That thing called ‘voice’…

Only two things have grown in my garden this summer, because of the unlimited buckets of rain and other delights–and that’s slugs and weeds.  And whilst I did get out today to begin to rectify at least the latter of those…

That wasn’t destined to last.  Because it came on to–yes, you guessed it–rain.

So instead, I finished a journal of a Russian cavalry officer who fought against Napoleon, got stuck into a new book on the Leipzig campaign (with really cool maps–I love maps…)  And stewed. 

About a thing which has been driving me abso-flipping-lutely bonkers for some time now. 

Actually, I wasn’t going to say anything about it, because I fancy it may be one of those touchy subjects, but then I read a thing Julian Fellowes said recently American actors:  “I think Americans are wonderful film actors – the best in the world – but they are a very contemporary race and they look forward all the time. There is something about period drama where they tend to go into a strange place called ‘Period’ where people wear funny clothes.

“Whereas I don’t think our actors do that; they make it very real and that is, with something like we’re doing, very helpful. The cast is so much the main reason for its success.”

Apologies if there are those of you offended by Fellowes’ remarks.  (If you’re going to be cheesed off by comments on this blog, I’d prefer it if they were my remarks, not some other blokey’s…)

But anyway, his comments reminded me of this thing that’s really been annoying me.  And that is authorial “voice”. 

Now this can be a pretty tricky subject, especially for those who write historical fiction. 

I mean, there are the obvious problems if your chappie actually spoke mediaeval French or Aramaic or 16th century Hungarian–such as who knows what the heck they sounded like, how and if they expleted, and all of that…But at least we know that we can only recreate–at best–a sense of how they expressed themselves and how they thought.  If that.

Obviously, when one can read the other languages, that can and does provide the author with a clue to a nationality’s modes of thought.  And that can be translatable into the modern vernacular–one can give a sense of their speech and thinking, just dropping in a phrase here, an oath on the Virgin Mary there…that kind of thing.

And I’ve become very interested myself in how German literature of the early 19th century conveys a sense of respect for family members which, even in English writings of the same period, is wholly lacking.  Words or epithets such as ‘most respected’ or ‘most precious’ frequently appear before the words “mother” or “father” or even “brother”. 

And this in turn communicates a sense of the hierarchy of the society, their terms of reference and endearment, the manner in which age and position was treated with deference, and the use of such phrases and words can convey so much about that society when used well and effectively in historical fiction.  It literally can speak volumes.

There’s the syntax as well.  Change English syntax into French syntax, even whilst still writing in English, and suddenly, your character is thinking like a Frenchman.  Add garlick and onions as the old caricature would have it…et voila, l’homme est absolutement un vrai francais, n’est-ce pas? 

Shakespeare was a marvel at capturing the differences in the various nationalities of these Isles through the vagaries of their speech and syntax and expression–read Henry V and see if you don’t agree with me.

But today, the problem with English, it seems to me, is that everyone believes they speak it and furthermore that they speak it well.  And here, I’m talking about the Queen’s English…or even more so, Austen’s English. 

And frequently there’s this sense–where it springs from, I haven’t a clue–that Austen’s English, particularly that used in Drawing Rooms, was this coy, simpering, contrived hybrid of a language, and too many authors attempting to create an early 19th century atmosphere lay this stuff on with a trowel–the pages of their prose all bestrewn with verbal antimacassars.

Yet curiously, in all of Austen’s works, there are really only two or three characters that I can recall who qualify as coy or simpering.  And they would be that prinking man-bait Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility and possibly Mary and Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion

But here’s the thing–these characters are obviously figures of contempt.  Austen writes them with that arch voice to highlight the appallingness, the falseness, the conniving-ness of their characters.  It’s not a compliment!  She’s not intending for us to want to emulate them.  She’s working hard to make the skin crawl off our backs and head for the door. 

So why oh why do modern authors seek to mimic that voice? 

Not only is it teeth-curling, but if it sounded phony 200 years ago, you may believe me when I tell you that today it comes across like aural root canal. 

(Breathe, Bennetts, breathe…In…and out…in…and out…)

Yes, I know Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote ‘arch’ dialogue in his very successful comedies–but he was writing satire!  Biting satire at that.  And people aren’t named things like Sir Benjamin Backbite or Snake or Lady Teazle in real life.  Those are caricatures!  They wander among the pages of Restoration comedies and nowhere else.  (Okay, yes, Dickens used funny names too–but he was a genius!)

(More breathing exercises here…)

Let me explain by giving you example.  Many years ago I knew a person who was dead-keen to be the next Dickens or George Eliot, or maybe it was Mrs. Gaskell she was hot to emulate.  Anyway, she wrote what she believed was how they wrote and to check for the veracity of her ‘voice’ she’d read her stuff aloud to her children in what she believed was a British accent.  (She was from somewhere in the western US, I think…) 

Now, I am NOT saying that Americans cannot ‘do’ a British accent here.  They can.  Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon are both cracking actresses and both of them have turned in top of the trees Englishy English performances.  Anne Hathaway?  Not so much. 

Where was I?  Oh ya, reading in a false Brit accent. 

Well, I was given a sampling of this performance and all I can say is I’m lucky my eyes didn’t pop out of my head.   To say that it sounded false or forced or frightening may give you a sense of the emotional turmoil it engendered.  My jaw most certainly required wiring, I can tell you–for it had been swinging in the proverbial breeze throughout.  (And yes, that Youtube video of the Austen/Costume Drama rap does skitter across the recesses of my mind here.)

So, what are any of us to do?  I would say, keep it real.  Keep it genuine.  If you can’t get it out of your mouth without sounding like a numpty, then don’t use it.

The good guys in Austen talk straight from the heart.  And they’re not necessarily that prolix either; they don’t beat around the mulberry patch.  Think Captain Wentworth. 

“I can listen no longer in silence.  I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach.  You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope.  Tell me not that I am too late…”

There’s an amazing rhythm and directness in that speech, isn’t there?  A forward drive, which perhaps signifies that Wentworth is above all a man of action. 

(Obviously, the good guys in Mrs. Radcliffe are a different matter…)

But this is surely one reason why Persuasion reads so well, still after 200 years.   Because there’s nothing prissy or arch about the main characters, or even most of the secondary characters.  Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law are direct and lovely; ditto the Musgroves. 

And that, I do believe, is the voice we’re meant to hear.  That is the voice we should be striving to emulate.  We should be aiming to write dialogue that reads naturally, honestly.  Yes, absolutely we can pepper it up with the language or slang of the period–but that’s got to be used wisely and sparingly.  Otherwise, we stray into the danger of writing caricature…

Yes, we do have the occasional toff who talks like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel or like Dorothy L. Sayers’ character, Freddy Arbuthnot.  In real life, they’re referred to as Hooray Henrys. 

There are very few of them about.  And yes, they do have girlfriends whom we refer to as ‘totty’ and who exclaim “Swe-et!” to just about everything.  (It’s a two syllable pronouncement with the first syllable being about an octave higher in pitch than the second.)  But I would suggest writing these successfully could be a difficult thing to pull off–most people wouldn’t believe it…

There’s another problem too–and that is archaic usage or vocabulary.  I avoid that too, within reason.  And I’ll tell you why.

In the King James Version of the Bible, there’s a bit in Acts during the conversion of St. Paul, where Christ said to him, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks…”

(I acknowledge that I have a smutty mind–let’s just get that out of the way now.)  So my first inclination upon reading that some twenty years ago was to think in great surprise, “What?”  But then I dismissed that idea, because that was just silly, wasn’t it? 

However, then, it kept me going.  What did that mean?  Were there some sort of stinging spiritual arrowheads poking at the guy or what?  (I have a very literal mind.  Or maybe I read too much C.S. Lewis as a child or something.)

It wasn’t until last spring, when I was reading the entire New Testament during Lent–but reading the J.B. Phillips translation–that I finally discovered what the pricks were.  First of all, they’re not mentioned in the original recounting of Paul’s conversion.  And it’s Paul himself who later mentions them when he’s telling King Agrippa about the event, later in the Acts of the Apostles.  And there he makes it clear.  He’s talking about the “pricking” of his conscience. 

Of course, it finally makes perfect sense! 

But you see my point, don’t you?  What may have been quite normal usage four centuries ago doesn’t mean quite the same thing nowadays.  It’s picked up some alternate connotations and definitions over the years.  So we–who are trying to recreate the atmosphere–need to be careful.

By all means, read the literature of the period, get a sense of their usage, work with it until it feels natural to you both in writing and in speech.  (Robert Low is grand at this, I think.)

But never forget that language is the window through which the reader knows each character’s heart and soul and mind.  That’s really all we the readers have to go on. 

And the bottom line is–and this is the case whether we accept it or not–we may believe we’re writing in a perfectly charming rendition of early 19th century natter, but the fact is, our readers have 21st century eyes and ears…and if it doesn’t work for them, then we’ve failed. 


11 comments on “That thing called ‘voice’…

  1. dwwilkin says:

    I’ve been reading a book recently, and recently published, which tries to emulate the language of Austen and the period. (I confess that I write slightly convoluted as well, with dashes of cant and Heyeresque slang in my novels.) But I have to agree with some of your post. What I am currently trying to get through uses those large words, and antiquated words, to push at you, and push at you. That if everyone talked so, then surely it was about saying nothing of substance ever unless it was hidden under layer after layer. (I’m seeing an allusion to the Princess and the Pea. I must truly be on my form if I actually can get it after wading through it, as the Princess could feel the pea with all those mattresses in between.)

    I think there is something to be said for those of us (even we Americans) who can get the story our and give it a veneer of period speech. And I have to believe that those who lived in such times as the Regency, were not so convoluted of speech that they talking in such a way as those 100 years before them, and 100 years after would not have been able to make sense of their discourse.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      David, as you know, a great deal of what I read comes direct from the early 19th century–journals, letters, newspaper reports, magazines–and that kind of overblown rabbiting on about nothing tends to be found on the pages of women’s periodicals, and usually in their serialised novels (which frankly are pretty nauseating…or hilarious, depending on one’s point of view.)

      I’m not saying that the politicians didn’t witter on–some of them did. It wasn’t unusual for a Parliamentary debate to go on for eighteen hours or more without a break. On the other hand, Parliament met very infrequently–possibly three months of the year–so that’s not as much blather as it sounds.

      The seriously circuitous writers though are mostly a product of the Victorian era as far as I can tell–and too many of them could talk for England. One often wishes to quote Shakespeare: “Peace, Mercutio, peace. Thou talkst of nothing…” Henry James, though American, founded his entire writing style upon such hypotaxis. Though E.M. Forster was clearly going for a gold medal in it when he wrote that thing about The Longest Story–it’s so crammed with endless witterings that as you’re reading the thing, you’d swear it keeps growing even longer.

      There is of course a place for the extended sentence with every clause under the sun. Joseph Conrad deliberated made his prose denser and denser as “The Heart of Darkness” progressed, so that even his prose became a metaphor for the impenetrability of the jungle.

      However, few of us might be considered in Joe Conrad’s league. I know I’m not. So if someone’s prose is that otiose, I would suggest it’s because they really don’t know their craft, they don’t know how to write better and perhaps they might wish to better acquaint themselves with the tools of the trade.

      But a final note: by the second decade of the 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was known as one of those inveterate bores who just would not shut up and in order to ensure his listener could not escape, he used to hold onto his coat-button. Hence the term button-held. On one occasion he was outflanked however, by Leigh Hunt, who upon having his button held for some minutes, finally removed a small pair of scissors from his pocket and snipped the button off and walked away. His is a lesson more of us should learn.

  2. Debra Brown says:

    To read a period novel in modern language is a complete waste of time to me. I never pickup a contemporary novel- apologies to those who spend years writing them. If I want to know a modern day story, I take a look at the people around me. And often, I don’t like what I see. Same with movies. More lousy lives going on. I think the period speech takes me off into an almost different world. It is not just the speech. It is the etiquette, the clothes and all. It’s an escape, I guess, to a time when I can pretend things were better. Though I do enjoy Dickens, who claimed they were not.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I don’t have a problem with period dialogue when it’s done well. I think the problem arises when authors imagine that ‘they’ spoke that differently from the way we do now. No, they didn’t have texting. And yes, I would prefer to read Shakespeare and John Donne to just about anyone. And in the hands of a master, the English language is the most beautiful thing on earth. But badly done period-speak makes my teeth curl.

      Dickens is an interesting one. Part genius novelist, part social reformer, and who can tell where the one leaves off and the other begins. The slums of London were as bad as he painted. Probably worse. And he probably softened those images because he wanted to get into print. He didn’t for example write much about child-prostitution which was booming under Victoria–no one would have published him. It was their big dirty secret. For a child sent down the mines or into the factories at age four, yes, I would imagine it was worse to be living 150 years ago. Which makes me immensely grateful for things like the NHS. But yes, as dreadful as all of it must have been, he still managed to turn out outstanding novels…

  3. Bob Stewart says:

    What you wrote was lovely and interesting and fun-filled. I really enjoyed your work.

    I had never heard that interpretation of that famous scripture. What you propose is an interesting thought and in light of the theme of your blog I’d like to suggest the following which is what I have understood for more than fifty years. The saying is a “farmer’s term” and since Paul was persecuting and killing Christians he was not following the Lord’s grand plan to save the world. Therefore he needed to be goaded in the right direction. He writes later on that what he did he did with a clean conscience.
    Thanks for your wonderful work and thanks to Grace Elliot for suggesting your blog. And finally, I speak with such a strong Southern accent I was once told by a friend that he hopes he’s never drowning and “you have to hollar help.”
    Bob Stewart

    Kick against the pricks.
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    This page is about the Bible quotation. For the Nick Cave album, see Kicking Against the Pricks.

    To kick against the pricks is a quotation generally held to be from the Bible which refers generally to being stubborn or resistant to authority to the point of self-harm and specifically to being resistant to the will of a god.[1] Luke reports that Jesus said it to Saul (later renamed Paul).

    And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

    — Acts 9:5 KJV

    During the time of Jesus, many people were farmers and used oxen to till the soil. A prick, or goad, was a pointed shaft sharpened to a point on one end, much like a metalworking prick. This was held up to an ox by the driver in such a way that if the ox turned in the wrong direction, it would get pricked. Sometimes an ox would attempt to kick the irritant away, which would only drive it in deeper.[2]

    The phrase likely did not originate in the conversation between Jesus and Paul; it is probable that it was part of the wider literary tradition of Greco-Roman civilization.[1]

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I had known for a long time that the whole ‘pricks’ thing was not in the original Greek. There’s in fact a great deal that the translators of the KJV decided to use to spice up the Bible passages, or perhaps render them clearer as they saw it.

      The whole kicking thing comes from Acts 26:14 where Paul relates, “…I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against your own conscience'” (Phillips Revised Edition).

      Very glad you enjoyed the post. Best–MM

  4. rappleyea says:

    *sheepishly raises hand as an American who can NOT do a British accent*

    My oldest and dearest friend is English – public school educated – and she regales me with English accents from the various parts of England and London. Even with her tutoring, I can’t do anymore than a word or two.

    On the subject of Biblical language, I have a wonderful book titled The Hidden Gospel by Neil Douglas Klotz, a Sufi and an Aramaic expert. In his book, he takes Jesus’s words back to the original Aramaic and then renders various translations. His point is that Aramaic is a very fluid, picturesque language, unlike the black and white of the Greek and English that those words were later translated into.

    Keep breathing…. 🙂

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha! I live here and I cannot understand the thick Geordie accent. Getting my face to make those sounds would be likewise impossible. Scouse is equally far beyond me. I mean, we’re talking an impenetrable wall here…

      When I was at St. Andrews, the grieve on the estate on which I lived was from Aberdeenshire and had one of the thickest accents I’d ever encountered. He also had only five teeth and mumbled. I generally understood one word in ten and chances were that that word was a Scots word which I wouldn’t know the meaning of…Happy times.

  5. […] Capturing Voice in Historicals: An interesting debate […]

  6. Spot on, M. M. Much as I love Heyer, she overdid it in some of her novels.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I cannot disagree, Maggi. Furthermore, she wrote the same male lead in book after book, and when at the finales the blighter starts getting coy and saccharine, it makes my teeth itch. (There I’ve said it.)

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