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By Selma Lagerlof
Translated from the Swedish by Velma Swanston Howard
New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1916
323 pages

Bob Corbett
Feb. 2015

For nearly ˝ this novel, I thought this was some sort of childish, sweetsy story of a doting father. Ah, Selma Lagerlof had major surprises awaiting me. The setting is in the 1870s or 80s in deep rural Sweden. Jan and his wife Katrina have a tiny home and tiny plot of land and eke out a living. As the novel opens Jan is outside the small house while neighbor women inside with Katrina are working to deliver the young couple’s first child.

Jan is not happy about this, and we get our first sense of Jan’s rather flamboyant spirits. He is not only doubtful about the joys of this coming child, but nearly ravingly upset, sure as he can be that she will ruin everything for them. No longer can the two of them work together sunrise to sunset to eke out their meagre living, but his wife will have to tend the child and Jan will be left with a nearly impossible chore of handling the homestead. They are doomed for disaster.

As a father of 7, six of who were born in our first 6 years of marriage, I was thinking, my goodness, this guy is a nut case and going to miss all the joys that would await him were he to accept them.

However, Jan changes in seconds once the little girl is born. Despite his long rant outside, once the child is born and handed to him, he becomes the virtual opposite, even putting me, this loving father, to shame. I delighted upon the birth of each of my children, but I was a total sluggard compared with Jan. He rants and raves that no child like this had ever been born before, and, holding her every second possible, he immediately chooses to name her after sweet novel of the day, Glory Goldie Sunnycastle.

These few opening pages set the scene for us to deal with a very strange man, Jan, whose is so over the top with his emotions and imaginations that it is hard to take him seriously – at least at first.

In the next several chapters we follow Jan continuing center his whole life on Glory. Every tiny detail of what sounds like a fairly normal childhood of a fairly normal child is blown into some enormous achievement of the world’s next genius, most beautiful woman in the world, the 19th century’s sole wonder child.

The first real sense that Glory may not be quite what Jan thinks she is comes when she is 17. She begins to assert her individuality and courage to be stand out when she wears a red dress to church and sort of scandalizes all (except for her adoring father).

Jan, however, has been cheated by a supposed friend and son of the local aristocrat. Because of a debt Jan had to this man’s father, but which had been forgiven, without proof, the son demands a large sum of money or they will lose their small farm. Glory decides to go to Stockholm to earn the money they need.

This does now put his parents into a bit of a personal quandary. Jan’s wife doesn’t really care for him much; it was primarily their daughter whom they both centered on. Now that she is gone Katrina doesn’t really care much for Jan. And Jan, on his side just talks constantly of Glory’s return. Jan is expecting her on the date the money is due. However, rather than return, she has the money sent, and sends it, as was proper, to the local magistrate rather than to her father. She sends a note saying she couldn’t earn all that money at one time, so she’s borrowed the money from her landlady, and is staying in Stockholm to pay off the debt.

Jan begins to move into a complete fantasy world. He has heard from the old seine-maker who works at the local port and from the Mistress of Falla, the local nobility that they’ve heard this or that about Glory. Everything in his life is centered on his imaginings of Glory, and the glories of Glory.

Soon he goes off the deep end into madness and is convinced that she is the Empress Glory of Portugallia and that he himself is the Emperor Johannes of Portugallia. He’s gone completely from “this” world into that world and even wears some regalia he has which makes him think he looks like an Emperor. However, his wife has NOT been named Empress and she still acts like the simple peasant she is! It gets really bad and people, simply astonished with him, try to humor him and just write him off as mad. He is the laughingstock of the area.

Finally a young auctioneer gets too frustrated with his interference into his work and publically “deposes” Jan and Jan realizes he is no longer the Emperor. He returns to his normal clothing and begins to work once again, surely to the delight of his long-suffering wife!

However, Jan really does now seem to have acquired insight in the future and predicted a terrible fate for Lars, head of the local large estate (and the man who had cheated Jan). Lars is saved by Jan’s “insight” and Lars is terrified. Soon after Lars does and Katrina announces to all that Jan has returned to his status as Emperor.

“Jan is not crazy . . . But Our Lord has placed a shade before his eyes so he’ll not have to see what he couldn’t bear seeing.”

15 years after leaving Glory returns. Katrina is 72. She tells Glory of her father’s madness:

“Our Lord let it happen, out of compassion. He saw that his burden was too heavy for him.”

Of course, both Katrina and Glory realize that is was Glory’s leaving and the “rumors” of her way of life which Jan suppressed that has caused his madness.

Katrina realizes that Jan knows what he needs and buries the rest, but it also gives him other insights, which all are accurate and uncanny.

The two women are leaving and Jan arrives at the port and leaps for the boat but misses and drowns. He body isn’t found. Later Glory learns that he was trying to save her from her (imagined) enemies:

“They were Pride and Hardness, Lust and Vice . . . “these enemies he had to battle”.

Later Katrina, too, dies, sort of with a broken heart at the loss of Jan. On the same day as her funeral they do recover the body of Jan and all the people in the region come to the funeral of the two old people.

Thus this seeming fairy tale of a utopian father/daughter love turned into a horror story of madness and a young woman gone wrong. The sole person in the novel who seems to have maintained her dignity and good sense in the whole story is Katrina, the loving and understanding mother and wife.

This is a simply brilliant novel and very much worth the read. Selma Lagerlof turns out to be one of my favorites of the 111 people who have won the Nobel Prize!

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett