Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Dissidence in Dialect: Ann Wheeler's Westmorland Dialogues

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Dissidence in Dialect: Ann Wheeler's Westmorland Dialogues

Article excerpt

1. "[T]here is much of nature, and somewhat of humor in these dialogues"

IN 1790, JAMES ASHBURNER, A PRINTER IN THE MARKET TOWN OF KENDAL in the historic county of Westmorland, published Ann Wheeler's The Westmorland Dialect in Three Familiar Dialogues, an intriguing book that, unfortunately, has largely fallen outside the purview of literary scholarship. (1) Though popular enough to have been augmented and reissued as The Westmorland Dialect in Four Familiar Dialogues in 1802, 1821, and 1840, Wheeler's work presses against the very boundaries of anglophone legibility, and arguably this is the primary reason for its contemporary obscurity. (2) Put simply, then as now, the work's verbal and orthographic peculiarities make it almost unreadable for most audiences. Accordingly, scholarship from the eighteenth century to the present has largely consigned The Westmorland Dialect to the archive of British linguistic curia, a fitting corpus for the extraction of linguistic data but not appropriate for literary study as such, by which I mean close, contextualized attention to the themes, tropes, and aesthetic processes at work in the text. With a few important exceptions discussed below, Wheeler's dialogues are usually remembered as ethnographic documentation of eighteenth-century speech habits in the region from which they sprang.

While reductive, this enduring interpretive limitation makes some sense: reading any of Wheeler's four editions is to risk misreading. Witness the first "natural" dialect line that appears in the text: "I kna mony of my Readers will think, nay en say, I hed lile et dea tae rite sic Maapment about nae Body knas wha ..." ["I know many of my readers will think, and even say, that I had little justification for writing such things about topics like these"]. (3) Here Wheeler's rendering of the Westmorland dialect forces the reader to confront idiosyncratic orthography, syntactical quirks, grammatical singularities, and disorienting vocabulary, only some of which is defined in the roughly 800-word glossary, not including the word "Maapment." These unfamiliar features impede legibility such that even contemporary scholars who are familiar with the period's regional writing must digest the work slowly and without complete semantic confidence. In contradistinction to dialect poetry in the same period, metrical, rhyming, and other poetic cues to pronunciation are absent. Ideal source material for ethnolinguistic philology, perhaps, but the language's seeming imperviousness has been allowed to obscure the work's daring and alluring engagement with themes that animate much of the late-eighteenth-century literary archive: themes such as marriage, gender relations, the country-city binary, economic hierarchies, educational hierarchies, and more.

The line quoted above, for example, is not merely linguistically curious, but also, I would argue, not transparently naturalistic. Instead, this line heralds the beginning of Wheeler's continuous and clever interventions into the politics of female authorship, a theme that endures throughout the text. (4) Her send-up of contemporary assumptions about the distracting frivolity of women's writing continues by ironically mentioning other "Employments" assumed to be more appropriate than writing: "I mud hev fund mitch better Employment in a Cuntry Hause, tae mind Milkness, sarra the Coafs, leak hefter Pigs and Hens, spin Tow for Bord Claiths en Sheets, it wod hev been mitch mair sarently then writing Books, a Wark ets fit for nin but Parson et dea" ["I might have found much better Employment in a Country House, minding the milking, servicing the Calves, looking after Pigs and Hens, and spinning Tow for Broad Cloth and Sheets; it would have been much more servant-like than writing Books, a Work that is fit for none but a Minister of God"].5 6 Parroting potential objections to her work in her work's own opening, Wheeler makes an implicit case for female authorship and dialect writing at once. …

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