I want to hear dead people

Some viewers have criticized the writers of the period drama Downton Abbey for having British characters living before 1920 saying things such as:

“I’m just sayin’” (African-American expression from decades later)

“Sorry to keep you waiting, but we’re going to have to step on it.” (Nobody on that side of the Atlantic circa 1920 stepped on things when in a hurry.)

Those writers have my sympathy.

I must edit a couple of chapters where a character gets dropped into a nightmare version of London circa 1918. Most of the people she meets are lower-class residents of the city. The Downton Abbey writers are doing historical drama, and I’m writing a dark fantasy. However, I’m sure that won’t get me off the hook with some readers if I screw up the dialogue.

Do I have an idea of how the local characters talked? Well, I’ve seen BBC period dramas imported into the U.S. by way of Public Television. I can certainly reproduce the speech of actors playing those roles.  I’ve also read a fair amount of literature written in the period.

But can I trust it?

As is true now, people who wrote books circa 1918 tended to be reasonably affluent and educated. Writing, after all, requires leisure time when you aren’t worrying about how you are going to eat and a decent level of literacy. With some notable exceptions, it wasn’t lower-class people, who often lacked one of these prerequisites, who left behind written dialogue for people like me to study.

If your social status makes you likely to be kicked around by people who outrank you, you won’t be inclined to speak freely and naturally within earshot of the boss or the boss’s daughter, the aspiring novelist.

People with higher social status also tend to either ignore their inferiors (for example, Agatha Christie set a lot of mysteries in manor houses where the servants outnumbered the family three or four to one, but, in the stories, the servants are usually invisible and silent) or view them as caricatures.

This is not a situation that produces good reporting.

Despite the problems, I’ve found a few examples of what my ear tells me a real human being—not a caricature—might have said in the period within which I’m setting the chapters.

One of the best sources is a novella by Rebecca West (by the way, classic sci-fi fans, she allegedly spent some time as H.G. Wells’s lover) entitled The Return of the Soldier (1918). It also contains an example of the snobbery that I think interfered with listening to lower-status people.

From what I’ve learned about Ms West, I don’t believe that the attitude expressed below was one she shared.

Ms West wrote this passage from the point of view of Jenny, an upper-class woman. She is describing a woman from a much lower social class who has come to see her cousin’s wife:

“ . . .and that she could not strike these chords that others found so easy, had fixed me with a certain wet, clear, patient gaze. It is the gift of animals and those of peasant stock.[italics added]”

(Gee, I wonder why worrying about Nazi sympathizers among the British upper class kept Winston Churchill up nights?)

I finally decided that  I’m just going to wing it and hope I don’t get something horribly wrong. If—when—I screw up, it won’t be because I didn’t try to get it right.



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