Repressed by Stevenson at his wife’s insistence, “The Waif Woman” – published posthumously (and only after Mrs. Stevenson’s death) is an adaptation of a ghost story told in chapters 50-55 of the Icelandic Erybyggja Saga. The story certainly is scandalous, even by Stevenson’s standards, and presents perhaps his most brutal indictment of material greed yet.
The setting is Iceland at the turn of the first Millennium, circa 999 C.E., the date when Christianity was formally introduced to the Viking settlements on that desolate island. In 1892 The Erybyggja Saga (pronounced: air-pik-uh) was translated into English and proved influential to many British writers, including J. R. R. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, and M. R. James. The cycle followed the culture of Western Iceland in the first decade of its Christianization, and largely concerned itself with the shift from paganism to Catholic orthodoxy. The comingling of pagan folklore with Christian theology proved tremendously appealing to Stevenson who both respected and resented Christian morality and was both drawn to and wary of secular humanism, and the nonchalant materialism that he associated with many of his fellow atheists.
The plot is essentially unchanged, largely concerning itself with the fatal greed of an Icelandic woman who befriends an exiled Hebridean noblewoman in hopes of being gifted her unparalleled finery. The tale is, nonetheless, Stevenson’s: he packed the long sequence of Gothic hauntings and grisly revenants of the original saga into the restricted space of a short story (he omits such details as bloody rain, drowned sailors appearing at their funeral and drying their clothes on the fire, the deaths of eighteen members of the protagonist’s household, a parade of decomposing phantoms who pile their moldering clothes in the house, and the liberal use of holy water to ward off evil), but adds an original ending that is both grimmer and more horrific than the original Norse story.
One of Stevenson’s very last works, it is the last of many underlinings of his dearly treasured moral belief that greed and materialism – even in the absence of a Christian worldview – are wicked impulses which sour the soul and lead to unparalleled loss and misery.
Set in Iceland, in 999 ("the year of the coming there of Christianity"), the story concerns the Macbeth-like family of Finnward Kellfarer, his wife, Aud the Light-minded, and their daughter Asdis. Finnward is a generous, just, and wealthy man, but his wife is well known for her love of material goods and her obsession with finery.
One day during the spring of that year, a merchant ship – the first one to arrive following the winter – anchored in their port town, packed with treasures and goods that thrilled the whole colony. The most intriguing piece of cargo, however, was a strange noblewoman who has brought a massive trove of fine garments, linens, and jewels with her in two chests. She sits sullenly in the boat while the merchants unload the ship, and rumors quickly spread that she must be a deposed queen from a distant kingdom.
Aud is fascinated by the merchants description of her clothes, jewels, and luggage, and eagerly goes out to the ship to speak with the strange woman. She finds a tall, fleshy, red-haired woman in middle age, staring “sourly” out at sea, and learns that her name is Thorgunna, though no further details are forthcoming. Aud tries to welcome her to Iceland, but is received coldly, and when she tries to compliment Thorgunna’s “fine” possessions, Thorgunna wonders why she should be surprised, since “queens have no finer.”
Aud is permitted to take a look at them, but when she offers to buy some, Thorgunna angrily responds that she is “no merchant.” Overwhelmed by their beauty, Aud begins caressing Thorgunna and weeping, claiming that she would give anything for them, even her soul. This disgusts Thorgunna, and she refuses to speak further, grumbling that she has paid dearly for her fine possessions and that they shall be hers until she dies.
Aud counts her loses, but is not done with her: prying into Thorgunna’s past, she learns that Thorgunna has no family in Iceland (although she further hints that her family is of royal stock), and quickly invites her to live with her family, offering to treat her (an older woman) as a daughter. Thorgunna is obviously offended by this offer, but smiles at the thought of having the power to humble Aud, and agrees – on the condition that she only work for her keep (she is physically powerful), but not be expected to pay or trade anything material. Aud’s heart sinks at these words, but she tries to hide her disappointment.
When they arrive home, Aud is stunned by Thorgunna’s extravagant bedsheets, which she has not yet seen, and offers to buy them, too. Thorgunna scolds her for her “covetousness” but refuses to hide her goods, and makes her bed with them. Despite her aristocratic background, Thorgunna is a hard worker – doing the toil of three men – although she creeps the locals out with her gloominess, and intimidates them with her fulsome figure and powerful bearing, earning her the sarcastic nickname “Waif Woman” and leading to increasing rumors about her dramatic and tragic origins.
At midsummer, a band of gallant young men, friends of Finnward’s, visit the settlement and are hosted at a banquet held in their honor. Aud believed that their leader had always been sweet on her, so she dressed in her best, but when Thorgunna enters the hall, her clothes make her stand out like a blazing light. She regales the guests with wild stories, soulful songs, and witty conversation, until none of them care about her age: they are all smitten with her.
Aud is desperate with hate and envy now, and she decides that Thorgunna must be a witch, and that her beautiful brooch which she wore on her bosom that night must be the source of her power. She uses her master key to unlock Thorgunna’s door at night and sneaks over to the chest, determined to steal the brooch. As she grabs it she hears Thorgunna murmuring eerily to herself in her sleep, and – looking over – is chilled by the sight of Thorgunna’s wide-open, but still-sleeping eyes locked onto her own. Still, Aud is shameless at this point, and she pockets the brooch.
In the morning she is terrified of her theft being discovered, and ponders Thorgunna’s earlier advice that fine things are inherently worthless: good only to show off, but useless in private. She interacts awkwardly with her family, but notices that Thorgunna has not gotten out of bed, far past her customary hour of rising. Indeed, she is bedridden, and the next day she calls on Finnward to hear her last will, for she has become cold deep in her bones and shudders with tremors: she knows that she is dying.
Her requests are simple: she wishes to be buried in the new Christian church which has been built nearby, and bequeaths her cloak and brooch to Aud (although she passionately lambasts her as a silly, hateful, stupid woman) and the rest of her clothes to their quiet, thoughtful daughter, whom she admires.
As to her bedclothes, however, she demands that they be burned, and warns Finnward – whom she suspects of weak-willedness – of defying her orders, which she says will bring terror to their household. That night, as a storm rages outside, Thorgunna dies, and the secret of her mysterious, unhappy origins is taken with her.
The next morning, her corpse is stripped and cleaned for burial and her sheets collected while a fire is built. Aud notices this with concern, and when she learns of Thorgunna’s last request, she reacts in horror, demanding that she be burnt along with them if Finnward is intent on doing something so stupid.
He explains that he gave his word of honor, but she nuzzles and babbles to him like a baby, begging him to favor his living, beautiful wife over this dead, ugly witch, whom she accuses of coveting Aud’s youth and beauty. After a great deal of arguing and flirting, Finnward relents, although he is worried about the cost of his perfidy.
The bedsheets are saved, and Thorgunna’s nude corpse is wrapped up and laid on a cart to be taken to the church. At nightfall, with miles left to go, they stop to seek shelter at a friend’s house. He apologizes for having no meal ready for them to eat, but offers them sleeping quarters, and they lock the body in a nearby shed.
Not long after they go to sleep, however, a terrible noise of clattering dishes is heard, and a slave who is sent to investigate reports that a tall, fleshy, nude woman is aggressively making a meal in the kitchen. Terrified, Finnward peers into the room, and sees Thorgunna stumbling and muttering to herself – though no less dead. He tries to pray, asks for forgiveness, and eats the meal that she lays out for him as if in penance.
All is normal in the morning, but Finnward is distraught: his heart is torn between his fear of the dead woman and his fear of his living wife, but after a terse argument with Aud, she convinces him to disregard the “first walking” of the Waif Woman, and to let her keep the bedsheets after the body is delivered to the church for burial.
When they return home, however, her appetite is not sated: she confiscates the contents of both chests, rejecting her husband’s reprimand for disobeying Thorgunna’s bequeathment to their daughter. Aud argues that the clothes are wasted on a young, slip of a girl, when they could grace Aud’s full figure. Nonetheless, once Aud gets her way, she rarely wears any of her new goods, being somewhat afraid of her husband’s growing hatred and very afraid of Thorgunna’s prowling ghost. Instead, they lie untouched in their chests.
This changes one night, though, when Finnward climbs into bed in the dark and is terrified to realize that the unfamiliar sheets touching his skin must be the ones from Thorgunna’s deathbed. He rouses Aud and demands that she explain why she would put these on their marriage bed. Aud has no regrets: they have been washed, she claims. And yet Finnward notes that the cold, creeping feeling in his bones was the first symptom of Thorgunna’s deadly illness. But his death will come in a different manner: the next day he is drowned in a fishing accident.
Aud is saddened by this, for she “liked Finnward well enough,” but she is “cheered” by the thought that she could easily win a younger, more handsome husband with the help of Thorgunna’s lovely clothes.
She puts them on after Finnward’s burial, but her daughter, Asdis, is disgusted by this and begs her to cease wearing them and – if possible – to burn them just as Finnward had wanted to do. When Aud reminds her that she will inherit the clothes, Asdis declares that she will destroy them.
Aud is seriously annoyed and chides her daughter for being simple like her father, asking what makes her feel so comfortable judging her own mother. Asdis admits that she saw her mother steal the brooch on that fateful night, and urges her mother to reconsider her the state of her conscience and the fate of her soul.
This enrages Aud, who tearfully accuses Asdis of not understanding her decisions. Even if the dead should rise, she claims, she will not give up the possessions that she worked so hard to claim – much less destroy them for no one’s benefit.
Winter comes soon, and with it word that the same company of young men is en route to the town and eager to dine with Aud. She is delighted and pores over her clothes to select the best possible outfit until “her heart melted with self-love.”
She imagines flirting with the hunters and ponders which one will make the best husband. Then her thoughts briefly return to Finnward “in his cairn on the hill.” She shivers at the thought, but thinks to herself that – although Finnward was a good husband to her at the time – he is but “an old song now.”
She slithers into Thorgunna’s old sheets and giggles as she pictures herself at the party tomorrow, but her laughing does not stop, she finds herself trembling with a strange palsy: “she shook awhile with laughter; and then the mirth abated but not the shaking; and a [shudder] took hold upon her flesh, and the cold of the grave upon her belly, and the terror of death upon her soul.”
Suddenly, she hears a voice in her ear whispering: “It was [just] so [when] Thorgunna sickened…”
Three times during the night the waves of cold overwhelm her body, but she makes it to the morning alive, and goes on preparing for the banquet. It is all for nothing, though: as she sets up the festivities, her servants and children look strangely at her, and she shuffles weakly through the feast with all eyes on her for all the wrong reasons as her face grows more haggard and her teeth chatter in her head.
Her final thoughts are of Thorgunna’s words: “the things are for no use but to be shown...” They will not save her life. The party is a disaster, and she slinks back to her bedroom, envelops herself in Thorgunna’s sensual sheets, and turns her face to the wall…
In the darkest hours of the night, Asdis comes to her mother’s room to see if she can assist her. She finds that her mother is dead, but not alone: Thorgunna – huge and naked – is squatting on the bed with her. Her lips are moving, as if to a song, and her hands are waving to imaginary music, but no sounds come from her mouth.
“God be good to us, she is dead,” Asdis says to herself.
“Dead...” Thorgunna replies as if to affirm the executed sentence.
Asdis asks if the curse has been lifted then, but the crouching ghost only remarks that the curse will be gone when the “sin is done.” With that, she disappears.
The next morning, Asdis and her brother commit all of Thorgunna’s clothing, linens, jewelry, and even the wooden chests to a raging bonfire. And, so they say, the curse was lifted…
It is a pity that Fanny Stevenson was so repulsed by “The Waif Woman,” because it is truly one of her husband’s great supernatural tales, combining elements of “Thrawn Janet” and “The Body Snatcher” – specifically the ideas of a witchy-woman returning as a revenant and of an unethical parasite being hounded by the ghost of one from whom they have leeched ill-gotten gain.
As he neared the end of his life, Stevenson’s confidence in his literary abilities was nearly shot, and although at one point he angrily chided his publisher for not including the admittedly out of place “Waif Woman” in the South Seas themed Island Nights’ Entertainment, he dropped his defense for the story when his wife criticized it for reasons which were never clarified, though there is speculation that she considered it a weak plagiarism. The unattractive portrayal of a materialistic wife doesn’t seem to line up with Fanny Stevenson, at any rate, who was content to live a bohemian lifestyle, but the protest that she raised nearly obliterated the tale from history until its rescue in 1914.
Regardless of its very clear status as an adaptation of a folktale (Howard Pyle did no worse with his Merry Adventures of Robin Hood nor the Grimms with their fairy tales), the story has a uniquely Stevensonian ending. In the original, the covetous wife (named Thurid, not Aud) comes to her senses after losing eighteen members of her household, and has the bedclothes buried and anointed with holy water to end the haunting.
But Stevenson is not so forgiving: he closes his tale with the toadlike Thurgonna squatting over the stricken body of Aud, passing a word of warning onto the as-yet virtuous daughter: learn from your mother; she did not get a second chance, and if you follow in her green-eyed ways, you too might lose everything dear to you. It is also worth noting, as we close this book, a theme which Thurgonna reiterates throughout the tale: wealth is so often only worth looking at – it is not practical or useful or caring or relatable or huggable or kissable or warm or tender or comforting or tangible or kind or patient or fleeting or even precious.
A silver broach is good just for pulling out of a drawer, turning it over, and folding it back up in linen. A husband, however old or unattractive, is far more precious than silver. A soul that resonates with other souls is far dearer than damask sheets. Wealth, Stevenson continues to thump on his humanist pulpit as he approached death, is pointless. It leads to distraction, self-absorption, and loss. In the end, Aud is not haunted by a vengeful queen, but by the specter of her own naked mortality.
It is noteworthy, is it not, that Thurgonna has the very unusual feature of being a nude ghost? While this may allude to the threat of her timeless sexuality, which – in spite of her age – seems to allure the village men, Stevenson does not work very hard to highlight the attractiveness of his disrobed ghost. Instead, he uses this stitchless specter to remind Aud that – as the saying goes – “you can’t take it with you.” Scratch away at material happiness – claw and bite and struggle if you must – but at the end of your life, you may find yourself dying alone, stricken by the horror of what you have lost for the sake of petty baubles, and what you have gained at such a steep price.