Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

M. R. Lahee and the Lancashire Lads: Gender and Class in Victorian Lancashire Dialect Writing

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

M. R. Lahee and the Lancashire Lads: Gender and Class in Victorian Lancashire Dialect Writing

Article excerpt

In October of 1900, Rochdale's Archdeacon Wilson unveiled a public memorial in Broadfield Park honoring Lancashire's dialect writers. The memorial features a bronze likeness of four treasured Rochdale writers, accompanied by a few lines of their writing in dialect carved below. Given that nineteenth-century Lancashire dialect writing was not only dominated by male writers but also a masculinized discourse, it is probably not surprising that three of the four sides of the monument are claimed by men: Edwin Waugh (1817-1890), the "Lancashire Burns"; Oliver Ormerod (1811-1879), the "Rachde Felley" (Rochdale Fellow); and John Trafford Clegg (1857-1895), "Th' Owd Weighver" (The Old Weaver). Surprisingly, the fourth side was not reserved for John Collier (1708-1786), "Tim Bobbin," the "father of Lancashire dialect writing," who also hailed from the Rochdale area and is buried in the nearby churchyard.

Instead, the honor of gracing the fourth side of the monument was given to Margaret Rebecca Lahee (1831-1895), a woman who immigrated to Rochdale from Carlow, Ireland, in 1855. Lahee wrote in both Standard English and the Lancashire dialect, but she was lauded for her work in the latter. Lahee's double outsider status, as an Irish woman, makes her success as a Lancashire dialect writer especially surprising. Indeed, although dialect writing proliferated in Lancashire in the second half of the nineteenth century, dialect writing by women was nearly nonexistent. Aside from Lahee, Lancashire women writers, such as Chorley's "Marie" (fl. 1840s and '50s), Manchester's Fanny Forrester (1852-1889), and Great Harwood's Ethel Carnie (1886-1962), published only in Standard English. Many Scottish women writers, on the other hand, including Jessie Russell (1850-1923), Jeannie Paterson (1871-?), Elizabeth Horne Smith (1876-?), and Janet Hamilton (1795-1873) published in both English and Lallans (Lowlands Scots or "Doric"). Hamilton even published "A Plea for the Doric," in which she pleads forgiveness from Scotland for composing poetry in English: "thy dear Doric aside I hae flung, / To busk oot my sang wi' the prood Southron tongue." (1) Unlike their Scottish sisters, who had their nation and the legacy of Robert Burns to bolster their use of the Doric, most Lancashire women writers did not, at least in print, rally behind their region's dialect. They might address class inequities and misogyny in their writing, but they did not challenge the hegemony of standard English. Susan Zlotnick suggests that, in constructing a working-class womans poetic identity, Forrester attempts to write herself into a middle-class feminine script. (2)

Such a strategy might explain why working-class women writers tended to adopt Standard English in their literary endeavors. Lancashire dialect writing was the bastion of male writers, most of whom had working-class roots. The "authentic Lancashire man" or "lad" was the symbol of Lancashire dialect writing. That the genre was heavily masculinized is evident in writings about the literature and within the literature itself. Waugh, for example, was praised for the "healthy manliness" of his style, and even a poem praising the qualities of a Lancashire lass ends with lines lauding masculinity: "A Lenkisher lass shows no feature 'ut's bad--/ Hoo's nobber one drawbeck,--hoo isn't a lad" [A Lancashire lass shows no feature that's bad / She's not but one drawback; she isn't a lad]. (3) Even those writers who did not hail from the handloom or the factory still performed a working-class masculinity in their writing and in public readings. I've shown elsewhere how Waugh and Brierley negotiated their liminal positions--between working- and middle-class--through their literary alter egos, "Besom Ben" and "Ab-o'th'-Yate." (4) Waugh and Brierley would often take the stage in the personae of these "authentic Lancashire men" during public readings; and these performances fueled the popularity of the characters and sales of their printed tales. …

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