“Why are these words spelled differently?” I asked my mother. Perhaps I found them in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Robert Lewis Stevenson, I don’t know. Told there was another country where they spoke our same language on the other side of the ocean, my mind took flight … What were the Britons like? If they spelled these words in this special way, what other magic and special things were happening over there?
The next year there was a girl across the street whose family was from England, and she spoke with an accent. I was charmed. All these strange expressions. “I couldn’t find it for looking,” and the “boot” and the “bonnet” on the car.
And the imagination of British writers carried me away. No one thought up books like the Hobbit or the Water Babies here in America. British writers, I determined, were better than American writers. I didn’t find anyone in grade school interested in discussing this, however, so I just thought it to myself.
My best friend in the first two years of college was an English girl, my high school chum was a ‘Kiwi’ — a New Zealander — and I loved the British English they spoke. A counselor in high school was British, too, and one day I was complaining and she told me that I had never had it tough, I was spoiled.
“What would you say was having it tough?” I asked.
“When the Blitz happened in World War II, we thought the Germans were coming ashore, and we women stood ready to defend our homes and our island with pitchforks and axes,” she told me.
I started laughing hysterically. I couldn’t picture the counselor, who by then was 50 something, I suppose, with red-dyed hair, waiting to pitchfork a German soldier to death as he tried to break into the family home.
She was, I suppose justifiably, disgusted by my response. “Well,” she said, “I won’t talk of matters like this to you anymore until you’re older and can behave more maturely.”
Well, she put me in my place, and now I can’t forget the story. Just one more example of superlative British storytelling.
My preference for British writing continued until I became an English major in college. And it was here, confronted with Twain and with Eliot and Pound, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, that I began to see the unique greatness of American writers. And at the most “literary” level, the British writing lost some of its appeal for me. Surely, I loved Coleridge and Keats, Yeats and Tennyson, but British Victorian essayists — the thrill was gone. Dickens was impenetrable; Jane Austin ? Not for me.
And so it stood, until I picked up Agatha Christie. I had always had a weakness for murder mysteries, but at Christie’s tale telling and her prolificity, I stook amazed. And while there was nothing truly difficult about her writing, that play with language, the creative flair with the turn of the words was there. I read five, ten of the novels … “this is scandalous!” I thought to myself. “You’re reading … serial literature!”
Be that as it may, I am still reading. I think I’ve read about 20 of them now. And as a result, I am back in England, that mythical country of my youth, where those intriguing people with their accents and their woolen clothes and their forests and fields and cities are still having magical adventures. English literature, it’s a treasure, and that’s all there is to say.