An interview with Tolkien“s Icelandic au-pair

The interview appeared in Morgunbladid 1999 and the lady in question, named Arndis
but known as 'Adda', was a doctor's daughter from the West Fjords, who
went to work with the Tolkiens when she was twenty, in 1930. She got
the job because the Tolkiens had two mothers' helps from Iceland
previously, Aslaug and Runa, and Aslaug had been a classmate of
Adda's.


Tolkien collected her from Oxford station and greeted her in Icelandic.
She then talks about her working conditions – she was meant to be one
of the family, but she never had a holiday. The youngest of the
children (presumably Priscilla) was in her second year.
She says that the Professor was a really lovely man, very easy and
comfortable to be around, he loved nature, trees and everything that
grew. The house they had just bought had an asphalt tennis court and
the first thing they did was rip it up and put down grass. This is an
example of how JRR and Edith hated modern things – another thing they
both hated was central heating and boilers.


Edith loved flowers, and not only had splendid flower beds in her new
home but kept going back to the old one to get plants.
Adda puts this down to English upper class eccentricity – the Tolkiens
she says, loved flowers and writing letters. She has lots of letters
from them, including decorated Christmas cards from the Tolkien
children.


The oldest son, Johnny, was now 14 and in the new house he had his own
room. The rest (including Adda) kept themselves to the nursery. The
lady of the house (Edith) had a difficult nature, she wasn't sociable
and disliked most people.


Then Adda talks about how she was meant to come there to learn English
and help Tolkien practice Icelandic but Edith got jealous if they
talked in a language she didn't understand. "She was never unkind to
me, but she was never a friend either. And she was very
over-protective."


Adda says Oxford was at that time completely class-ridden – professors
were a class unto themselves. Edith was also a snob – when the char
(cleaning lady) went awol for a fortnight, Edith was furious when Adda
decided to wash the doorstep. "You're one of us, you must never be
seen doing work suitable for servants."


The Tolkiens rarely if ever entertained, and Adda was not impressed
with their hospitality..."once a couple who were old friends, just
back from many years in India, called round and they hadn't seen them
for years, but just gave them tea in the morning room, with only one
cake!"


Adda thinks that Tolkien was much more sociable by nature than Edith.
She got to know Edith's lovely old nanny, a Miss Gro (? not sure they
got this name right) who joked that Edith would always have a migraine
whenever there was a university 'do'. Miss Gro also explained why
Edith was so difficult – she blamed their traumatic courtship years.
They faced opposition for years and ended up having to practically
elope. They had stood firm together against all the odds, even though
they may not have had much in common.


Adda said Edith spent a lot of time upstairs during the day but didn't
know what she actually did. She was a very promising pianist at the
time when she married, had become an organist in a church. There was a
parlour in the house which no-one ever went into, there was a piano
there but Edith never touched it. None of the children learnt an
instrument.


Whenever Tolkien had had a drink or two he was not allowed to sleep in
the bedroom, he had to go into the guest room. She couldn't stand the
smell of drink on him. Tolkien was a lovely, comfortable man, didn't
talk much. He always came home to lunch every day, and went into his
study after the meal. He would have a bottle of beer and a dry
biscuit.


Adda was very fond of the children. She took them fishing in a nearby
canal, put them in the bath every night and put them to bed, they
loved to hear Icelandic folk tales about trolls and such, and often
Tolkien would come and listen too. "He took lots of ideas from
Icelandic folk stories...and he really believed that all of nature was
alive. He lived in a kind of adventure/fantasy world."
Adda still loves reading the Hobbit (which he started writing at the
time she was working for him).


Tolkien always wore a tweed jacket and pale grey trousers, but loved
to wear colourful waistcoats. And he always wore white tie (tails) at
the Oxford dinners. He always wanted to go to Iceland but thought he
couldn't afford it.

Adda eventually left because of the restrictive life she was forced to lead.
She got friendly with a girl called Betty, one of Tolkien's students,
who invited her to go punting but Edith never found it convenient to
let her go, even on a Sunday.


Edith once showed Adda her wardrobe upstairs, it ran along an entire
wall and was completely full of clothes. But she never went anywhere
at all, except perhaps to the library.


She sometimes did go with me and the older boys to a matinee
(afternoon theatre performance). The Tolkiens thought the theatre an
acceptable leisure activity but hated the cinema, and they really
hated the Morris car factory that had been recently opened south of
Oxford.


John, at 14, was most like his father. Edith stopped Adda from bathing
him. (editor's note – I should hope so too!) Michael, the next son,
was such a beautiful child, that people would stop his mother in the
street to admire him. His mother wanted him to be a priest.
Christopher was often squabbled over by his parents. He was a rather
whiny child, fussy with food. But his father adored him and realised
that he needed different handling than the others. Tolkien had started
writing the Hobbit while I was there but was really writing it for
Christopher, reading him out chapters.

She then says that she had close contact through letters with the
family until the war disrupted the correspondence.

The interview in Icelandic can be found here.

Vištališ į ķslensku hér.


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