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First Read—From “History. A Mess.”

By Sigrún Pálsdóttir
Translated By Lytton Smith

In Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess., translated by Lytton Smith and forthcoming from Open Letter Books, a PhD student uncovers information about the first documented professional female artist while studying a seventeenth-century diary. This discovery promises to change her career, and life in general—until she realizes that her "discovery" was not what she first thought. The following excerpt is from the book’s opening.


This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast.

Day 201. And with these words, I had written this same sentence out two hundred and one times. And, following on from it, the paragraph comprising each journal entry. The task had already taken me about six months: despite the incessant repetition, the linguistic nuances in this cramped ancient manuscript were significant enough to cause me considerable labors. And still the result was always the same: nothing of note. Nothing but rigid, rather uninspiring testimony to a humble existence, an existence to which it was practically impossible to accord any greater meaning, even though it was 365 years old. But I was determined to finish, to keep following the thread. To keep scrutinizing nothing. And so I did until it hit me. Much longer than all the other entries, a piece that opened with one, and only one, heading:

The day 203

This was around noon, but by the time I had made my way through both pages, it was closing time at the library. I looked at my transcription. It took me a little while to fully realize what I’d discovered:

This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast. Went down finding my father gone to London. After I finished the picture of Lady Cowley in little I Painted over ye 3d Time a side face of Mrs Meriton. Lady Bucks picture done over with white poppy oil as thin done over as I could.

That done Mr. Jones, who stayes at My Lords house, came hither to the Paynting roome for his final sitting of his picture done upon 3 qtr Sacking. Mr Jones sat with admirable and unvariable patience. He is a very excellent young man & by whose conversacon I learn to observe the very glancing of his eyes. Every lowly grace of his face. He sat for 4 hourse tell I had pfectly finisht ye face to my owne satisfaction. He thought his picture mighty like him and colored exceedingly rarely but the colouring of the face to be a little forced.

Mr Jones being out of doors I did some thing about the house tell my father was back from his journey with a pacell of Pink made by Mr Petty and another of blew black and primed paper for study. After we supped on pease porridge and bread I went to Ye Chamber. After reading of the Humanitie I was busie fouldinge some linan and airinge clothes tell all most night. So to bed wher many sundrie distractions withdrew my mind so I was weak and had paine in my head.

The custodian at the manuscript library, a young, athletic man, rested his hand lightly and just for a moment on my shoulder. Then he tapped the index finger of the same hand against his delicate watch. I closed the book at once, returned it to its box and gave it to him. I gathered my things together, rose from the table, walked out of the room, slowly passing along the long hallway, all the way trying to hold back the smile that played behind my lips. There was no doubt the creator of that famous portrait of Viscount Tom Jones was my diary writer, S. B. But could it be that S. B. was a woman? Busie fouldinge some linan and airinge clothes? A trailblazer? Had I just found a new beginning in the history of Western art? Frenzied jubilation thrilled through my body, words burst within me freighted with tremendous power, inside my head sentences and then pages formed one after the other so that by the time I stepped out of the building into the outside courtyard, my introduction was well underway.

Out on the street, nothing was the same. I wasn’t the same. I could sense it in the slightest gesture, the way my arms swung back and forth, my hips moving rhythmically side to side, my hair billowing in the warm spring breeze, and by the time I had turned onto the path that leads to the church and had gone past a young man with a guitar—at which point I entirely surprised myself by letting a ten-pound note float down into his case—my thesis was fast taking shape. It was practically fully formed by the time I left the city center, those beautiful surroundings to which I belonged during the day and which made all my miniscule, dispensable thoughts about life in centuries past worth anything each day. Reflections which had hitherto somewhat lost their meaning when I, at the end of my workday, left the ancient buildings and headed home to the grim, inescapable existence that was my part of the city: Low-rise precast concrete houses. Grouped in long rows. Washed out in a monotone overcoat the color of cream. Seventies residences that seemed about to collapse under the conflicts taking place inside them.

My neighbor slammed her front door behind her and strode rapidly away from the house while the shouting from inside her home fell silent. I do not remember how she responded to my greeting as we passed; I was lost in my reflections, unaware whether I said hello to her, so deep was I in thought over the day’s discovery. By now, I had the whole introduction in my head. Time for the preface. I would, of course, express gratitude to Professor Lucy for having entrusted this large project to me, and to Dr. Caplan and his colleagues for their advice and for something I might call inspiration. To Mrs. Mary Howard for teaching me to read the old hand. And perhaps it would be right to mention all the help I’d received from people at the museum. The young custodian in the manuscript library? Presumably he would be helping me more in the foreseeable future. Was it going to be five years of work? For a moment, it even dawned on me to thank the professors at the Royal College of Art for having ruthlessly rejected me, an event that had indirectly pushed me toward this international discipline, art history, in which I was now bound to play a major role. No, the idea was just a bit of fun; better to nourish the joy now stirring inside me after the difficulties and disappointments of the past year. But next I would absolutely thank Dad and my friend Sigga. Possibly Bonný and Tína too, for being such a source of amusement and encouragement. And Hans, of course. Maybe for having made the decision to complete his own studies here, which meant I ended up in exactly this place and not somewhere else. No, surely I could find something better to say about Hans. There was time enough for that. But Mom? How to thank her? The answer was obvious, and came to me by the time I inserted my key in the lock on the flame-red front door: the thesis would, of course, be dedicated to my mother!

I closed the door behind me. Hans wasn’t home. I stood in the middle of the living room, looked down at the beige carpet, and imagined the letters printed on the white page immediately following the flyleaf: To my mother. Then I heard a heavy thud from the other side of the thin partition wall, as though someone had kicked it: “Bugger!” My neighbor, getting ready for the evening. I lay on the couch, laced my fingers behind my neck. I looked at the card panels trying to free themselves from the ceiling above me, and thought that it would perhaps be more beautiful this way: For my mother.


Excerpted from History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, published by Open Letter Books. Copyright © 2016 Sigrún Pálsdóttir. Translation copyright © 2019 by Lytton Smith. By arrangement with the publisher.

Published Jul 15, 2019   Copyright 2019 Sigrún Pálsdóttir

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