Saturday, August 25, 2007

Heredity does not go as far as this

It has been fascinating as I revise this book manuscript to see the extraneous parts falling away and the true story emerging as I cut. Have you ever watched someone getting a haircut? A certain kind of haircut: imagine very long shaggy locks of hair, perhaps rather luxuriant but just too much of it, being trimmed into a very much more shapely sleek bob--all it takes is a couple strokes of the shears and two or three long locks falling away for the shape (startlingly, suddenly) to begin to emerge...

So I took the whole book to pieces and put it back together and then went ruthlessly through to see if I was really telling some kind of a story from start to finish, and it was amazing how many "locks" there were that still needed shearing away. What's strange is that it wasn't until so late in the process (I hope this book is really almost finished, at least for now!) that I could see the bones underneath.

I have abandoned my former chapter structure altogether, and I think I cut things from every chapter, but I have cut much more from the chapters on elocution and on culture than from the chapters that huddled round the more (as it were--the term is anachronistic, "biology" wasn't coined until the nineteenth century) biological material.

Here are a few paragraphs, then, that I have now entirely done away with from the book, and yet I like them enough in themselves to offer them up here on the blog...

By 1800, anxieties about regional differences in speaking had to some extent given way to ones about class, and writers attentive to questions of pronunciation increasingly targeted “cockney” rather than northern accents for the most passionate castigation, as in John Gibson Lockhart’s notorious 1817 attack on Leigh Hunt, John Keats and the “Cockney School of Poetry.” “All the great poets of our country have been men of some rank in society, and there is no vulgarity in any of their writings,” writes Lockhart; “but Mr Hunt cannot utter a dedication, or even a note, without betraying the Shibboleth of low birth and low habits. He is the ideal of a Cockney Poet.”

British novelists would become increasingly attuned to the sociolinguistic verisimilitude of representations of speech over the course of the nineteenth century, as when Gissing criticizes Dickens’ failure to take account of “the effects of conditions upon character” in making Oliver Twist (brought up in a workhouse) “as remarkable for purity of mind as for accuracy of grammar”: “Granted that Oliver was of gentle blood,” Gissing says, “heredity does not go as far as this.” The historical irony is that many features of the “cockney rhymes” so contemptuously singled out in Keats’s writings by Lockhart and later nineteenth-century commentators (laud-lord, vista-sister, Cytherea-ear) would become defining features of twentieth-century Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as BBC English, perhaps the country’s most generally admired dialect in the years following World War Two.

The promise that one might reinvent oneself by paying for a course of lectures in elocution would remain both alluring and problematic. Early twentieth-century England represented the culmination of the eighteenth-century social and cultural trend of equating social privilege with the right accent, a fact that had inconvenient repercussions for foreign-language productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, first staged in 1913 (Shaw wrote in a shorthand fragment that the play’s Swedish translator was stymied “by the fact, astounding to a Londoner, that in Stockholm all classes speak the same language”). Henry Higgins the elocutionist makes an excellent living in “an age of upstarts”: “Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand,” he says. “They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.” In a bet with a fellow linguist, Higgins takes on the job of transforming Eliza Doolittle from a flower-girl whose “kerbstone English . . . will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days” to “a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party”: “I could even get her a place as a lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English,” he comments.

In some ways, Eliza is extraordinarily malleable. Higgins says of her, “She has a quick ear; and she’s been easier to teach than my middle-class pupils because she’s had to learn a complete new language. She talks English almost as you talk French.” But Higgins displays a failure of imagination when it comes to the real-world consequences of his willingness to break down social boundaries, no matter how unreasonable such boundaries are allowed to be. Like Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Higgins simply can’t see the destructive side of his attempt to reinvent and perfect another human being, and Shaw’s play has an unhappy ending, unlike the sunnier Lerner and Loewe adaptation My Fair Lady (1956 [stage], 1964 [film]). The damage results through the confluence of Eliza’s desire to improve herself, Higgins’ desire to test his powers and a social system that promises mobility only at a very high cost, a fact highlighted in Shaw’s depiction of Eliza’s father Alfred, a literary descendant of the “educated dustman” who originated on the variety stage and in the popular satirical prints of 1820s and 1830s London as a way of critiquing the so-called “March of Progress.” Alfred Doolittle’s peace of mind is permanently destroyed when Higgins inducts him into middle-class morality by way of his thoughtless recommendation of Doolittle to an American millionaire as England’s “most original moralist.” The upshot (in Doolittle’s mournful account) is that in order to “reckonize and respect merit in every class of life, however humble,” the millionaire leaves Doolitte three thousand pounds a year, provided he agrees to lecture to the Wannafeller Moral Reform League, thereby forever sundering Doolittle from what Shaw depicts as the amoral and thoroughly enjoyable idyll of undeserving poverty.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff. But then again, I have a distinct fondness for shaggy hair, and NEVER visit the hairdresser.