A while back I got a package in the mail that turned out to be a gift from my pal pf (long-time readers may remember his adventures in Siberia): a copy of the NYRB reprint of G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Edwards was born on Guernsey in 1899 and lived there until 1917, when he joined the army; he lived in England from the 1920s on and never returned to Guernsey, but in his mind he never left, and in his last years he was working on this amazing novel. It has no real plot, it’s just an old man rambling on about his life in an English strongly influenced by the Guernésiais (Guernsey Norman French, or “patois”) he grew up speaking, but the writing is so effective I find myself reading half the sentences aloud, and the stories he tells about his relatives and neighbors add up to a complex and often moving chronicle of island life in the days before modernization (which the narrator, and presumably the author, dislikes intensely). It actually reminds me quite a bit of Proust, except with fewer aristocrats and more farm animals (and if anybody’s wondering, in our bedtime reading—as mentioned in the thread that would not die—my wife and I have gotten to the last volume, and we’ll be looking for new reading material next month). It’s taken me longer to get around to it than it would have because my wife picked it up, started reading it, and refused to give it up. At first she said it was the strangest book she’d ever read, and then she said she didn’t want to finish reading it. But finally she did, and I got my chance at it.
The reason I’m impelled to write about it today is that I just hit a passage that I’m going to incorporate into my anthology of Good Attitudes to Language:
There was one thing [Raymond] was ashamed of his mother for, and that was the way she spoke English. He was everlastingly teasing her for saying ‘tree’ for ‘three’ and ‘true’ for ‘through’ and for not sounding her aitches and all the rest of it. I didn’t like him for that. It was partly Hetty’s own fault, because she had never let him speak in patois, from the days he went to the Misses Cohu’s School. She wanted him to grow up to speak English like the gentry. Well, he did speak good English; but he had a gift for words and I think would have spoken well in any language he set his mind to learn. I didn’t mind him being particular about the words he used himself, but he was fussy about the way other people spoke. I said, ‘It’s what a person say that matter. It isn’t how he say it.’
Of course, it is how he say it as well, but being well said isn’t the same thing as being said “correctly.”