Trollope at Reykjavik, 1878

The Mastiff arrives in Reykjavik early in the morning. After bathing in the ocean, the travellers go ashore. 
They first visit Governor Finsen, the Governor-General of Iceland. Trollope comments on how kindly the sixteen unexpected guests were received. The Governor also provides them with all the information required for finding a guide and horses for their ride to the Geysers. 
From there, they go to the Sheriff’s, then to the Bishop’s (http://books.google.ca/books/about/Biskop_Pjetur_Pjetursson.html?id=5OgEHQAACAAJ&redir_esc=y.) The bishop is considered Iceland’s greatest theological writer since Gubrandur Thorlaksson, the first translator of the Bible into Icelandic. He served as a member of the Icelandic Althing, or parliament, from 1849 until 1886, for the last eleven years as speaker of the upper house.
There, they meet Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. She is so beautiful, so charming, so vivacious, that she is repeatedly mentioned in Trollope’s account of their stay in Reykjavik. He even suggests, teasingly, that one of the male members of the English party has fallen in love with Thora and might return to Iceland to court and marry her.    
He says, “But at the Bishop’s we became acquainted with Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. Thora, before we left, had become to all of us the heroine of Reykjavik. Even Wilson, the unhappy one, was softened altogether by the charm and wit of Thora, and became quite devoted and almost gay in her presence.” (http://www.forlagid.is/?p=573500) A book about Thora has recently been released in Iceland. Unfortunately, it is only in Icelandic.
After these formal visits to the dignitaries of Reykjavik, they roam about town like typical tourists of today. They buy silver ornaments, silvered belts and filigree work as souvenirs. They also buy leather whips and satchels.
Fish, he notices, is spread out on every available piece of ground, that bread is rare and that the mutton (he was told) is good.
What is more interesting is that he says, “I do not think that any one of our party ate a morsel of Icelandic food during our sojourn beyond curds, cream, and milk, – unless it might be a biscuit taken with a glass of wine. Our provisions had all been brought from Scotland, and from our ship’s stores we carried with us up to the Geysers what was needed.” They ate no Icelandic lamb, no fish.
What he praises is the education of the people. However, he does not know that from his own experience. He quotes from Sir George MacKenzie who published a book about Iceland in 1811, sixty-seven years before.
“The amount of reading which certainly does prevail throughout Iceland is marvellous. There is hardly in the island what can be called an upper class. There is no rich body, as there is with us, for whose special advantage luxurious schools and aristocratic universities can be maintained. But there is a thoroughly good college at Reykjavik, with a rector and professors, at which a sound classical education is given; and there are now also minor schools….There are five newspapers published in the island, two of them at Reykjavik.”
He’s surprised that there is no bank. The result is that most commerce is based on the barter of goods. “The imports and exports are considerable, fish, oil, skins, tallow, and wool being sent away in exchange for timber, wood, tea, sugar, and all those thousand little articles of comfort which a civilised community uses every day almost without knowing it. But nothing can be imported or exported without payment being rendered in the old world fashion of barter.”
In a walk he took by himself around “the back of the town, where lies a little lake with marshy land around it, I found a number of women and children turning the peat for drying, or sending away in baskets on their ponies that which was fit, carrying on their operations very much as they do in Ireland. Fuel to them is a matter of great solicitude. During eight months of the year artificial warmth is necessary; and not only have they no coals, but neither have they wood. Coal imported from Scotland may be bought at Reykjavik; but as there is no carriage for anything through the country except on the backs of ponies, very little coal can ever be seen beyond the limits of the town.”
The Mastiffs are typical well-to-do tourists. Their accommodation is on the ship. They buy what souvenirs they can find. In Iceland, in 1878, the emigration to North America is well underway. Hunger is widespread, there’s been a major volcanic eruption, economic and social conditions are driving away what will eventually be twenty percent of Iceland’s population. There is no mention of any of it. There’s not even any awareness revealed.
It is, perhaps, instructive that Trollope made his walk around the back of the town by himself. Perhaps a writer, even one who has made himself a place among the wealthy and the prominent, has a wider interest in the world than his wealthy, privileged friends.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland)

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