audiobooks & too much information (with video!)

R-Less Edith Wharton
R-Less Edith Wharton

I’ve been trying to concentrate on writing so I haven’t been posting very often. But something has been on my mind for a while and I thought this would be the best way to resolve it — in my head, at least. 

If you have read this weblog for any length of time you’re most likely aware that I was a professor of linguistics for twelve years before I started writing full time. Linguistics is a huge field — everything from the neurology of speech production to reconstruction of ancient languages to universals in syntax. My field has to do with the sociocultural aspects of language, or sociocultural anthropological linguistics (how’s that for a mouthful?).1 The Santa Barbara campus of the UC system has what I consider to be the best program in the field, and this is part of their short description: 

Encompassing research traditions including sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, and others, sociocultural linguistics focuses on how discourse mediates the enactment of social life and the construction of the social world.

A couple more basic points: all spoken language changes; all spoken language varies over different kinds of social space. All that just to preface what I’m about to say.

When they started doing the audiobook recordings for the Wilderness novels, it never occurred to me to worry about the varieties of English (or, more simply, the accents) spoken by the characters, and therefore, by the reader. Simply because we don’t know enough about the way English was spoken on the New York frontier in 1792. But we do know more about the sounds of spoken English in 1883 — primarily because some of the people born in the mid 19th century were still around into the 1960s or longer, and their voices have been preserved on tape.2

My point (and I do have one) is that in my mind, I have an actual sense of the way Anna Savard spoke English. In late 19th century Manhattan, the accent was much like the current day New England accents. The most tangible feature is the loss of /r/ after a vowel — as in John F. Kennedy’s infamous “Paak the caah in Haaavad yaad” (this is referred to as rhoticity).  There’s a very good short video on Youtube on the history and evolution of urban accents over time that provides good examples of rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciations.3 And here’s an example of the way linguists have fun: an article about a study of rhoticity in Hollywood films over time: 

Elliott, N. (2000) “A Study in the Rhoticity of American Film Actors.” In R. Dal Vera (ed.) Standard Speech and Other Contemporary Issues in Professional Voice and Speech Training. New York: Applause, pp. 103–130.

Where /r/ disappears after a vowel for some part of the population, depending on age, socioeconomic allegiances, location, and communication network integration.
Where /r/ disappears after a vowel for some part of the population, depending on age, socioeconomic allegiances, location, and communication network integration.

 

Anna would sound more like Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, who were both born to upper class families in Massachusetts. The videos below were recorded when they were both quite old, but the accent still comes through, primarily the loss of /r/ after a vowel, the raising and backing of some vowels, and intonation.

So if I had been able to dictate how Cassandra Campbell voiced Anna — and other women of that time and place — in the recording of The Gilded Hour, I might have said “Do your best Katherine Hepburn.” And that would have been a disaster, because unless you’ve studied the evolution of American English on the east coast, it would sound utterly wrong to you. Technically closer to fact, yes. But not a good idea. 

There are no audio recordings of Edith Wharton’s voice, which is a shame, because while she was of a higher social class than Anna Savard, an argument could be made that they would have been very close in the way they spoke. 

I’m very happy with the unabridged audio recording of The Gilded Hour, but when I listen to it, this issue always comes up for me. Some days it would be good to be able to forget my education.

  1. My best-known publication is English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the U.S. and here’s a pdf excerpt if you’re so inclined.
  2. There are a few recordings of the human voice around this time, but the technology was in its infancy and the quality is very poor (for example, this recording of President Benjamin Harrison whose term ran from 1889 to 1892).
  3. Some of the explanations I would quibble with, but all in all it’s a good overview. Less serious but a lot of fun: Shit Boston Girls Say and Shit Italian Moms Say. The accents are right on target.

Ethan, Callie Questions and (maybe) Answers

*Edited to correct inaccuracies.

I get quite a lot of email about the Wilderness series, and I’m always thrilled to hear from readers. Really, thrilled. Writing is a very solitary occupation and every once in a while I start to wonder if I’ve hallucinated everything. Your emails remind me that somebody is out there, listening. So thank you.

Over the last year or so, I have been getting the same question over and over again (yesterday, twice, as a matter of fact):

What’s up with Ethan and Callie? What exactly happened?

It goes against the grain to answer questions like this. Generally it’s up to you, as reader, to interpret the story as you see fit. You might decide that Ethan has been replaced by an alien and is working undercover to arrange the destruction of mankind. I doubt you could convince me, but I couldn’t tell you you’re wrong. If that’s where the story went for you, then that’s the end of that.  You may have a theory I find hard to fathom, but that is your right.

So let’s look at Ethan and Callie.

Things you know for sure:

  1. Ethan lived in Manhattan for two years because his uncle Todd’s will demanded it of him. He didn’t return to Paradise in  that time.
  2. He’s a friendly guy, and so he will have made friends. He sees Martha Kirby quite regularly, and tutors her. He’s very attached to the Spencer family, which is where Martha lives as the Spencers are her guardians.
  3. He leaves New York to return to Paradise quite suddenly.
  4. Once back in Paradise there’s no talk of friends in Manhattan, no overt sign of letter writing, no visitors.  He is, essentially, without immediate family though he always included in the Bonner family affairs as Elizabeth’s nephew.
  5. He dedicates himself, all his energy and resources, into putting the village back on its feet after years of decline. His small circle of friends includes Callie ad Daniel, Blue-Jay and Runs-from-Bears and Nathaniel.
  6. In all the time you’ve known him, he has never shown interest in the opposite sex.
  7. Martha is back in Paradise too, and eventually Jemima shows up ready to make trouble, as usual.
  8. Jemima lets it be known that she did some investigating in Manhattan and knows all about Martha’s sad little engagement. In fact, she visited Martha’s fiance’s mother and put an end to the whole ridiculous undertaking. Why she did this isn’t immediately apparent.
  9. About the same time Jemima lets it be known that she investigated Martha while in New York, she  says she did the same for  Ethan.  She voices this in a threatening way.
  10. Ethan lives on his own and is lonely. he sees Callie as someone he likes and admires, and someone who needs his help. Marriages have been founded on far worse foundations, and if he can get her to agree, they will both be better off.
  11. Because his experience is wider and he is lonely, he recognizes that same problem in her.
  12. Callie has never shown interest in the opposite sex, either.
  13. When Martha marries suddenly, Callie feels hugely betrayed and rejected.
  14. Ethan may recognize this reaction as founded in something other than sisterly affection.
  15. Ethan capitalizes on the opportunity: he couches his proposal in terms that Callie can live with, and offers her things that she needs and wants. Friendship not least among them.
  16. They marry and make a stable, peaceful, kind home where they raise Jennet and Luke’s children.  And they never sleep in the same bed.

So read through this list and then ask yourself the question: what was the basis of Ethan and Callie’s relationship?

 

prequels, once more with feeling

I had an email today from Judith:

Please write a book about Cora Munro from her childhood to her meeting and marrying Daniel Hawkeye Bonner, and a separate book telling  Daniel’s story from infancy up to and marrying Cora. Please !Please! Please!

People often ask about prequels to the Wilderness books, but Judith’s request was more detailed than most. And very heartfelt. I do appreciate such enthusiasm and encouragement, but the truth is, these stories just are not in my head.  With a lot of work I might be able to get Cora’s life story down, but Nathaniel was raised by Mahicans. That means years of research, or faking it. And I can’t fake it. I wish I could, my life would be easier.

I do take reader concerns and wishes to heart, but this is not something I can do. Regretfully.

Academic conference & romance

After so many years in academia and dozens of conferences, finally there’s one I would have liked to go to, but missed. There’s an article on the Huffington Post about a conference at Princeton in which the topic of discussion was the current state of the romance genre.

According to the article, Professor Sally Goede talked about  the Into the Wilderness series. This is fantastic of course, and I’m very pleased. I wish they hadn’t misspelled Sara’s name in the article, but hey.

The really amusing thing here is that academic annual conferences — the MLA, for example — is a hotbed for romance of all kinds. Except the fictional.

An excerpt from Rendell’s piece for the HuffPo:

Romances offer very different things to very different readers, therefore, and to lump the genre and its audience together is short-sighted – and problematic. This point was driven home to me during Professor Emily Haddad’s paper about the depiction of the Middle East in romances featuring sheikhs. Haddad drew on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism which describes the way the West constructs and “others” the East through its writings and discourses. For too long, romance has been the “East” and “other” of the literary world: talked about in generalities, pigeonholed, and not understood for its nuances and variety.

I may not have gotten my answer for why romance is selling so well in our troubled times, but the Princeton conference taught me that to rush to conclusions about romance fiction is to flatten out a rich, varied, and continually evolving genre. In the end, though, I did conclude one thing. People read and enjoy romance just as people deal with hard economic times: differently.