11) A Wayfarer in Sweden, by Frederic Whyte
I’m slowly working my way through the works of Frederic Whyte (1867-1940), who was both my first cousin thrice removed and and my second cousin twice removed. In this book, published in 1926, he writes about Sweden; he married a lady called Karin Lilva from Jonköping in 1916, and their only child, Henry, was born the following year. I never met Henry, though
So part of the interest of the book for me is the colour it brings to a few people who are barely even snapshots in the family album. Frederic Whyte writes of himself as being “Irish, though educated in England, and appreciative of England – on this side idolatry!” and as “a somewhat anglicized Irishman”. I certainly know that he spent most of his life in England before moving to Sweden when he married (when he was already nearly 50). He writes of childhood memories of “photographs of my father, a civil engineer in India, moving about on a trolley along the lines of the Bombay-Baroda and Central India Railway”, which is far more than I knew of his father, an earlier Henry Whyte, who was born at some point after 1829, married a Mary Comy or Comyn in 1859, and died in 1883 leaving two sons and three daughters, including Frederic. He writes a lyrically happy page or so about his own little boy growing up in Jonköping; the younger Henry Whyte would have been nine when the book was published, so about the same age when it was being written that my own little boy is now. My own middle name, incidentally, is Henry, as was my father’s, and his father’s.
The family history aside, I think this is an entertaining little book about Sweden. Karin, Frederic’s wife, contributes a couple of chapters, about the Gotha Canal and the region of Dalecarlia (now generally called Dalarna). But it’s Frederic’s writing that really shines. I come away determined that next time I go to Sweden I’ll do a proper tour – apart from passing through en route to Finland in 1990, and my Stockholm trip earlier this year, my only other visit was a very peculiar conference in Åre last year. Frederic doesn’t quite sell me on the northern mining districts, but he does sell me on Gothenburg, and by an odd coincidence I read the two chapters on the diplomatic mission of Bulstrode Whitelocke to the court of Queen Christina in 1655-1656 while waiting in a pub for a British diplomat friend to turn up.
It’s also not lost on me that I have lived in Belgium for almost as long as Frederic had lived in Sweden by the time he wrote this book, so part of its attraction is an encounter with a fellow expatriate. We are in somewhat different situations, of course – he married a local, whereas my wife is an exile like me. Also I’m not sure if he had a career beyond his writing – he must have, surely, since all but one of his books was published after 1925. I see that his son Henry published an article called “Glimpses into a Literary Workshop: Frederic Whyte” in a journal called English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, volume 33 (1990), pages 47-62. Must try and track it down.
One aspect of Swedish culture which I confess I had not really thought of at all before visiting the Nobel Museum in April, and which I have barely thought of since, is the writing of Selma Lagerlöf, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, the first woman and the first Swede to do so. (I confess I have not heard of any of the other Swedish winners either: Verner von Heidenstam, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Pär Lagerkvist, Nelly Sachs, and Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, the last two of these winning jointly in 1974 despite being on the award panel themselves.) Frederic Whyte is very big on Lagerlöf, devoting a longish early chapter to her hero Nils Holgersson and then coming back to her for a later chapter on touring her house in Värmland. My project of broadening my knowledge of Nobel laureates has so far proved more miss than hit, but it sounds like she may well be worth a try.