My window on the world is at 8.00 am on Sunday morning when I pick up the week’s parcels from an otherwise empty post office. This week’s favourite was “The Frisian Language and Literature” by Waterman Thomas Hewett (1879). A reproduction of the original book which is (I hope still) in the University of California library at Berkeley. It contains a copy of an evocative stamped page starting on 6 November 1953, lent again in 1958, 1966, 1972, 1985, 2000, 2003 and 2007. It’s a pleasing thought that as I beavered away in primary school with my round glasses trying to learn to multiply decimals, hair firmly held in place by a kirby grip, and then throughout all life’s later escapades that W.T. Hewett’s book has been slowly spreading the word about the Frisians.
I’ve thought from time to time when I’ve crossed the Netherlands and Niedersachsen that I should visit the area where Frisian is spoken, find a good Frisian bookshop and get myself a Frisian dictionary. But the thought has remained idle, despite my crossing unaware one of the two German Frisian-speaking pockets, the Saterland bog area around Cloppenburg as my ICE barrelled down from Bremen to Osnabruck.
North Frisian is also spoken in some coastal areas of northern Schleswig Holstein but the major Frisian speaking area is in the Netherlands, just across the Ijsselmeer and around the city of Leeuwarden. The language is strongest there (and has official and legal status in the Netherlands) but not sufficiently strong to avoid being classified as vulnerable by Unesco.
Frisian has been heavily affected by what are now the larger languages surrounding it – West Frisian by Dutch, Saterland Frisian by Low German and North Frisian by Low German and Danish.
This has contributed to making the various Frisian languages (or dialects, a point of contention for linguists) not readily understandable to one another, which has further weakened their status.
The fascination for an English language nerd (or aficianado) like me is that West Frisian and Early English (Anglo Saxon) were very close, probably greatly easing the work of Anglo-Saxon missionaries in spreading Christianity in the area.
The Wikipedia article on the Frisian language has an amusing quote in Frisian “Brea buter en griene tsiis is god ingelsk en goed Frysk”. We can also note here that Frisian like Early and Modern English has not adopted the hard German “k” for the word cheese but both have a softer “ch” (type) sound.
Apart from Frisian, I have been dabbling with another legacy reprint, Walter Raymond’s “Good Souls of Cider Land” (1901). His dates are 1852-1931, not far off from Thomas Hardy’s lifespan (1840-1928). Raymond had connections with the Yeovil area in Somerset (I believe there is a plaque in the library to him but I’ve never seen it). He is the closest that South Somerset has to Thomas Hardy, although not at all so famous (and not such a great novelist but I am prepared to forgive him much in my Nordic exile just to read the names of villages familiar from many a youthful cycle trip). It’s interesting to think about what Hardy does that Raymond lacks. Raymond‘s plots are weaker and he does not, of course, have Hardy’s eye (perhaps an architect´s eye) for landscape and the big picture. Raymond has the dialect and he does write a lot about flowers and plants (I´ve been meaning to re-read Hardy specifically with flowers and plants in view to see how much he does actually mention them – I’m curious about Hardy’s intellectual formation before his famous years and to what extent he was “country person” in detail as well as a precocious young intellectual fascinated by the wider world). Walter Raymond was very prolific and I have a number of his volumes waiting to be read. He’s been out of print for a long time.
Stumbling across this kind of person and doing some of the better Times Literary Crosswords (the ones that still focus on literature and not on verbal flashiness; ideal Kendall’s “doing” here should probably be written “trying to do” as far as Real Existing David Kendall is concerned), one quickly realises that the literary “canon” is just one of the stronger and more widespread ways of viewing the field. It does have to do with literary merit but also on a lot of other factors which attract the publisher to a particular author, sometimes overegging (poor hanged Tess keeps the momentum up for Hardy for not altogether good reasons). A large number of people in the nineteenth and twentieth century aspired to lead literary lives. Some were successful in their lifetimes and then gradually disappeared from the public view. Others briefly hauled themselves over the parapet of public attention, only to disappear.
The Powys brothers have just about held their own and stayed in print (I should distinguish them but I plead laziness). Walter Raymond has fallen on the wrong side but has been revived by one or two brave publishers. I have anyway done my bit by ordering three of his books twice, either through a computer glitch or through temporary nocturnal distraction (or perhaps by divine intervention of the God of Wessex, who has a soft spot for Raymond).