Tuesday, 25 January 2011

To Contract or not to Contract? Historical Speech Patterns

I have been in quandary for some time about the issues of contractions in historical fiction. Do you use them or don't you?

Patterns of speech and vocabulary are one of the ways I try to give characters their own personality. A soldier might speak more directly and draw on battle and strategy for allusions; a school mistress might speak in more complex language and observe grammatical propriety. One character might drop nicknames like litter; another might always use someone's proper title. If I am writing well, I can see on the page which character is speaking with or without dialogue tags because they have their own distinct voice, a voice I can hear as though they are talking right to me.

In my work in progress Serendipity, the female protagonist is formal in her style of speech. She uses proper language and fewer contractions. Her brother, who is very informal, uses a lot of slang, oaths, contractions and nicknames. I didn't precisely plan it that way, that's just how they talk. The character I am struggling with is the main male protagonist (it's a fantasy historical), who having a life span of two millennia, would likely not be down with the speech patterns of the day. I write him quite formal, with no contractions in an attempt at neutrality but then he seems oddly stilted, which isn't his personality at all. Maybe that's a particular issue when writing fantasy mission. My male protagonist is from another world, a world that is very courtly and mannered. However, he's a poor fit for that world and besides, courtly mannered speak doesn't sing off the page for me.

I don't think this is an issue that I alone struggle with. Some authors are really good at dialogue, others not so good. I found myself putting down a book by one bestselling author this morning because I found the dialogue distractingly stilted, where as with other authors I will keep turning the pages because the dialogue dances along every line.

I think sometimes people writing historical romance – or historical fiction at all – are stuck trying to convey histori-speak. They want to capture a flavour of the period and to give their dialogue an authentic ring. The problem with this of course, is that we don't have many Regency heroines sitting around to chat to or to record - so how do we know what linguistic patterns and turns of phrase are appropriate?

Do we go for well written formal sentences peppered with cant from one of the many dictionaries which can be found online? Or do we try to make the dialogue sound natural to our ears? Where can we go for inspiration?

We do have primary sources of course. We have novels written in the 1800s, from Mrs Radcliffe's gothic romances to Jane Austen's mannered comedies. We have diaries, poetry, plays and letters. We even have speeches. The problem with these is that whilst they will give us a flavour for the vocabulary, they won't actually tell us how people speak.

Let's take Jane Austen for example. Here is an example of Catherine Morland's speech from Northanger Abbey:
"No, indeed, I should not I do not pretend to say that I was not very much pleased with him; but while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! the dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina's skeleton behind it."

The dialogue tells us much about Catherine. From this one snippet we can deduce she is impressionable, very imaginative and much addicted to gothic romance. However, Austen was reacting to her own cultural context. Northanger Abbey is well known to be a satire of the gothic romance tradition as exemplified by Mrs Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and that is reflected somewhat in the dialogue. Compare to Emily St. Aubert's language in Udolpho:
"Oh my dear father," said Emily, while a sudden tear started to her eye, "how exactly you describe what I have felt so often, and which I thought nobody had ever felt but myself! But hark! Here comes the sweeping sound over the wood-tops; - now it dies away; - how solemn the stillness that succeeds!"

Jane Austen may have been reacting to her own contemporary fiction, but she started a trend. Take this extract from Georgette Heyer's Arabella:
"Oh, yes! But it was much, much worse at breakfast! He would keep talking to me about the London scheme – teasing me, you know, about the giddy life I should lead there, and saying that I must be sure to write very long letters home, even if I cannot get a frank for them, for he would be so much interested to hear of all my doings!"

Note the plethora of exclamation marks! They are a feature in all three authors, particularly in female speech!
I am fascinated by the way culture shapes society and society shapes culture (and I'm not the only one: see the Teach Me Tonight Blog). I wonder if the popularity gothic romance helped to shape the way people spoke in the early 19th century, in the same way that Friends has impacted on the way people spoke in the early 21st century? Or was it a style of dialogue peculiar to fiction, which didn't relate at all to vernacular speech?

We have no real way of knowing. The closest we have to hearing actual speech is reading letters, diaries and memoirs of the time. Let us compare how Jane Austen writes when she is being herself (Letter to Cassandra, 24 August 1805):
"Our visit to Eastwell was very agreeable; I found Ly. Gordon's manners as pleasing as they had been described, and saw nothing to dislike in Sir Janison, excepting once or twice a sort of sneer at Mrs. Anne Finch"

And then recollected speech in the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson:
"Do pray, Fanny," said I, "cut your Mitchels. I vote for cutting all the grocers and valets who intrude themselves into good society."

Lastly, Lady Caroline Lamb writing of Lord Byron in a letter to Captain Thomas Medwin in 1824:
"I was not a woman of the world. Had I been one of that sort, why would he have devoted nine entire months almost entirely to my society; have written perhaps ten times in a day; and lastly have press'd me to leave all and go with him--and this at the very moment when he was made an Idol of, and when, as he and you justly observe, I had few personal attractions."

Although this is a tiny sample and thus can't be considered representative of the whole, it is interesting to see that the quality of the speech is different; it is certainly less exclamatory. However, with the exception of Caroline Lamb they are still relatively contraction-free.

Contractions were in use though. English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh attaches dates to use of contractions throughout history. A list is given here on Joanna Waugh's website. I'm left with two questions: how do we really know what dialogue is authentic? And does it really matter, as long as the dialogue sounds good to our modern ear, adds to the characterisation and doesn't distract from the story?

Personally, I think it is worth following the advice that Lapin gives to Anna Grazinsky in the incomparable A Countess Below Stairs: "One wishes only to suggest a costume." The dialogue should add to the story not distract from it and distractions for me include both awkward formality and anachronistic words and expressions. The best stories have, first and foremost, strong voices with a light dusting of period language.


Traci said...

Great post, and just the answer I was looking for, lol - I'm going to add the contractions in my medieval romance! It's too formal sounding otherwise

Meg McNulty said...

Glad it was useful! I'm glad you're writing a medieval - there are too few good medieval romances in the world. If you fancy a good compare and contrast, try reading one of Patricia Ryan's medieval's and then reading For My Lady's Heart by Laura Kinsale. Laura Kinsale does a fair bit of Medieval speak but not ye olde 'tarse type stuff. It's really beautiful. Patricia Ryan doesn't so much, but she's a good read too. I guess when it comes down to it, if it's well written, it's well written!