Getting the Dialogue Right
By Beryl Kingston
We all know it’s relatively easy to get some historical details exactly right. Clothing is probably the easiest, because there are museums of costume and plenty of illustrated books, and diet is well documented too, both for the food of the rich elite and the more limited fare of the rural and urban poor. We can also find out about their sanitary arrangements – and how highly unsanitary they often were – about the way their houses were heated – or not – how they were educated – or not – and what medicines they had to endure. What is far more difficult to discover is how men, women and children spoke to one another in earlier times, how and why they chose the words they used and what their vocabulary revealed about the way they thought and the opinions they held.
There’s a common and cheerful fallacy that we are all the same ‘under the skin’ and that fictional characters think and speak in the same way as we do. It leads to some wincingly anachronistic dialogue in ‘historical dramas’ both on screen and in novels and it ain’t necessarily so. We are all children of our times and, particularly if we live in England, of our class. My grandmother, born in 1871 and a lower middle class Victorian, used to admonish little girls who were showing their knickers to ‘Cover your whereabouts.’ She had no word for the female genitalia and her disapproval of them was clear in the words and the tone in which they were spoken. A far cry from the Vagina Monologues of our time. Similarly, when I was writing a musical back in the sixties about Ben Tillett and the dockers’ strike of 1889, I found a column in a contemporary copy of the Times in which the marching strikers were described in scathing terms, as ‘the scum of the earth, carrying stinking fish heads on a pole’ while beside it, in the very next column, a ‘splendid sermon’ given by a renowned Bishop, on the text ‘Thank God you are rich’ was endorsed and applauded for its ‘high moral tone.’ Hum!
So where can we historical writers go to hear the authentic voices of the times we are writing about?
1 ) Contemporary newspapers and magazines are good for current opinions and accepted prejudices although the language they use is mostly educated and upper middle to upper class and you won’t find many working class voices there.
2 ) Contemporary fiction and drama is better because it gives a wider range of speech patterns, quirks of speech, dialect and opinions. I say this over and over again when I’m giving classes. Always sit at the feet of the great. Dickens is superlative for the voices of the nineteenth century. So is Mayhew because being a reporter he quotes actual words. Austen is superb for the middle class mores and speech of southern England, the Brontes equally superb in their own county. Shakespeare gives you the variety, humour and stunning word play of Elizabethan England, and so in a lesser way do Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe. If you want the fourteenth century look at the Miracle Plays. The list is wide and local librarians – while we still have them – will point you to more in your chosen region. But, if you’ll take my advice, you’ll go for the most powerful writers. They have a truer ear.
3) For the nineteenth century, another source of working class speech is the music hall. Their songs were written and performed in the vernacular and very lively they are. ‘Wiv a ladder an’ some glasses/ You could see the ’Ackney Marshes/ If it wasn’t fer the ’ouses in between.’ Love it! And a lot of them are still in print.
Just one last word and then you can get back at me. There are voices of all sorts all around us and we can and do learn from them too. The vocabulary is different – even the vocabulary I used as a child in the thirties is very different from the vocabulary I’m using now – but speech rhythms don’t vary so much. When we’re under the stress of a strong emotion what we say is either wrecked or enhanced by our feelings. Some of us stutter and blush but some rise to heights that are almost poetic. We use triples and alliteration without even thinking about them, we build phrase on phrase, we save the best word till last. Our emotion informs the rhythm and the pattern. I’ve always listened hard to people in the throes of anger or jealousy or fear. I’ve found it a useful trick and of course listening stops me from joining in the ruckus. But that’s another story.