16 December 2010

The Waif Woman's Brooch

The quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson in my previous post prompted me to read his little story, The Waif Woman, which has been sitting on my shelf for some time waiting for an appropriate moment, though it's not at all long. It was not published during his lifetime, but our library has a nice little edition from 1916 (if you haven't got such a good library, you can read it online from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere). The story begins 'This is a tale of Iceland, the isle of stories' and it is a fine example of Viking Victoriana, with lots of 'goodmen', 'goodwives' and 'fiddlesticks', and a few gratuitous alliterations and archaisms ('It was a wild night for summer, and the wind sang about the eaves and clouds covered the moon, when the dark woman wended'). The plot is quite closely based on the well-known and colourful story of the Hebridean woman Thorgunna in Eyrbyggja saga - RLS has a Thorgunna, too, a strapping lady of a certain age, like her literary predecessor (not quite how we imagine a 'waif' these days, though she is indeed a wandering, homeless person). But the other characters have different names, and some aspects of the story are different. In particular, a silver brooch plays a part in the plot:
Here was a cloak of the rare scarlet laid upon with silver, beautiful beyond belief; hard by was a silver brooch of basket work that was wrought as fine as any shell and was as broad as the face of the full moon; and Aud saw the clothes lying folded in the chest, of all the colours of the day, and fire, and precious gems; and her heart burned with envy.
There is no brooch in Eyrbyggja saga but clearly RLS knew how important they were in the Viking Age, and liked brooches too - the comparison here with the moon is not unlike his fancy that brooches were made 'of star-shine at night', quoted in my last post. I don't know how much RLS really knew about Viking brooches, but I have used a picture of a tenth-century Borre-style disc brooch from Gotland, which I found on the British Museum website, and which would surely have amazed Aud if she had seen it.


  1. Thanks for this article - found this and the others very informative. Enjoying your posts immensely.

  2. Glad to hear of your interest, thanks.