icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

From Phyllida's Desk

Harsh Vocabulary

By now, you've probably noticed that I “talk back” to reviewers. I imagine that breaks any number of commandments for authors, even the really famous best-selling ones. At least I don't write aggrieved letters to the editor complaining that the reviewer didn't understand my brilliant work. All I do is talk to myself on my blogs, and to whatever readers are kind enough to listen in. It's hard for me to curb my instincts. I'm a “conversational” writer. I see my novels as the opening monologue in what I hope will be an ongoing, multiple back-and-forth discussion among readers, and between readers and me.

My latest conversation piece is a review of three Austen-inspired works, one of them my Pride/Prejudice, in the Washington Post

and in particular this line: “Her vocabulary is harsh, and the numerous sexual encounters too explicit to quote here.”

Guilty as charged, as Mr. Darcy says on page 1 during a not-so-explicit by today's standards sexual encounter. Of course, it is only page one ;)

I guess what has me talking to myself now is the idea that a “harsh” vocabulary is somehow incompatible with Jane Austen's sensibility.

As many of you know, Austen could be pretty harsh herself, although never sexually explicit. Her fiction, still sometimes misread as the bland, genteel work of a “Victorian” spinster (she died twenty years before Victoria took the throne, and two years before that lady was even born) is actually full of “seething satire” as an earlier target for my talk-back blogs defined it (Sarah Ball in Newsweek). In 1940, D. W. Harding, a psychologist, described Austen's work, in a phrase I adore, as “regulated hatred.” And her letters, unfortunately cut (literally, by her sister, Cassandra, with scissors or knife) after her death, must have been a treasure trove of harsh vocabulary.

Here's a wonderful example that miraculously survived: “Mrs. Hall of Sherbourne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

I don't think there's anything as harsh as that in my P/P. Of course, what WP reviewer Brigitte Weeks really means is that I use “four-letter” words—and even longer ones—especially in the course of those explicit sexual encounters.

Writing Austen pastiche is grueling, demanding work—not that I didn't enjoy it. When you write in an “approximation” (as Laura Miller of Salon so aptly called it) of another writer's style, you choose every word even more carefully than when writing in your own voice. Your own voice, after all, comes naturally, or should. But when working within another writer's story, with her characters, every little word, four-letter and longer, must be weighed and measured.

And this, I think, is where some of the less “literary” review sites “get” it, while more traditional or mainstream reviewers sometimes seem overly sensitive. The whole point of writing Austen pastiche, or any pastiche, is not, for most of us, to copy-and-paste or to attempt an exact imitation. Where the pastiche and the mash-up coincide is in juxtaposing a modern or disparate element (sex, zombies) against the Austen elegance and spare, comic style. If you write sex, and even better, same-sex sex, into an Austen work, you're not aiming for something that will be mistaken for a lost manuscript from 1800. Instead, the fun comes with the startling contrast, whether it's adding sea monsters or sex scenes, while retaining some measure of the sensibility of the original.

In Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley is described as “gentlemanly” and Mr. Darcy is presumed to be a gentleman in every sense of the word. Perhaps the lowest moment for Mr. Darcy is when Elizabeth turns down his first proposal, saying he had not behaved in a “gentlemanlike” manner. Surely such men would never drop the f bomb—or would they?

One of my favorite scenes from Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, is a ratting contest. Two terriers are pitted against each other, not in a fight, but in a test of skill. Each dog performs separately in a wooden ring into which live rats are released. The winner is the dog that kills the most rats. It requires concentration, quick work, good training, and experience. In the novel, the contest ends when the owner of the more experienced dog bribes a man to eat several sausages, then vomit it all up into the pit during the other dog's round. The younger dog, distracted by the tempting treat, stops killing rats. Mayhem and an ugly fight ensue.

OK, enjoyably disgusting as this episode is, what does it have to do with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley and harsh vocabularies? I don't imagine these two gents ever took in a ratting contest during their stay in London. But who knows? The point of this little diversion is that men, even gentlemen, in Austen's time had a great many opportunities to indulge in some pretty sordid activities. In the presence of ladies, they were on their best behavior; but when in the company only of other men, what might they have said and done? It's a rhetorical question. Austen, with six brothers, and having grown up in a household that included a boys' school, probably had a pretty good idea of how young gentlemen sometimes behaved. She just didn't write it into her fiction.

The pastiche writer, by contrast, might want to write it in her fiction. Perhaps Austen's characters are attending, if not a ratting contest, maybe a horse race or a betting club. They might even have sex with a woman (not a lady), or with each other. And it's a rare gentleman who thinks in euphemisms for common body parts and sexual acts, or uses them to his friends in casual speech.

In other words, men behaved like men with each other, and like gentlemen in the company of ladies. I bet it was hard work for them to learn growing up and took a lot of practice, just as many of us must learn standard English for school while using Brooklynese or “Black English” at home. And we all have to learn how to mix with the other kids on the playground, but behave with propriety in formal settings like a wedding or a job interview.

That's where my harsh vocabulary came from. My Mr. Darcy and even my Mr. Bingley think like men and talk like men when they're enjoying those explicit sex scenes. They're hearty, virile late-18th-century gentlemen, not delicate Victorian aesthetes. They use the c-word and the f-word, and they like “sport.” But they also enjoy the sight and conversation of a pretty, spirited lady with fine eyes. Which is when their behavior shifts, or ought to, to the more familiar Austen style and vocabulary. In her work, that's the only time we see them. In my work, we see them in both worlds—and their manners and vocabulary change accordingly.
Be the first to comment