Jan 19, 2011

More Letters From Iceland

Letters from Iceland 1936, by Jean Young. Transcribed by Marion Agnes Harvey. University of Birmingham, 1992. 80 pgs.

Snapshots from a life: a lady scholar from England achieves her lifelong dream of visiting Iceland. We experience a summer of travel and hard manual labor first-hand, through her letters home. Just as we are getting to know her, she vanishes abruptly from our life, leaving us to wonder: was her boat home late? Did an Icelander accompany her home, to work in England? Did she ever return to Iceland? What were the basic facts of her life: when and where was she born, and when did she die; what were her successes in life, her significant relationships? I haven’t been able to answer most of these questions but--my wig!--it has been fun sharing these few months of 1936 with Jean Young.

Jean had an abiding interest in Iceland. Her post-graduate work dealt with Old Icelandic literature, and literary relations between Icelandic and Irish literature. Jean began to study Icelandic literature in 1921, but it wasn't until 1936 that she was finally able to visit Iceland in person. Her letters were published posthumously in 1992, and are readily available at  http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Young_Letters.pdf, complete with her sketches and photographs.

W.H. Auden published a book with the same title, written in the same year, but much better known. In one section of Auden’s Letters from Iceland, he and co-author MacNeice present letters “written” by Hetty, girl scout leader extraordinaire. While Hetty is imaginary, she was likely based upon Jean Young. While in the Snaefellsness area, Jean spies the rucksack of "Auden the Oxford poet!”,  catches up with him, and discovers he's producing a book on Iceland-- little knowing it will feature a thinly disguised version of herself.

Jean's letters aren't written with the care and literary panache of Auden and MacNeice's contemporaneous accounts, but hers weren't intended for publication or a wider audience. They do convey a very personal response to Our Favorite Homeland, and are written in a conversational manner. Her account features lots of slang, which makes it seem as though she is talking to us ('em, 'tho, 'cept, summat). In one of her earliest letters she exclaims, "I feel in my bones I'm going to love Iceland just as much as I thought I should!" Followed in short order by, "Oh, my wig how I love Iceland!"

Jean faces the daunting challenge that many others have: "it is a damn hard language." She takes the option that Bill Holm, E. Paul Durrenberger and countless others have: she elects to work on a farm.  First she goes to Arkvorni,  then travels a bit through Iceland, and finally goes to another farm, Fljótshlíð (near Thorsmork), where she works for an entire month.

Jean’s farm labor includes darning, cooking for a large household, emptying chamber pots, cutting hay, and caring for children. Oh, and washing: "... then I took several pairs of heavy socks down to the stream to wash under the waterfall medieval fashion on a flat stone with a wooden clapper." The job benefits? Riding some of the finest horses in the area, learning Icelandic, and discovering  a great appreciation for simple food after 15-hour days of manual labor.  Typical meals consisted of cold porridge, salted fish, potatoes, pancakes, and always coffee with sweet cakes.

When she has a few brief minutes free from labor, she takes time to write letters and read. When Jean meets Icelanders, her standard is: have they read Laxness? She comes to understand Independent People  " ... from within as well as from outside ... which, if you read, take with much salt." She also comes to believe that many of the farm women she encounters are like Salka Valka, the heroine of another Laxness novel.

Some of my favorite quotes from Jean’s letters:

I foresee that the oilskins'l be useful.
Dolorite forms itself into octagonal columns here--and here only in the world apparently.
No railing to prevent folk from throwing themselves in [Gullfoss].
It's the space and silence that are so marvelous here.
The sanitary arrangements are good ... just the cow shed but here it's goats!
How I'd love to see the sun shine again!

When Jean finally returns to Reykjavik at the end of August, she goes shopping and forgets to take any money with her. She hasn’t used or thought about money in over a month.

I did learn that Jean returns to her studies in Great Britain and eventually becomes Dr. Jean Young, the author/translator of books in at least three languages. But alas, though she had hoped to meet Halldór Laxness and ask to translate one of his books into English, that never transpired. Nor could I learn if she ever returned to Iceland.


Professor Batty said...

"Oh, my wig how I love Iceland!"

Now I know exactly what to answer when people ask me about it.

Rose said...

Boy Howdy, Batty, you ARE ready with the right phrase! People will look at you just like they look at me when I say ... Boy Howdy!