The Camerons, Robert Crichton

The Camerons
This is one of those novels that I had forgot about, unearthed in the quest to catalog all our books on LibraryThing.

I read it in 1974 or ’75, shortly after it came out. When my old copy showed up in a box the other day, I had an instant jolt of recognition: ah, a good story. So I sat down to read it again, but very carefully. My copy is brittle and the binding is loose, but you most probably can find a hard cover copy at your library. I just ordered a used hardcover, as the book is long out of print.

So, historical fiction set in a mining village in Scotland. Maggie, born into a family that has been digging coal for generations, wants more. The first step, she believes, is to find the right husband, and that means going elsewhere. On her sixteenth birthday she sets off for a resort town where she finds and beguiles an empoverished highlander who lives on kelpie soup and seaweed, but he’s tall and blond and strong, and he can work. His name is Gillon Cameron.

She exacts a promise from him, that he’ll come back home with her and take up coal mining until they’ve saved enough money to move on. Twenty years later, their five boys are now working in the mines along side Gillon.

Gillon is the most intriguing character here. He makes a life for himself, reads books about coal, comes to understand the geology, stumbles across a tiny and unvisited library and begins to read more widely. He gains the respect of the town and the miners, and he acts quickly and courageously to save the life of a young man caught underneath a slab of coal.

Little by little he comes to a place where he understands he has to challenge to mine owners, which puts him in direct opposition to Maggie, who is so focused on saving money that she can’t bear the thought of any disruption. This is the heart of the story, and the resolution is not the one you might expect.

This is a first class historical novel, closely observed, excellent detail, but most of all, a story that works in all its parts.

The Great Vowel Shift

There is a very good website that explains the Great Vowel Shift (with audio). Not as entertaining as my after dinner party trick, but it does a great job.

My shorter, highly simplified (and rather boring, presented this way) explanation if you aren’t interested in the bells and whistles:

Sometime around 1400 the long vowels of English began to shift upward, which means basically that the degree of opening of the mouth narrowed. Means nothing to you, right? Never mind. If you speak American English, say the word father. That first vowel is an open vowel. Probably the most open vowel in your personal phonemic inventory. Now say the word ink. That is a close (or closed) vowel. If you say the vowel in father and the vowel in ink, you’ve got the extreme of open and closed for most varieties of American English (for the back vowels; there are also front vowels).

Backing up: about 1400 the long vowels began to shift unless they were followed by two distinct consonants. So the the vowel in the world house changed, but the vowel in the word husband did not; once both were pronounced with a sound you might write as ooo. Lots of pairs like this: goose/gosling, wife/midwivery. (Note we are not talking about spelling, but the sounds of the words as they are spoken.

Note: language change is always happening. It’s a natural process, and nothing to get upset over. The Great Vowel Shift was a series of language shifts that took place over a very long period of time — and in fact, never quite finished or caught on in some places. A good many varieties of English spoken in northern Great Britain never participated in the GVS, so in Scotland you are likely to hear hoose for house. The GVS is one of the reasons that written English is so strange; the spellings we use today were set down before the GVS, and for the most part, we never updated our orthography. You see this in many other parts of the language beyond the GVS. For example, the word night. Before 1400 (and still today in some parts of Scotland), this word would be pronounced neeeecht, where the ch is a very throaty fricative. We still write the fricative (night) though it passed out of the spoken language for most of the English speaking world a long timea go.

That’s it, in a nutshell. I really do suggest the other website, the audio examples make it all much clearer.

The Touch — Colleen McCullough

[asa book]0684853302[/asa] McCullough has produced some very thoughtful work in the past. Tim and An Indecent Obsession are novels that deal with difficult subject matter deftly and with insight, but this novel doesn’t work for me, at all. It is poorly done soap opera, trite, predictable, and just plain unbelievable for the most part. The dialog is often so stilted that I was embarrassed by it.

The story concerns Elizabeth, who at age sixteen is sent from Scotland to Australia to marry a cousin twenty years her senior, one who has made a fortune for himself in mining and engineering. She takes an instant dislike to him, which carries over to their sex life. Her dislike of sex is so extreme that I wondered, for a short time, if McCullough was going to deal with the matter of lesbianism in the late 19th century. That would have been interesting, at least. Instead Elizabeth spends ten years bearing two daughters, learning how to spend money, and making friends with her husband’s business partner and long-time lover, Ruby, all the while avoiding him. Alex is a man of his place and time — less than enlightened, fixed in his ideas, controlling. He plans for his first daughter (who is speaking, unbelievably, in complex sentences with subordinate clauses at age eleven months) to marry Ruby’s son by a Chinese prince when he (Lee) comes back from being educated in England.

The fact that Elizabeth and Lee will fall in love is telegraphed early and often, and thus the story has to devolve into a parody of itself. Which is really too bad. I had hopes for this novel, but I found myself speed reading to get it over with. I have given it one star because McCullough does do her research, as always, and provides great period detail.

avoiding language anachronisms

This topic has come up now and again, in posts about Gone with the Wind and more recently, Deadwood. It’s a technical and creative issue at the same time, and quite a tricky one, especially for people writing historical fiction or telling stories from the past on the screen.

The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background, and nobody ever bothers to explain how that might be. Putting science fiction aside for a moment (although I keep meaning to write about language issues in Farscape, and will sometime) everybody has examples to share from novels and films that really stumble on language accuracy. Even really good writers mess up this way now and then; it’s almost impossible not to. Shakespeare had bells tolling in ancient Rome; Dorothy Dunnett once had her character Lymond proclaimed neurotic (in 17th century Scotland long before Freud was ever born). I read a novel (the title of which I’m blocking out) set in 15th century England where the main character tries to calm down a woman in distress by assuring her that the battle ahead of him is a piece of cake. In a comment to one of my posts about Deadwood, somebody pointed out that they used the word trenchmouth, which was coined in WWI.

The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.

So how to avoid this mistake? One thing you can do is check idiomatic words and phrases for their place and time of origin. The Oxford English Dictionary is the usual place to do this, although it has some limitations. First, it’s too expensive for most people to own and even if you did invest, the hard-copy version is always out of date; second, it’s too expensive for most people to access on-line ($29.95 a month or $295 annually) unless you have library priviledges at a college or university that subscribes; third, (and most important) it’s limited to written language usage.

A word exists in the OED’s version of language history only once it has been written down. It should be clear that for most of the history of the English language, usage was not recorded anywhere at all, and so it’s hard to know when or where particular coins were actually used. On the other hand, the versatility and utterly amazing scope of the OED’s on-line search engine makes it useful in so many other ways, its limitations seem less important. You can, for example, search for whole phrases and idiomatic expressions. The next time I’ve got access to the on-line version, I’m going to see if they have the earliest citation recorded for ‘bald as an egg’ and while I’m at it, I’ll look up ‘piece of cake’ to see when it was first used, in writing, to mean ‘without problem or difficulty’ (I’m guessing it evolved from ‘easy as pie’ used in the same way). What I know for sure is, none of my characters, who inhabit the early 19th century, would have any idea what it means to say such a thing, and keep those words out of their mouths.

Of course, the more recent the setting of your story, the harder it becomes to check for origin and usage. I’ve got a steel sieve of a mind when it comes to remembering when certain phrases were in use. I know ‘cool’ was used when I was in high school, went out of vogue for a very long time, and then came back in, but I’d be afraid to put it in the mouth of a character in the year 1989 without checking, first. Slang associated with particular social groups has a very short shelf life, and can trip you up badly. There are dictionaries, of course, but they are out of date even before they are published, for the most part, and the OED can’t keep up with the incredible flexibility and creative power of spoken language.

There’s another, far stickier matter having to do with language anachronisms that I’ll look at (briefly) tomorrow.