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Lagerlöf and public health education

This week we’re highlighting two translations from our Lagerlöf in English series: Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (1906-07), available here; and The Phantom Carriage (1912), available here, both translated by Peter Graves.

This blogpost is adapted from a longer essay by one of our directors, Claire Thomson. If you read Swedish, you can download it for free here.

As we begin to understand Covid-19, this dreadful new disease afflicting humankind, there is some comfort to be found in the thought that within the last century, great leaps were made in the treatment and control of another scourge: tuberculosis. In Sweden alone, half a million people died of tuberculosis between 1900 and 1950. In 1904, the Swedish National Association Against Tuberculosis (Nationalföreningen mot Tuberkulos) was established to coordinate public health education about the disease. One of the association’s founders, alongside Crown Prince Gustav, was the author Selma Lagerlöf.

In its first few decades, a key activity for the Association was to organise peripatetic lectures and film and slide shows educating Swedes about hygiene and other preventative measures against tuberculosis. Money was raised for research and education through the sale of stamps and the majblomma flower pin. But a subtler means of raising awareness was Lagerlöf’s writing; she was encouraged by the Association to write the novella The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1912), a ghost story which lays bare the sickness, poverty and misery engendered by tuberculosis. The novella was adapted for the silver screen in 1920-21 by the great Swedish director and actor Victor Sjöström. A blockbuster of its day, it was one of the first films to use double exposure, and inspired the young Ingmar Bergman to take up filmmaking.

Feature films and literature can, of course, indirectly promote public health messages. But in the days before television and social media, purpose-made short films were widely used in public information campaigns. In 1952, twelve years after her death, Lagerlöf’s writing again played a role in educating the Swedish populace about the fight against tuberculosis. By this time, half a century of research had resulted in effective prevention and treatment, and Sweden had been one of the countries to pioneer a nation-wide screening and vaccination programme in the 1940s (including the use of miniature x-ray machines in buses). The dramatist Martin Söderhjelm was commissioned by the National Association Against Tuberculosis to make a short film reminding Swedes of the work of the Association, encouraging them to participate in medical screening programmes, and looking to the future. The sixteen-minute film, shown in cinemas around the country in autumn 1952, was Medan det ännu är tid: ‘While there’s still time’.

In order to engage its audience, Medan det ännu är tid opens with a tale that every Swedish cinema-goer would remember from their school days: an episode from Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson. Chapter XLIV of the epic novel fills in the back-story of two recurring characters, Åsa the goose-girl and her little brother Mats, and the film devotes its first five minutes to the sad fate of these fictional children. Åsa and Mats are from a poor Småland family. Their siblings and mother are infected by a traveller and die one by one, and their father flees. The orphaned Åsa and Mats attend a lecture explaining the symptoms, prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, and they realize that their family died of the disease, not of the sick traveller’s curse. Åsa and Mats embark on their own journey through Sweden to find their father, navigating forests, towns and frozen lakes (see below), and along the way they tell the people they encounter about the need for good hygiene in combating the spread of tuberculosis. The film thus stages the historical phenomenon of travelling public health lecturers, an authentic detail already embedded in the novel by an author who was herself a founding member of the National Association Against Tuberculosis. But in typical Lagerlöf style, public health education is also framed in Nils Holgersson as a kind of mythical or folktale-style wandering across the national map, undertaken by the good citizens Åsa and Mats.

Both in Lagerlöf’s novel and Söderhjelm’s film, the fight against tuberculosis thus emerges as a collective undertaking for Swedish society, a battle that is fought not only by scientists and medics, but by ordinary people doing simple, everyday things – like washing their hands.

* * *

For Peter Graves’ translation of Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden, Norvik Press commissioned original illustrations from the illustrator Bea Bonafini. Bea comments here on her illustration for chapter XXV, which depicts a dramatic episode in Åsa and Mats’ trek through Sweden:

Possibly my favourite image, I chose this tragic moment for its visual power, as well as for how poignantly Lagerlöf depicts the race for survival of the brother and sister. I imagined the aerial view of the running children, seen from the perspective of the gander and the boy as they direct the children out of the maze of cracking ice. The image evokes the precarious balance between life and death as the children try to avoid running into dead ends while making their way across. It is the first inverted image I use, where the picture of the iced lake fills a negative space, causing an initial sense of disorientation appropriate to the nature of the image.

‘The Ice Breaks Up’, illustration by Bea Bonafini for Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden
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In solidarity: Pride 2020

Although in-person Pride marches originally planned for this summer are now postponed or re-envisioned online due to the pandemic, there are lots of alternative ways to support the movement. This week, we are highlighting two titles for your LGBTQ+ and ally reading lists.

Crisis by Karin Boye

Karin Boye’s Crisis is a queer modernist masterpiece. Recently published in a translation by Amanda Doxtater, it defies stylistic conventions through its innovative use of voice and has even had a love letter written to it! You can find an extract here, and order the full book while supporting your friendly local bookshop via Hive here.

Statue of Boye, Göteborg. Photo by Per-Olof Forsberg.

Bang: A Novel about the Danish Writer by Dorrit Willumsen

Bang by Dorrit Willumsen, translated by Marina Allemano and a Nordic Council Literature Prize awardee, re-works the life story of the pioneering journalist, author and dramatist Herman Bang in a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful reading tour across the USA. Bang (1857–1912) was a key figure in Scandinavia’s Modern Breakthrough. Having fled his birthplace on the island of Als ahead of the Prussian advance of 1864, he was later hounded out of Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague by homophobic laws and hostility to his uncompromising social critique. You can read an extract from the first chapter detailing Bang’s memories of his childhood here or order the book through Hive here.

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The Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression in Northern Europe 1814–1914: a special issue of Scandinavica

The final issue of Scandinavica, before it transitions to an open access publishing model in summer 2020, is dedicated to free speech. This week, our blog reproduces the Foreword from volume 58, issue 2 (2019), co-written by Elettra Carbone (UCL) and Ruth Hemstad (National Library of Norway and University of Oslo). The full issue can be read at

In the course of the nineteenth century, the public sphere and freedom
of expression featured prominently in political and cultural discourses
in Northern Europe. Defined as the space where public opinion takes
shape, the public sphere develops as a concept across Europe around
the 1810s alongside discussions on freedom of expression and
freedom of the press centering on the extent to which the press’s and
the individual’s ability to spread information and express new ideas
should be guaranteed by law (Hemstad and Michalsen 2019: 16). More
recent debates following cases such as the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad
cartoons controversy in 2005, the Charlie Hebdo case in 2011 and
subsequent reactions following the shooting in 2015, the highly
contentious publications by Milo Yiannopoulos and the spreading of
concepts such as ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, are only a handful
of well-known examples demonstrating how these two topics continue
to be of interest and relevance today. This special issue entitled The
Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression in Northern Europe 1814–
discusses the origin and development of these important fields
focusing on their formative period, while placing debates around
them within a broader socio-cultural context and emphasising the
importance of transnational and comparative approaches.

The Nordic countries have traditionally been regarded as pioneers in
the historical development of freedom of expression. In 2016, Sweden
and Finland celebrated the 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of the press act, passed in 1766. In 2020, Denmark followed
suit, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the world’s first (and hitherto
the only one of its kind) freedom of the press act without any kind of
restrictions, passed in 1770. While both milestones are clearly worth
celebrating, it is important to note that the progressive freedoms
granted by these two acts did not last for long. The history of the
consolidation of the public sphere and freedom of expression is one
of gradual and uneven development, through conflicts, setbacks and
battles, until the achievement of gradually broader public participation
towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Nordic countries of
today are, together with the Low Countries, consistently ranked at
the top of the World Press Freedom Index. This is, however, not the
case with Great Britain, which in 2019 was ranked 33rd (out of 180
countries) ( This appears to indicate a
reverse development considering that, in nineteenth-century debates
on freedom of the press, Great Britain was seen as a model, a beacon
of freedom of expression.

Studying the development in the Nordic countries, the British Isles
and the Low Countries through a transnational and comparative
approach, this issue aims to shed new light on the expansion of
the public sphere and freedom of expression, as well as on related
national, political and cultural changes in the nineteenth century. The
nine articles featured here cover a broad range of topics, engaging with
legal, intellectual, emotional, military, social and cultural history and
addressing questions around individual and collective rights, nation- and
region-building, the development of civil society, education and
cultural heritage.

The contributions in this issue are based on conference proceedings
from the conference ‘The Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression
Britain and the Nordic Countries, 1815–1900’, held at UCL in London
in June 2018. The event was a collaboration between the Department
of Scandinavian Studies at UCL and the research project ‘The Public
Sphere and Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Countries 1815–1900’
at the University of Oslo. This interdisciplinary research group is part
of UiO:Nordic, one of three main strategic research initiatives at the
University of Oslo (2016–2022). Its aim is to provide new knowledge on the Nordic countries’ different paths to freedom of expression and
a free and open public sphere, and to explore Nordic differences and
interactions in the nineteenth century from an international perspective
and in a transnational context. This themed issue of Scandinavica is a
clear example of this. The Anglo-Nordic relations covered in its studies
are of specific interest, considering that Britain played, as mentioned
above, a major role as model in debates on freedom of expression
and the public sphere and was considered an important political actor
with strategic, geopolitical, and, to a certain degree, cultural interests
in the Nordic area. Whereas the relation between Great Britain and the
smaller countries in the North is one of asymmetry throughout the
nineteenth century, the Low Countries, discussed particularly in the
article by Ruth Hemstad, represent a comparable entity in terms of size
and international influence.

The first section of this issue, consisting of three articles, examines
the main trends and developments within the field of freedom of
expression in the Nordic countries and the UK in the nineteenth

Lars Björne’s article on the theory and practice of freedom of
expression in the Nordic countries from 1815 to 1914 (translated by
Ian Giles) is based on his seminal monograph from 2018, Frihetens
gränser: Yttrandefriheten i Norden 1814–1915
(Freedom’s Borders:
Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Countries 1814–1915). This is
the first comprehensive discussion on legal regulations, theoretical
debates and court practices regarding freedom of the press in the
Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland) in the
nineteenth century. Björne underlines the enduring role that the Danish
autocracy’s regulation on the boundaries of freedom of the press from
1799 played in the Nordic countries. In spite of the absence of advance
censorship and the right of the author and publisher to have their case
tried before a court – secured in the 1799 regulation – freedom of
expression was often under threat as those in power did not support
the opposition’s right to express dissenting views. Whereas freedom of
expression was constitutionally protected in the Scandinavian countries
during the nineteenth century, the English tradition, discussed by Eric
Barendt, is somehow different. He emphasizes that a study of freedom of expression (or freedom of the press or of discussion, as it was
known at the time) in nineteenth-century England has to focus on the
various restrictions imposed on the exercise of this freedom, rather
than on the scope of the freedom itself. Barendt looks at freedom of
the press, freedom of expression and freedom of speech in view of
contemporary libel laws and concludes that in the UK the protection of
this freedom is weak in principle but robust in practice. Philip Schofield’s
article expands on this point by contributing with central theoretical
reflections on freedom of expression and the public sphere in his
study of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and his writings on the ideas
of freedom of the press, public opinion, and good government. Some
of these works were translated into Swedish and Danish/Norwegian.
Schofield demonstrates how Bentham, throughout his career, placed
great emphasis on public opinion as a bulwark against oppression and
misrule, and strongly recommended liberty of the press and liberty of
public associations in order to secure good government.

In the second section, two comparative articles focus on Northern
European united kingdoms in the nineteenth century in relation to the
development of the public sphere, civil society and nation-building.
Union states and united kingdoms, such as the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland (1801–1922), the United Kingdoms of Norway
and Sweden (1814–1905) and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands
(1815–1830), are examples of new state constructions experiencing
national forces and ideas, which gained ground in the European
Restoration – a transitional period in European history. In his article,
Alvin Jackson compares the British-Scottish-Irish and the Swedish-
Norwegian union states and discusses the role of civil society and
national symbolism in the endurance of this kind of state construction.
Civil society and the press could support, but also undermine, the
union. In her study, Ruth Hemstad compares the United Kingdoms
of Norway and Sweden and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands
– both constructed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars – as a
loose personal union and a unitary state, respectively. She discusses
politics of unification and amalgamation in order to blend two different
national groups as well as the national reactions against this kind of
politics, especially on behalf of the non-dominant partner.

The two articles in the third section discuss different aspects of
international politics and the role of more or less publicly expressed
feelings and emotions, focusing, respectively, on the transnational
relations between Britain and Norway, and between Sweden and
the former Eastern part of the Swedish Realm, Finland. Roald Berg
discusses the relationship between Norway and Britain inspired by
recent research on the role of emotions, and examines the history
of Norwegian distrust of Britain – a distrust that lived alongside the
allegedly trusting belief in the ‘British guarantee’ of Norway. In the
following contribution, Mart Kuldkepp argues that the persistent
revanchist feelings in Sweden vis-à-vis Russia over the loss of Finland
in 1809 constitute an undercurrent in Sweden’s otherwise peaceful
modern history. The ‘Finnish Question’ in Sweden, frequently debated
in Swedish liberal press during the Crimean War against Russia (1853–
1856), reflected feelings of national humiliation over the defeat in 1809
as well as anxieties over the development of Fennoman nationalism
and the possibilities presented by the Scandinavianist movement.

The last two articles focus on education, culture and the public
sphere, seen from a transnational British-Scandinavian perspective.
Merethe Roos’s study of the British press and the great interest in
the Norwegian and Swedish contributions at the educational exhibition
in London in 1854 concludes that that the rising British interest in
Scandinavia as a tourist destination, as a utopia of the North, played
a role in stimulating a general interest in Scandinavian issues. Finally,
Elettra Carbone looks closer at the idea of the ‘Cheerful Danes’ seen
from the perspective of the British scholar and traveller Henry Clarke
Barlow (1806–1876), whose unpublished writings have long been
stored in UCL Special Collections. His travelling to and writing on
Copenhagen – a rather untypical Scandinavian tourist destination at
the time – are representative of an alternative North, one where culture
and education are prime sources of happiness.

By discussing the origin and development of freedom of expression
and the public sphere and demonstrating how these pivotal processes
are intertwined with questions of nation-building, international
relations and provision of culture and information, this themed issue
contributes to our historical understanding of freedom and public participation in Northern Europe throughout the nineteenth century
while stressing the importance of scholarly approaches that transgress
national boundaries and limitations.

Hemstad, R. and Michalsen, D. (eds.) (2019). Frie ord i Norden?
Medborgerskap, offentlighet og ytringsfrihet, nordiske erfaringer
. Oslo: Pax.

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Not Going Out

Fear of strangers, of the danger lurking outside the safe walls of home –  this is a feeling many have become familiar with in recent weeks. In Ilmar Taska’s dramatic novel Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory, the fear is of a more tangible enemy, as resistance workers hide from the Soviet occupying forces in Estonia just after the Second World War. A young boy is entranced by the sudden appearance in his street of a shiny new car – and then tricked into betraying secrets he does not know he holds. 

Translated from the original Estonian by Christopher Moseley, Pobeda 1946 is a candidate for the Human Rights Book Award – HRBA and on the 2020 longlist for the International Dublin Literary Award (for which it has recently featured in a video highlighting Estonian literature here).

Baltic Station, Tallinn. 1945. @retrofotod /

Curious? You can read a taster extract, or order a copy.

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Memories of Mårbacka

There are times over the past twelve weeks or so when our semi-isolated living situation has made us feel we’ve been transported back to an earlier age. Living in a rural area in particular, and seeing the busy – if socially distanced – local community interactions and the empty roads, you can almost feel as if you’re a resident of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. Or indeed of Selma Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka, where families struggle, to be sure, and life can be physically and mentally tough, but the pace of things is largely determined by the slowly changing seasons and the length of time it takes to get anywhere on foot, or in a horse and gig along the winding, hilly roads round the lakes of Värmland province.

In the lockdown months we’ve all come to appreciate the value of a full larder, and in that we have much in common with the housekeeper at Mårbacka farm, who prides herself on a full storehouse to keep the large household going. Read our evocative extract here.

Tina Stafrén/

Explore the world of Selma Lagerlöf not only in Mårbacka but through our whole series ‘Lagerlöf in English’, translated by Peter Graves, Linda Schenck and Sarah Death. This great Swedish storyteller brings you tales of everything from love in sickness and in health, via romance and betrayal, hauntings and untimely deaths, salty sea air and valiant derring-do, to family life with its fractious and funny moments and its small delights.

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‘Surfaces matter to a textile artist’: Vigdis Hjorth’s A House in Norway

Restricted to life within the same four walls at the moment? If lockdown is continuing where you are, we would highly recommend reading the award-winning A House in Norway by Vigdis Hjorth. Translated by Charlotte Barslund and selected for an English PEN Award as part of the PEN Translates! programme, this novel is a penetrating study of power relations in contemporary Nordic society.

Hesteblomster, Frida Hansen, 1900, detail. Photo: Jensen, Stina Aadland / Stiftelsen Kulturkvartalet

The relationship between a property owner and their tenant is an uneasy one: ‘the power balance was unequal, that is if you could talk about power in such cases, and you probably could’. Petty squabbles over whose responsibility it is to clear a shared driveway of snow, wasteful electricity use, late-night shower routines and prejudices based on superficial appearances – the tenant’s bed-linen is preemptively dismissed by her landlady as ‘undoubtedly synthetic’ – accrue and accumulate, heading towards inevitable combustion.

If you would like to read for yourself how this particular tapestry of tangled lives turns out, copies can be ordered here or you can read the opening pages here. It will also be perfect pre-reading for the 20th Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, scheduled for September this year (pandemic permitting), where Vigdis Hjorth has been invited to appear as a guest.

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Lobster-led design (and Wes Anderson films)

This week, we have another cover art special for you!

In 2019, we published Erik Fosnes Hansen’s Lobster Life, translated from the Norwegian Et hummerliv by Janet Garton. With a title like that, we knew that we needed a cover that would honour the novel’s quirkiness and its blend of comedy and tragedy, as captured in this review:

What a totally brilliant book! Best comedy I have read in ages. It reminded me of The Natives of Hemsö, such a favourite book. Best medicine for the coronavirus blues; I’m telling everybody to read it. It made me laugh and laugh – and then it made me cry.  

Sue Prideaux, author of I am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, Winner of the Hawthornden Prize 2019.

For a taste of Lobster Life, you can read an extract here, which relates what happens when our young narrator agrees to take a group of hotel guests fishing.

Today we would like to share a few of the runner-up covers with you:

Continue reading Lobster-led design (and Wes Anderson films)

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Literature of the Faroe Islands

This week, we would like to draw attention to a blog written by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator of Germanic Collections at the British Library, on the literature of the Faroe Islands:

The Faroes’ literary traditions are therefore both long-established and yet still novel; they are also both local and yet inextricably tied to Denmark and the wider world. These tensions have defined the distinctiveness of Faroese literature.  — Pardaad Chamsaz

If this has made you curious about Faroese literature, you may like to browse our two translations:

Walpurgis Tide

Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide, translated by John Keithsson and featuring a foreword by Dominic Hinde, is a thrilling slice of Faroese crime fiction. Two British environmental activists are discovered dead amongst the whale corpses after a whale-kill in Tórshavn. The detective Hannis Martinsson is asked to investigate by a representative of the organisation Guardians of the Sea – who shortly afterwards is killed when his private plane crashes. Suspicion falls on Faroese hunters, angry at persistent interference in their traditional whale hunt; but the investigation leads Martinsson to a much larger group of international vested interests, and the discovery of a plot which could devastate the whole country.

You can read a report of our book launch for Walpurgis Tide in a previous blog post here, and a review of it here. It’s a timely read, as this 2020 documentary by the BBC demonstrates.

Walpurgis Tide is available to order here, or as an eBook on Kindle here –perfect if you don’t want to wait for the post to arrive!


Originally written in Danish, Barbara was the only novel written by the Faroese author Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen (1900–38), yet it quickly achieved international bestseller status and is still one of the best-loved classics of Danish and Faroese literature. This translation is by George Johnston.

On the face of it, Barbara appears to be a historical romance: it contains a story of passion in an exotic setting with overtones of semi-piracy; there is a powerful erotic element, an outsider who breaks up a marriage, a built-in inevitability resulting from Barbara’s own psychological make-up… everything you might desire in a page-turning love story! But Barbara stands as one of the most complex female characters in modern Scandinavian literature: beautiful, passionate, devoted, amoral and uncomprehending of her own tragedy. Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen portrays her with fascinated devotion, and the ‘romance’ is in the vein of Daphne du Maurier’s darker tales.

Barbara is available to order here.

Further reading

The Facebook page for the Representation of the Faroes in London shares further ideas for lockdown reading on a Faroese theme: and the FarLit website has some recommendations for your reading list too:

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Finding a look for Vega Maria

Norvik’s designer Essi Viitanen gives us a guided tour through the process of designing a cover for Chitambo. 

The process of designing a cover for Chitambo began with reading the book and discussing the material with Sarah Death, the translator of the novel. Sometimes Norvik Press book covers have original illustrations but for Chitambo’s cover we thought it best to look for an existing image. The basic requirements for the image are high resolution (at least 300dpi for printing) and suitable space for the typography: book title and names of the author and translator. If possible, it is also preferable the image is public domain and free to use.

I began by looking for photographs that might work thematically or capture a significant detail of the novel. Whilst reading the book one paragraph had caught my eye: ‘If I close my eyes, I see a blue horizon and dazzling white sails, always the same vision, and I do not know where it comes from.’ With this in mind I headed to Unsplash, an excellent source for free public domain photographs, in search of images.

Continue reading Finding a look for Vega Maria