by Beryl Kingston
There is a common and cheerful fallacy that we are all the same 'under the skin' and that our fictional characters will therefore think and speak in the same way as we do. It leads to some wincingly anachronistic dialogue in 'historical dramas' both on screen and TV and I don't believe it is necessarily so. We are all children of our times and, particularly if we live in Britain, of our class. Even in quite a short lifetime we all see speech and attitudes changing. To give you an example, which has always made me smile, my grandmother, born in 1871 and a lower middle class Victorian, used to admonish little girls who were showing their knickers to 'Cover your whereabouts'. She had no word for the female genitalia and her disapproval of them was clear in the words and tone in which they were spoken. A far cry from the Vagina Monologues.
Similarly, when I was writing a musical back in the sixties about Ben Tillett and the dockers' strike of 1889, I found a column in a contemporaneous copy of The Times in which the marching strikers were described in scathing terms, 'carrying stinking fishheads on a pole' while in the very next column, a 'splendid sermon' given by a renowed bishop, on the text ' Thank God you are rich' was endorsed and applauded for its 'high moral tone.' I don't think a bishop would preach in such terms today. Could be wrong though.
Contemporary newpapers and magazines are good if you're looking for current opinions and accepted prejudices although the language they use is mostly educated and upper middle to upper class and you won't find any working class voices there.
Contemporary fiction and drama is better because it gives a wider range of speech patterns, quirks of speech, dialect and opinions. I say this over and over again when I'm giving classes. Always sit at the feet of the great. Dickens is superlative for the voices of the nineteenth century. So is Mayhew, because being a reporter he quotes actaul words. Austen is superb for the middle class mores and speech of southern England, the Brontes are equally superb in their own county and they have a wider range. Shakespeare gives you the variety, humour and stunning word play of Elizabethan England and if you want the speech of the fourteenth century look at the Miracle Plays. The list is enormous and local librarians - while we still have them - will point you to more in your chosen time and region. But go for the most powerfu writers. They have a truer ear.
I'm on a happy hobby-horse here and probably telling you things you already know. In which case I hope you'll tell me.