Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Language of Regencies

I love the language of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and other fine traditional Regency writers. I love the odd twists to our familiar English. I love the archaic words, the unusual constructions, and the long sentences of the best Regency writing.

What really bothers me about Regency historicals, and inexperienced Regency writers, is their lack of that authentic-sounding Regency voice. Recently a reviewer from LASR( said of my book The Education of Portia, "I love classic literature especially that of Jane Austen and this book is definitely akin to that brand of story from the characters, plot and language. This is a historical novel that will not throw you out of the time period. You might just believe you are actually reading a period piece." That is the finest compliment I have ever received. That is what I try to do--I want the reader to believe they are in the Regency period.

Names are a pet peeve of mine--authors have to do their research and use names of the period. Heroines named Cindy or Heather make me crazy, as do heroes called Tyler or Cash. Don't laugh--it's been done. And writers really need to be aware of the change of gender in names--Courtney, Evelyn and Lindsay used to be male names. So if they are used in a Regency romance story, they should be male characters.

Out and out anachronisms are inexcusable in my opinion. Words like 'cuppa', 'monocle', 'guv', and 'sassy' have no place in a Regency. Why can't authors do their homework? Words like that jerk the reader right out of the period, and sometimes they don't even know why. And some of the biggest names in Regency historical writing are at fault in this.

It's the subtleties of the Regency language that I enjoy using. Authentic language creates authentic voice. It is essential to creating a believable Regency world. Reading Jane Austen is always a good primer for the way Regency folk used English. I have found two other very interesting books as well.

"Nineteenth Century English" by Richard W. Bailey I have had for some time. It's from the University of Michigan Press, 1996, ISBN 0-472-08540-9. It's a fascinating book with which I haven't spent enough time. With chapters like 'Sounds', 'Words' and 'Slang' he covers the full range of language.

The other book "Jane Austen's English" I just recently came across in my local library. It's an older book, part of a series called 'The Language Library' from Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1970, ISBN 0-233-96228-x It is terrific, and utterly fascinating. The author is K. C. Phillipps and he/she does a great job of presenting information under the headings of 'Vocabulary', 'Sentence Structure' and 'Modes of Address'. Plentiful quotes from J.A.'s books are compared with modern English and explained; it's a bit scholarly in places, but generally very readable.

I will keep throwing books with pathetic Regency voice against the wall. And I will keep striving to use the most authentic Regency language I can. You can probably tell I feel deeply about it.

Until next time,



Hayley E. Lavik said...

I love how strongly you feel about this issue, and how hard you work to preserve the believability of your work. I think a lot of writers look at the dialogue and try to keep that sounding authentic, but they forget that the whole narrative needs to be unified. Modern turns of phrase just don't fly.

I'd be interest to hear your thoughts on striking that balance within medieval fantasy. I blogged about it some time ago, and the balance between a created world and a historical base-point (typical medieval, or what have you). I notice a lot of fantasy authors tend to use verbs like 'gifted' to create a sense of authenticity, but if I recall, that's a pretty darn modern use of the word. Then again, in a created world, does that detail matter? Does it jar?

Excellent topic, you've got me mulling some interesting matters again.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Hayley. I think for fantasy, it can be especially challenging to create a believable voice. As you say I think you have to use your base-point and create within the language of that era--eg. medieval. Medieval language can be particularly inaccessible as far as sources go, but the writer must avoid modern language at all costs ('gifted' included--it was never a verb and still shouldn't be IMHO). Then if the writer can add archaic sentence construction, or create her own twists of language order, meaning, etc. a believable tone should emerge. If it is a different world, it should have it's own language and voice.
In a created world, details matter more than ever.

Pam Johnson said...


Thank you for stopping me from using the name Heather for a minor character. I checked the names of the hero and heroine, but didn't think to do so for the rest of the cast. [Slap on the wrist]. Luckily, I'm just at the plotting stage, which is why I'm trawling the internet to answer questions that keep popping into my head.