelandic parliament for her writing. However, the fact that a woman was receiving an honorarium for writing was criticized harshly by some members of the parliament, as well as in public papers, even though Hólm had by that time published seven books. This criticism resulted in the sum being lowered from 500 Icelandic kronas to 200 kronas and defined as a subsidy for a widow instead of an honorarium for a writer. On that occasion, Torfhildur Hólm wrote the words: “I was the first to reap the bitter fruit of old, deep-rooted prejudices against literary ladies.”
Torfhildur Hólm worked as a prolific professional writer to the end of her life. She died in Reykjavík 1918 in one of the worst plagues that the nation has suffered, the so-called Spanish flu.
Brynjólfur Sveinsson biskup (Historical novel, Reykjavík 1882)
Sögur og ævintýri (Short stories and fairy tales, Reykjavík 1884)
Kjartan og Guðrún (Reykjavík 1886)
Smásögur handa börnum og unglingum (Short stories for children and young adults, 1886)
Högni og Ingibjörg (Novel, Reykjavík 1889)
Elding (Historical novel, Reykjavík 1889)
Barnasögur (Stories for children, Reykjavík1890)
Jón biskup Vídalín (Historical novel, published as a serial in Draupnir, 1892-1893)
Jón biskup Arason (Historical novel, published as a serial in Draupnir, 1902-1908)
Ritsafn I-III (Collected works, Akureyri 1949-50)
Þjóðsögur og sagnir (Collection of folklore, Reykjavík 1962)
Tíbrá - annual literary magazine for children and young adults (1892-1893)
Draupnir - annual literary journal (1891-1908)
Dvöl - monthly magazine (1901-1917)