Academic journal article Style

Drawing Fictional Lines: Dialect and Narrative in the Victorian Novel

Academic journal article Style

Drawing Fictional Lines: Dialect and Narrative in the Victorian Novel

Article excerpt

The presentation of dialect in novels often appears to be startlingly inconsistent. Even when the narrator calls attention to the dialect speech of a character, the actual presentation of that speech in the dialogue may differ from what the reader is led to expect. In Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for instance, the narrator carefully explains that "Mrs. Durbeyfield habitually spoke the dialect; her daughter, who had passed the Sixth Standard in the National School under a London-trained mistress, spoke two languages; the dialect at home, more or less; ordinary English abroad and to persons of quality" (15). But, despite this explanation, Tess's speech resembles her mother's only in a brief passage following this parenthetical comment and a few other instances; otherwise, Tess's speech follows no clear pattern. When she is speaking to "persons of quality," her language is often tinged with dialect, but, as the following scene demonstrates, when she is at home it is often more like the narrator's than her mother's:

Her mother expostulated. "You will never set out to see your folks without dressing up more the dand than that?"

"But I am going to work!" said Tess.

"Well, yes," said Mrs. Durbeyfield; and in a private tone, "at first there mid be a little pretence o't. . . But I think it will be wiser of 'ee to put your best side outward," she added.

"Very well; I suppose you know best," replied Tess with calm abandonment.

And to please her parent the girl put herself quite in Joan's hands, saying serenely - "Do what you like with me, mother." (43; ellipsis in original)

Tess's standard English speech in this passage bears no resemblance to her mother's dialect, though nothing has happened in the novel to account for this clear deviation from the narrator's insistence that Tess speaks the dialect when at home. Inconsistency in use of dialect appears in many other novels as well. To cite just a few examples, the adult Pip in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations represents his own speech as a child in almost entirely standard English, but he quotes that of his closest childhood companions in dialect, and George Eliot's Adam Bede, Walter Scott's Jeanie Deans, and Hardy's Elizabeth Henchard, though identified as dialect speakers, all speak nearly standard English in their major scenes.

During the Victorian era, the representation of the speech of lower class characters as standard English in novels using dialect bothered many critics. An 1837 review of Oliver Twist in National Magazine and Monthly Critic, for instance, tells readers that "we should notice the incongruity (the more remarkable in one so true to nature) of which [Dickens] has been guilty in the character of Oliver Twist. To say nothing of the language which this uneducated workhouse-boy ordinarily uses, there are many phrases which amount to positive absurdities in one of his standing" (qtd. in Collins 68). Over fifty years later, in his 1898 book on Dickens, George Gissing continued to criticize Dickens's use of dialect, labeling such inconsistency a product of idealism "leading [Dickens] into misrepresentation of social facts" (qtd. in Chapman, Forms 234). Such comments demonstrate the widespread expectation among Victorian critics and readers that dialect in novels should follow clear rules based on a certain idea of real speech: a child should speak simply, a working class character should speak dialect. In the discussion of any novel using dialect, a Victorian reviewer was likely to comment on whether the style of each character's speech matched the style associated with a real person of that condition.

While critical discussion of consistency regarding class location predominates, Victorian critics and more recent studies of dialect have also examined for consistency a second aspect of dialect, the actual representation of the speech. Critics and scholars approaching dialect in this way ask not whether the characters ought to be dialect speakers at all, but whether the dialect itself has internal consistency (does the character either always or never drops 'h's, for instance)? …

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