This affectionate tribute to her parents was first published by Astrid Lindgren in 1975, as the title essay in the anthology Samuel August från Sevedstorp och Hanna i Hult. Astrid Lindgren’s publishing house Rabén & Sjögren has published a new edition of the collection to mark the centenary of her birth. Lindgren’s parental portrait is accompanied by other childhood memoirs: “Minnes....” (Let us remember), inspired by a Harry Martinson poem; and “Det började i Kristins kök” (It started in Kristin’s kitchen), about the domestic storytelling and children’s classics that first fired Lindgren’s youthful literary ambitions.
Other essays in the collection include “Har boken en framtid” (Has the book got a future) – Lindgren’s answer is of course an emphatic yes – and “Litet samtal med en blivande barnboksförfattare” (Short conversation with a would-be children’s writer), which provides her tried and tested recipe for a children’s book that respects the child’s needs and does not fall prey to ephemeral social or publishing trends.
These autobiographical pieces are much quoted in the research literature that has sprung up around Lindgren's oeuvre, as they not only shed light on her regional roots but are also seen as keys to the inspirations and impulses behind many of her most enduring works of fiction for children. The translation that follows is an abridged version of the original essay.
I want to tell you a love story – not one I’ve read or made up, just one I’ve heard. Many times. It contains more love than any story I’ve read in any book, and for me it’s both moving and beautiful. But perhaps that’s because it’s about two people who just happen to be my parents.
It lasted a whole lifetime, this love story, and it began some time in 1888, when Samuel August from Sevedstorp, aged thirteen, right in the middle of an oral test in the parish cottage at Pelarne, where the children of the parish went to school, noticed the girl sitting next to the stove, the girl with the fringe, who was answering all the questions so well. Hanna was her name, she was nine years old and she came from Hult. Hanna from Hult, she was the one who caught Samuel’s attention. He’d seen her before, of course, but not like now.
“I saw you, and from that day on you were the only one in the world I had eyes for”; Samuel August couldn’t say anything like that, because he was just a farm boy in Småland, and didn’t know anything about poetry. But that was the way he felt.
For Samuel August, that particular test marked the end of school. And the end of sitting looking at the girl with the fringe. After that he was at home in Sevedstorp, working in the small stony fields there. Right up until the age of eighteen, when he had to go out to work as a farmhand. And he really did have to, because there were a whole lot of boys at Sevedstorp, and the farm wasn’t big enough to keep all of them.
The young farmhand went to work for his uncle, Per Otto in Vennebjörke. He earned 60 kronor per year, but had no duties during the winter months. During that time he took a course at the college in Södra Vi, and that was all the education from books he had throughout his entire life. Then he had to go back to being a farmhand again, reluctantly. It was a monotonous struggle, long, dreary days that were all alike. Except for one. One very special day. And Samuel August kept that day in his memory for as long as he lived.
It was a Saturday in August 1894. On that particular day Samuel August set out on a walk that was to determine the course of his life, although he only went home to Sevedstorp. It was a long walk, over ten miles, and he couldn’t set off until his work in Vennebjörke was done for the day. It got to be evening and then night before he arrived. One of his shoes gave him blisters as well, to add to his misery, so that he had to take off the shoe and walk with one foot bare. “And I wished so hard for a bicycle that it was a wonder one didn’t pop up out of the ground,” he said, when he told the story later in life.
But no bicycle popped up out of the ground. He had to carry on limping along as best he could, and it was twelve o’clock on Saturday night by the time he walked in through the door at home. His mother was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, but Ida in Sevedstorp was used to long working days, so there was really nothing remarkable about that. She was probably a little surprised to see her son appear in the doorway, and even more amazed when she found out why he’d come. He had heard from Uncle Per Otto that the farm tenancy at the rectory at Näs in Vimmerby was going to be vacant in the spring, and Uncle Per Otto had also said “I don’t know anyone it would suit better than Samuel in Sevedstorp, with all those boys of his”.
What did Mother think of that idea, Samuel August wondered excitedly. Mother thought that idea was completely insane. Where on earth would she and Father get the money for all the animals and equipment that would be needed on such a big farm, no, it wasn’t something they could even think about.
This made Samuel August very unhappy.
“Mother,” he said bitterly, “you don’t know what it’s like to have to work as a farmhand”, because his hopes of escaping a farmhand’s life and beginning to work for himself were going up in smoke – insofar as working on a tenant farm would allow him to work ‘for himself’, of course.
“Those words really struck home,” said Ida from Sevedstorp, my grandmother, when she talked about that memorable Saturday night later in life. And on the Sunday morning, when Samuel August’s father had woken up, she put before him the daring suggestion their son had made. Together they decided that Ida should go and discuss it with her father, Anders Petter Ingström in Tjurstorp. He was known throughout the whole village as a capable, enterprising farmer. But he had been a strict father when it came to keeping his many children hard at work. “Come on girl, you’re strong,” he said to Ida as she stood in the barn threshing at the age of sixteen. “You can do it,” he said when he made her pick up stones in the fields and build stone-walled enclosures until she swayed and had to hold on to something to stop herself from falling by the time the day’s work was over and she was due to go home in the evening. She had married when she was only eighteen years old, partly to get away from the relentless hard work at home. She hadn’t exactly exchanged this for an easy life; she gave birth to and brought up seven children, and ended up working most of the hours in the day, just as before. It really wasn’t at all unusual to find her on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor in the middle of the night that Saturday.
“If the boy thinks you should take Näs, then you should do it,” said Anders Petter when his daughter wanted to know what he thought.
Not that “taking Näs” was that simple. There were many people who wanted to move there. Blidberg, the priest, could choose whoever he wanted to be his tenant farmer. But fortunately the priest in Vimmerby also had to preach in Pelarne from time to time, as it was annexed to his parish, and so it came about that one Sunday after the service the priest was standing outside the church in Pelarne talking to the parishioners. And he took the opportunity to ask what kind of person this Samuel Johan Eriksson in Sevedstorp was, as he was interested in the farm tenancy in Näs, along with many others. The schoolteacher immediately said no, that would never work! Samuel from Sevedstorp was far too kind and gentle to be able to deal with farmhands, as the person who took on Näs would have to do. But beside the schoolteacher stood the churchwarden, Jonas Petter Jonsson from Hult, the father of the girl with the fringe, who was a gentle, amiable man, and he put in a good word for Samuel Eriksson from Sevedstorp – “Things usually go just as well for those who are pleasant when they’re in charge of people,” he said.
Those words that my grandfather on my mother’s side said in support of my grandfather on my father’s side did the trick. Blidberg obviously wanted a tenant who was nice. He took Samuel Johan Eriksson.
And on the 30th of April 1895 two ox carts left Sevedstorp with everything the residents of Sevedstorp owned in the whole world, which wasn’t a great deal. It was an unnaturally warm day, the oxen were panting in the heat, but it cooled towards the evening, and by that time they had arrived in Näs.
Samuel August, the twenty-year old, was perhaps the happiest of them all. He was the one who had made this possible after all, with his long walk and his blistered foot. And now he had reached the place where he would live and die – although of course he didn’t know that yet.
Samuel August had arrived in Näs.
“Let me first describe this rectory, situated in the country, the red-painted house lying so peacefully among chestnut trees, elms and linden trees, planted by a considerate hand around the estate, which was surrounded on three sides by orchards and kitchen gardens. The dwelling itself was a low building containing just the three rooms, living room and kitchen which at that time were allocated to pastors. The rooms were low and dark, but love and peace dwelt within them, and I’m sure the cheerful faces of four happy children could spread sunshine in darker rooms than these.”
This was a description written by someone who lived in the rectory at Näs long before Samuel August, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But the dwelling he mentions became the tenant farmer’s residence approximately one hundred years later, and it was to this house that Samuel August from Sevedstorp brought Hanna from Hult in the fullness of time – after which the cheerful faces of four more happy children would gradually begin to spread fresh sunshine throughout the old red house, filling it once again with love and peace.
But that was all to come. It was still only 1895, and Samuel August was twenty years old. The girl with the fringe, did he still think about her? The picture had probably faded somewhat, he had seen her so seldom in recent years, besides which they were now living in different parishes, which was unlikely to further the progress of any romance. But fortunately the priest in Vimmerby still had to preach in Pelarne sometimes, and it was one of the tenant’s duties to drive him there. For the most part it was the middle boy, Samuel August, who had to do this. And so he couldn’t avoid seeing Hanna from Hult from time to time, and perhaps also exchanging a few words with her. Nothing more was needed – “you were the only one in the world I had eyes for” – that was true now and forever. He probably had to make do with seeing her mostly in his dreams; in real life he saw her only rarely and briefly. Once he saw her when there was a book auction in Pelarne. She was keeping a record of the bids, because she had a clever mind and particularly beautiful handwriting. It was hot in the auction room. Afterwards she came outside to cool down, and stood in the doorway with glowing cheeks. “And my goodness she looked bonny,” said Samuel August, thinking back to the torments of his youthful love. He also recalled a summer party on the plain at Hultsfred as being somewhat painful, when he saw her come walking along in a blue dress that she’d woven herself. That could have been his opportunity, but she had “an impenetrable ring of Pelarne boys around her”, and Samuel August didn’t even dare to go anywhere near her. He just “felt dreadfully unhappy and wanted to go home”.
Samuel August was now twenty-five years old, and the right age to get married. But he had no hopes of Hanna from Hult. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that someone like her would take any notice of an ordinary Samuel August like him. Therefore he never revealed how he felt, he just felt “dreadfully unhappy” every time he saw her.
Otherwise Samuel August could probably have got married if he’d wanted to. There were plenty of busybodies who were more than happy to act as “matchmakers”, helping to pair off young people. One of them was desperate to marry Samuel August off to an unnaturally wealthy girl who lived a few parishes away, and who was keen to wed. This was a golden goose Samuel August really ought to go and take a look at, in her opinion. People said the girl had fifty thousand, yes indeed, and Samuel August agreed that he perhaps ought to take a closer look at her, in spite of everything. One Sunday he therefore climbed bravely aboard the train that would take him to this unknown girl who was interested in marriage. But he returned home that very same evening. Nobody was in greater need of fifty thousand than a poor farm boy who really wanted a farm of his own – such things were usually arranged among country folk through suitable marriages – and he walked towards his home along the tree-lined avenue at the rectory deep in thought. He has explained what he was thinking at the time:
“When I got to the beginning of the avenue, I remember that I was thinking: ‘Fifty thousand would definitely be useful ... but I’d take her for twenty-five thousand if only she were like Hanna from Hult.’ Then I went a bit further, and when I was about halfway along the avenue, I thought: ‘In fact, I’d take her for ten thousand if only she were like Hanna from Hult.’ But when I got to our gate, I thought: ‘I’d take her without a single öre, if only she were like Hanna from Hult’.”
She obviously wasn’t like Hanna from Hult, because Samuel August made no further overtures in that direction.
And then came the wedding in Gebo. Autumn 1902. I don’t know Per Johan and Hilda who were getting married, but I’ve always been so pleased that they did, and that they invited so many people to their wedding! Including Samuel August. And Hanna. The wedding in Gebo, that was when things really got going – or at least things started to happen a little bit. Hanna must have finally realized that Samuel August, who followed her with his eyes wherever she went, was in love with her, although he didn’t have the courage to say anything. And she suggested quite boldly that they should go out for a walk in the middle of the party. Samuel August was more than happy to go along with that idea. But he had some problems finding his hat, which was lying on a table in the entrance hall with lots of other hats that were almost identical. And then Hanna promised to stitch him a little monogram to put in his hat, so that he would be able to find it more easily at parties in the future. He had to regard that as a sign of encouragement, and floated around in a sea of bliss right up until ten o’clock that evening. That was the end of all the fun as far as he was concerned, because he had to drive the priest home – and yet his older brother was at the wedding as well, and could have done it just as easily. Samuel August fretted about that for a long time afterwards.
Then he stayed at home in Näs and waited. For the monogram and for God knows what else. November and December came and went, but no monogram! He wrote a postcard on the eve of Twelfth Night in 1903 – right in the middle of a party for the youngsters in Näs, he ran away from the celebrations and the guests and the whole thing to post this very important card to Hanna. “Many congratulations to Hanna from a friend,” he began, because it was her name day, and then he wrote: “Just wondering if the little monogram might be ready soon?”
A week later he got a card back with a little small talk about Christmas celebrations and this and that. And right at the bottom there was a clever question: “When will the hat be within reach?”
Samuel August had bought a whole series of ghastly postcards – which have all been kept – portraying a gentleman sporting a moustache politely flirting with a lady in a pink dress. He now began bombarding Hanna with these cards, hinting that he would very much like to be in the place of the gentleman with the moustache, provided the lady in the pink dress were Hanna.
And Hanna replied with similar twists and turns. But nothing else happened.
Until February 1903, when Hanna came to Vimmerby to learn how to weave even better than she already did – with a remarkable weaver by the name of Augusta in Alexnäs. And Samuel August bumped into her, into Hanna that is, quite unexpectedly one evening when he just happened to be in town. What luck! He immediately invited her to the Café Royal for tea, and this was the start of much tea-drinking and many walks for quite a long time. Long afterwards it emerged that neither Samuel August nor Hanna actually liked tea, but it was probably regarded as being slightly more refined than coffee, and they wanted to do all they could to make a good impression on each other. At any rate, it can’t have been anything else that made Samuel August drink tea voluntarily.
He probably didn’t even notice what he was drinking, actually, because during the whole of that time he was possessed by love – “it was as if I were actually ill”. Hanna was staying in town only until the first of April. Samuel August knew that if he didn’t manage to come out with what he wanted by then, it was all over. And if he managed to come out with what he wanted and got a no, then it was all over anyway. Whatever might happen, he just had to ask, there was no way round it. But evening after evening went by, Samuel August drank tea until he nearly choked, but he didn’t ask. With horror he watched the first of April approaching, but he didn’t ask. And so the first of April arrived, and the evening arrived, a cold, raw, sleety evening, and the following day Hanna was going home. For the last time Samuel August drank tea with her and for the last time he took her out for a walk. They walked and walked, and still Samuel August didn’t ask. But in the end he realized this was a matter of life and death. “However things turn out, I just can’t stay silent any longer,” he thought. And it really was the very last minute!
He had taken his beloved to the church park. There was a weeping ash growing there with a bench beneath it, and they sat down on that bench. On the first of April 1903 at eleven o’clock at night in a whirling sleet storm – oh, love, how right was the apostle who said that you conquer all and endure all!
Now at last Samuel August managed to force out his question.
“Do you think you and I might be able to live happily together?”
To which Hanna replied:
“God will be our strength!”
She came from a deeply religious home, and no doubt believed that they needed God’s help in such a serious matter. But her children have never really been satisfied with her reply to Samuel August. He might have needed, and deserved, a clearer response. But Hanna still wasn’t ready to say yes unconditionally. However, things were at the stage where Samuel August quite rightly referred to the bench beneath the weeping ash as “the place where the star of hope was lit for me”. He also got a kiss in the whirling sleet, their very first.
What about the monogram, though – what happened to that? Well, he got it eventually, and Hanna stitched it into his hat. Straight away. Samuel August stood beside her with matches, providing light and burning his fingers. Because it was a dark evening and their love was homeless.
It didn’t have a real home until 1905, and until then it had to keep going with letters and brief meetings now and then. Those letters have been preserved in a small square brown box, where they have lain now for seven decades. You could call them remarkable letters in some ways, bearing in mind that those who wrote them had only attended a little village school every other day for six years.