ÞORSTEINSDÓTTIR, TORFHILDUR (Holm), author and teacher; b. 2 Feb. 1845 in Kálfafellsstaður, Austur-Skaftafellssýsla, Iceland, daughter of Þorsteinn Einarsson, a Lutheran minister, and Guðríður Torfadóttir; m. 29 June 1873 Jakob Frederik Holm (d. 1875) in Skagaströnd, Austur-Húnavatnssýsla, Iceland; they had no children; d. 14 Nov. 1918 in Reykjavík, Iceland.
At age 17 Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir went to Reykjavík to study English and needlework. From there she travelled to Copenhagen to continue her education. On her return to Iceland she was briefly employed as a private teacher at Hnaus in Húnaþing and then she returned to Kálfafellsstaður. In 1873, a year after her father’s death, she moved with her mother to Höskuldsstaðir to stay with her sister who had married the Reverend Eggert Briem. That same year she married Jakob Holm, a businessman from Hólanes, but she was widowed two years later. She then returned to Höskuldsstaðir, where Briem’s sister Rannveig was staying at the time. When, in 1876, Rannveig decided to immigrate to the North-West Territories to join her husband, Sigtryggur Jónasson*, who would later be known as “the father of Icelandic settlement in Canada,” Torfhildur resolved to accompany her. She stayed with the couple in the colony of New Iceland, in what is now Manitoba, on an irregular basis for nine years. In 1885 she moved to Winnipeg, where she made a living as a teacher and a writer until 1889, when she returned to Iceland.
Torfhildur spent her first two years in Canada collecting and recording a large number of oral tales by Icelandic immigrants, which would be edited and published in Reykjavík in 1962. During her third year in New Iceland her first short story, “Tárablómið” [The flower of tears], was published in the newspaper Framfari [Progress] (Lundi [Riverton, Man.]) on 14 Aug. 1879. In Reykjavík in 1882 her first full-length work appeared: Brynjólfur Sveinsson biskup [Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson], a historical novel of 17th-century Iceland. A popular success, the novel was translated into several languages and a second edition was published there in 1912. It had been followed by other works published in Reykjavík: in 1884 by Sögur og ævintýri [Stories and tales] and in 1886 by Smásögur handa börnum og unglingum [Short stories for children and young people] and the novel Kjartan og Guīrún [Kjartan and Guīrún], based on the tragic love story of the two noted characters in the Norse-Icelandic Laxdœla saga [Saga of the men of Laxárdalur]. Her career as a writer coincided with that of the realists and, although romanticism runs strong in her works, realistic strains can be found as well, especially in her short stories. While many of these are fables and allegories, others portray real life and often have as their theme the education of women, which she sees as a basis for their liberation.
Torfhildur published no other works while in Canada. In fact, during her last four years in the west, when she was on her own and earning her livelihood as a teacher, she had fewer opportunities to write than she had had while living with Rannveig Briem and Sigtryggur Jónasson. In 1891, two years after her return to Iceland, she was awarded a pension by the government because of the quality of her work and also because she was the first established woman author in Iceland. The award gave rise to much debate, both in parliament and in the press, and consequently the amount originally granted was reduced and later included in her widow’s pension. In a letter dated about 1900, she commented that “I was the first whom nature condemned to harvest the bitter fruit of old, deep-rooted prejudice against literary ladies.” None the less, her literary output after her return was substantial. In Reykjavík in 1889 she published the novels Elding [Lightning] and Högni og Ingibjörg [Högni and Ingibjörg] and in 1890 a collection, Barnasögur [Children’s stories]. She also established and edited several periodicals: the annual Draupnir, 1891–1908, the monthly Dvöl [A short stay], 1901–17, and the children’s magazine Tíbrá [Mirage], 1892–93. In Draupnir she published her novels “Jón biskup Vídalín” [Bishop Jón Vídalín] and “Jón biskup Arason” [Bishop Jón Arason].
Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir Holm occupies a significant place in the history of Icelandic women’s literature as the first woman novelist and of Icelandic literature in general as the first Icelander to make a living as an author.
The collection of oral tales that Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir Holm collected in Manitoba was published as Þjóðsögur og sagnir [Folktales and stories], ed. Finnur Sigmundsson (Reykjavík, 1962). Some of her writings, including the publications mentioned in the biography, have been issued under the title Ritsafn [Collection of works], ed. V. P. Gíslason (3v., Akureyri, Iceland, 1949–50).
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Geneal. Soc. (Salt Lake City, Utah), International geneal. index. Björg Einarsdóttir, “Torfhildur Hólm (1845–1918): fyrsti íslenski kvenrithöfundurinn” [Torfhildur Hólm (1845–1918): the first Icelandic woman author], in Úr ævi og starfi íslenskra kvenna: erindi flutt í Ríkisútvarpið veturinn 1983–1984 [From the life and work of Icelandic women: a paper presented on the National Radio during the winter 1983–84] (3v., Reykjavík, 1984–86), 1: 104–25. Helga Kess, “Um konur og bókmenntir” [About women and literature], in Draumur um veruleika [A dream about reality], ed. Helga Kess (Reykjavík, 1977), 11–35. P. E. Ólason, Íslenzkar æviskrár frá landnámstímum til ársloka 1940 [Icelandic biographies from settlement until the end of 1940] (5v., Reykjavík, 1948–52), 5: 21. Hannes Pétursson and Helgi Sæmundsson, Íslenzkt skáldatal [List of Icelandic authors] (2v., Reykjavík, 1973–76), 2: 76. Kirsten Wolf, “Western Icelandic women writers: their contribution to the literary canon,” Scandinavian Studies (Menasha, Wis.), 66 (1994): 154–203.