FPLG2Photo: Stefan Jonasson
My name is Betty Jane Wylie, and I am a second-generation Icelandic Canadian. We are called Western Icelanders, people whose roots go however far back, who left Iceland for the Western world. My maternal grandparents left toward the end of the 19th century, about the time that Hekla erupted, leaving people with less land to live on than the sheep they tended. Petur was 24 and Sigga 17 when they met and married in Winnipeg and moved first, briefly, to Saskatchewan where they didn’t like the water, and then to Gimli on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba where they settled and raised a family, eight children, two of whom died as children.
My mother Inga, the fourth child and second girl, was the first of the family to marry outside the bloodline. Born in Winnipeg, raised in Gimli, educated in Winnipeg, she must have expected an easy transition. Her husband was a medical doctor, an Irish Canadian Roman Catholic, whose family were United Empire Loyalists who emigrated from the new, fledgling independent country (the United States of America) to the British colony in Canada. He was very proud of the fact that I was six generations Canadian (North American) on his side.
My Icelandic grandparents gave Jack and Inga, my parents, a summer cottage as a wedding present. That´s important. I spent the first 12 years of my childhood avoiding polio in that summer home in Gimli among my Icelandic relatives. I learned more than I could possibly have known, including the details I have reported, except the artesian wells. I loved them. I’ll have to write about them sometime later. 

I have always loved words
My first visit to Iceland was a pitstop to refuel on a return prop flight from England. It had been a theatre tour, the first time abroad for me – us – now married with two children. We ran out of money before we went home to Winnipeg and ended up staying for a couple of days in Sussex with my husband’s Uncle Matt. We named our fourth child after Matthew Tennent.
Keflavík Airport was not uppermost in my memory, but I count it as my first trip to Iceland, the first of five. Other influences were having their effect. It wasn’t history or family or geography that pulled me in. It was words and language.
By the time I was 17 years old in third-year university, at the University of Manitoba, I had signed up for five years in double honours English and French for my Bachelor of Arts degree. One of the English professors, whose specialty was Old English, had recently married and she was being let go – you would say unfairly – because two people in the same family in the same department in the same university were not acceptable then and never had been. Also, now that she was married, she didn’t need the money anyway, because her husband could provide for her. That was the custom. Before she was gone, the course she taught in Old English was made available to students who had signed on for the five years and would presumably go on for a master’s degree. That included me.
I love words. I have always loved words. And I loved the words in the strange language I had the privilege of studying. Not so strange, as it turned out.
My Icelandic grandmother, my mother’s mother, died that year. I went to her funeral in Gimli with my family. Before the funeral in the church, a private ceremony was conducted in my grandparents’ home and the minister spoke in Icelandic. Somehow, although I had never learned Icelandic, I understood him. I remember particularly the world dryten, so like the word drottinn, meaning Lord. At this point I can’t remember which word was Icelandic and which Old English.

Modern poetry and old sagas
I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree and went on to study for a Master of Arts, but with a surprise venue and a change of focus in my studies. I stayed on at the University of Manitoba because my future husband proposed marriage to me on the evening of the day I received application forms to attend Columbia University in New York. I was 19 years old.
My father protested. I was too young, he said, and I – he – had always planned on me getting my MA. He pointed out that it would be good insurance for me in the future to have that degree. (He was so right!) I stayed, not because of my father’s excellent advice, but because I was in love. I could not go away to study. If I did, I knew I would not marry Bill Wylie. We would be strangers by the time I returned.
I changed my study plans. I wanted to choose the best minds available to me and the most challenging subjects. So I opted for 20th-century poetry as my major, and Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse as my minor, with Chester Duncan as my advisor, backed by John Peter. For my major in 20th-century poetry, I wrote my thesis on W.H. Auden and I read everything he had written thus far in his immensely productive, creative life, plus the work of his contemporaries, like T.S. Eliot. It was a golden time for modern poetry.
For my minor, I translated Beowulf again, first encountered in my third year, and also the saga The Story of Burnt Njal. That’s all I will say about my degrees.
Don’t leave me yet. All this background is relevant to my emergence as a dedicated Icelandic Canadian. I am awash with memories now and I am protecting you from a deluge.
I said I read everything W.H. Auden had written – that is, published – still early in his career. The staff in my university library and the international library network tracked down and lent me copies of his most recent publications in journals and academic magazines and literary newspapers. I thought I knew everything about W.H. Auden, but halfway through the semester the English Club invited me to speak about him. That’s when I learned that he was homosexual – still a deep, dark secret – though Auden was open about it. And it wasn’t until he died, and I read his obituary, that I discovered that his birth month and day were the same as mine.
By this time, you may begin to sense the reticence, to put it mildly, of the era I lived in. I had led a sheltered, pampered, private life and the people around me had also led sheltered, pampered, private lives. The world I grew up in changed enormously to become the world I live in now. I try to keep that in mind. You should, too.
So there I was in 1952, married just 17 days after I graduated with my new MA and year-old BA, smart as all get-out, but with no real comprehension of the world. Still, I was protected by my narrow education. I have mentioned that, to my knowledge, I had read everything Auden had published, thanks to the university library system and to my father’s generosity, which enabled me to buy the published books, with one exception. One book was out of print and impossible to find. My then-fiancé found a copy in a secondhand bookstore. It was my favourite Christmas present that year and it turned out to be one of the most important books in my career. Later, I bought a new copy in Iceland, newly published in 1966.

Letters to Icelanders
Fast forward past many changes in my life. My husband died in 1973, and I was dependent on my Widow’s Allowance and what I could earn as a self-proclaimed professional freelance writer. I took a three-week excursion to Iceland. There were no regular flights from Canada to Reykjavík then. This trip was exclusive, known only to Western Icelanders, which included residents of Gimli and their relatives, like me. 
I guess I wanted to connect with my roots. Later, I noticed in the years following Bill’s death that three of my children made their separate ways to Scotland to meet Bill’s side of the family. I took Matt there later when I could afford it. In the meantime, I had to make a living for the five of us.
Faber and Faber had recently published a new edition of Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. I found it in Reykjavík and bought it with great delight. It was unchanged from the original, first edition, except for a new introduction by Auden. Over the course of my trip, I decided on my next book (I had begun to publish books) and I knew my title: Letters to Icelanders. I sold the idea to Key Porter Books and had a contract, but it was sold along with other goods and chattels to Macmillan before it was bought by the next publisher, CDG Books, who had no idea what they were getting. In fact, they tried to remainder it before it was published, but failed, thanks to my contract. I won’t go into other details of neglect. The first edition sold out with no hint of a second printing. So I bought my contract – for one dollar, all rights returned. Remember that.
It was thesis time all over again. This time I wrote an epistolary report. Auden and MacNeice wrote Letters from Iceland. I wrote Letters to Icelanders (CDG Books, 1995). The Icelanders were Western Icelanders, my family and connections. Most of them knew more than I did, but I knew different things, and learned more. We keep on learning, as long as we go on.
Now I am a member in longstanding of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto (ICCT). I have managed to make a living as a writer but not enough to make a significant gift in honour of my ancestors. For several years I served as editor of the newsletter published by the Icelandic National League of North America (INLNA), that is, as editor, reporter, copy boy, proofreader, financial manager (not hard; there was no money/budget). I learned how much people cared about their roots.
I thought of a way I could make a gift.
I gave ICCT my copyright to Letters to Icelanders. They could copy, reprint, and publish a second edition and sell it as a fundraiser. I felt apologetic that it was so much work for them, but they did it and the book is now for sale. I hope it does them good. I hope you all enjoy it.

This memoir of how Letters to Icelanders came to be was written at the behest of Linda F. Sigurdson Collette, who recently helped to facilitate Betty Jane’s donation of a selection of her books to the National and University of Iceland Library. Betty Jane was awarded the Joan Inga Eyolfson Cadham Award by the Icelandic National League of North America for her literary contributions.