Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
In 1878, Iceland, faced with disastrous weather, recent volcanic eruption, the continuing domination of Denmark in spite of the new constitution brought to Iceland by Christian IX in 1874, was riven with conflict. Some, seeing the end of Danish rule, the actual appearance of coinage brought in payment by the English and Scottish traders who were buying cattle, the possibility of Icelanders becoming merchants and traders instead of just the providers of goods to trade in a monopoly situation, were strongly opposed to the emigration that was going on. These were the nationalists and idealists. Also opposed were the better off large landowning farmers who were seeing their cheap labour disappear and, as a result, wages, little as they were, going up. In a marginal economy with one crop, hay, even well-to-do farmers could be reduced to penury by a summer when the grass didn’t grow. Conservative, opposed to change, the dominant land owners’ solution was to keep costs as low as possible. That meant keeping the majority of the population as indentured servants. On the other hand those who had no future were determined to leave. They rode, or often walked, to the coast, waited for ships that were frequently delayed by bad weather. The conflict between those who wanted no emigration and those determined to search for a life where there was opportunity was often bitter.
In the midst of this social upheaval, the Mastiffs, Trollope says “were all engaged in frivolous pursuits of buying silver ornaments and talking to the good-natured people in the shops, – all of whom seemed to possess a little English”
John Burns, the wealthy host of the trip, was busy on his own errands. He was going about Reykjavik asking “all the greater people of the town to come and eat dinner on board the Mastiff.” Burns also decides that there should be a picnic in the afternoon of the Saturday even though the dinner is Saturday night. None of the travelers, of course, has anything to do but be presentable. The food was prepared by the on-board cook.
Trollope has mentioned before that except for curds (skyr?), milk and cream, none of the travellers try any Icelandic food. On the coming Monday, they intend to pack a hundredweight of English cooked meat and bread with them to the Geysers.
The picnic is a great success. Thora “the divine” goes with them. She’s fluent in English and can translate for them. They sail three or four miles to an island devoted to the breeding of eider ducks.
Thora leads them to the home of the owner of the island. For Iceland, he has a fine house. Trollope can’t resist a little sarcasm by saying that Icelanders all seem to like English gold and gives as an example a lot of Icelandic silver work set out on the piano that is obviously there so the English visitors will buy it. Word, it would seem, has gone ahead about the Mastiffs shopping for trinkets in Reykjavik.
Trollope says that it was while they were having their picnic that “Thora made herself so divine that our Wilson seemed altogether to succumb to her attractions.”
According to Trollope, the picnic lunch was stupendous. However, they didn’t dally as they had to get back to the Mastiff to prepare for “the grand dinner.”
The English travellers are worldly, used to the best of everything. Their lives could probably be described as sumptuous. There is nothing in Iceland to compare with Castle Wymess or even the grand houses of the other members of the party. To these visitors, intent not on geology, politics, history, ornithology, but only on seeing the famous geysers, what must be, for them, a primitive and poor society is no more than amusing. It’s a diversion paid for by someone else. Unlike Charles Lock they are not in search of the Eddas. Of course, it is impossible to know what any of the other party members thought or felt for it is throughTrollope’s lens that everything is reported and his description is constrained by good manners and obligation.
There is probably no more telling detail of the attitude of the travellers to the Icelanders than the attitude toward Icelandic food. What was available, it is true, was limited. And, one might add, when the Danish king came to Reykjavik, the food for the banquet in the city was brought with him. However, when the reception in his honour was held at the Almannagjá, it was Icelandic food that was served him and no one mentioned that he declined.
The only items of value to the English travellers, it seems, are the bits and pieces of silver jewelry that are bought as souvenirs and, even some of these, Trollope says, may have come from the British Isles. Unlike S. E. Waller, a young painter who, inspired by the sagas, had so little money that he could not afford more than three horses and a single guide, the Mastiffs were not seeking the home of Burnt Njál. Waller travelled across Iceland to paint scenes from the sagas. Even a small amount of money would have made his travels less arduous. However, the Icelandic farmers, recognizing that he was not rich, befriended him. He learned something of the Icelandic people’s generosity and kindness. They often provided food and accommodation without charge. Nor did they charge for their precious grass. Waller came to Iceland with a deep appreciation of Icelandic literature and history. He sought, in the face of hardship, to create something of lasting value. The Mastiffs brought nothing, it seems, with them beyond English gold and took away nothing but trinkets.