I am constantly amazed at how relevant and relatable historical fiction novels can be to modern day issues. It seems that certain aspects of human nature have remained fairly unchanged over time, and it is through reading historical fiction such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites that we can revisit our existing social systems.
Set in 1829, and based loosley on a true, recorded events, Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a poor Icelandic pauper. Agnes has been sentenced to death on account of having killed her Master Natan Ketilsson and his friend Petur Jonsson. She is sent to a farm in Northen Iceland to work for a farming family as a slave until Winter when she is set to be executed.
As soon as Agnes’ sentence passes she is made a social pariah and I shuddered whilst reading at how quickly cruel guards and people became once she is labelled as a ‘murderess’. Thank goodness we have human rights in most countries today that prevent guards from beating a helpless woman. However, before the trial and accusations of murder take place, Agnes explains that she has always been isolated and disliked because of her desire to better herself. Because of this, Direct Commissioner Bjorn Blondal is determined to make an example out of Agnes whilst Sigridur Gudmundsdottir (Sigga) is allowed an appeal because her simplemindness and innocent seeming nature means that few people think she could be capable of murder.
The Direct Commissioner is successful in his efforts to make an example out of Agnes because of the lack of development in forensic science and ‘corrupt’ nature of their justic sysem. Nevertheless after reading Burial Rites we might ask ourselves today what factors might come into play today when a woman is wrongly accused or treated infidfferently because of her sex and intelligence.
I read Burial Rites as Agnes’ argument for a fair trail, or simply for a just burial, appropriate to the true story of what happened that night Natan and Petur are killed. Kent tells the story admirably, with two interweaving threads: the first, is the cold factual account of the cord proceedings and letters of correspondence sent between the Direct Commisioner and persons attacthed to the case and the second is the more personal, emotional account of Agnes.
The switch between third person narrative for all of the minor characters and first person narrative for Agnes works very well for the novel. The text ultimately prioritises her voice and story, which is significant because in Agnes’ life few people have bothered to listen to her. The family that are forced to take care of her and Reverend Toti are the first people to listen to Agnes full story without prejudice or judgement. As a result they are severly implicated and touched by her story, so that when it comes to the date of Agnes execution she does have people who care for her.
I think the novel read rather slowly at first and it wasn’t until later in the novel that I really started to feel for Agnes and her story. It wasn’t the ‘whodunnit’ element of the tale that engaged me, rather the ‘how did it happen’ and question of who is really to blame that had me hooked.