Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Regency Slang

Like many of you, I fell in love with the "Regency" novel after reading the works of Georgette Heyer, the English author who invented the genre. Heyer's work is full of what readers assume is authentic Regency-period slang, and over the years, her slang has become well known to readers who have never read a single book by Heyer. That's because authors writing Regency Romances have to use bits of this slang to establish their street cred.

In a thousand novels Regency misses worry about "making a cake" of themselves in a "Cheltenam tragedy." They are "blue deviled." Heroes may have "not a feather to fly with" when their "pockets are to let" and may turn to "parson's mousetrap" to restore their fortunes. Criminals in Heyer let off volleys of near incomprehensible but robust slang, too, as they go about "the prigging lay," as do gentleman whose more controlled aggression doesn't preclude their occasionally "landing a facer."

You can find several lists of Regency Slang on the Internet. A good one is A Regency Lexicon.

But since my next book features a protagonist who has been living in the London slums, I decided it was time to hit the primary source material to see what I could find to give my character's speech an air of authenticity that was not cribbed out of Heyer. I'll take any excuse to do primary research (and avoid writing!) So off I went.

The fact is, I have always been a bit suspicious of Heyer's use of slang. No other books or periodicals published in the period she writes about use any of the slang she employs, except for Pierce Egan, a journalist who made a pretty penny out of publishing slumming narratives--the best known is Life in London. When those books became bestsellers, he published an updated version of, Grose's Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of slang and cant originally published in the 18th century.

Heyer's debt to Egan was very large, but I always wondered how much of the slang in Egan's book would have been used in real life. By the time any slang word hits print it's out of date, and when middle aged people from the suburbs like Egan start using subcultural slang, you know that the subculture itself has long since dropped it.

To prepare myself for my venture into slang, I started out reading Dickens' Oliver Twist. Dickens is out of my period, but I wanted to get a feeling for how the street language was used in sentences. Dictionaries don't give you that, and it's important when using slang to see it in context. It doesn't help to know that "far out" was 1960s hippie slang for "excellent" if you use it in a sentence like "Can I interest you, my dear, in a slice of this far out tiramisu."

Using slang correctly requires that you not only know what the word means, but what kind of person would use it in what kind of a sentence, and when. Slang expires faster than a gift card from a merchant about to go bankrupt.

Google Books Search makes it easy to read all kinds of primary source material that just a decade ago could only have been read by those who had the money to buy rare old books or who put in weeks traveling to distant college libraries. So I was able to find several books of slang from my period besides the Pierce Egan version of Grose's dictionary, and moreover, I was able to read the criticism of other authors about Egan's dictionary that confirmed some of my suspicions.

His critics claim that Grose padded his work with obsolete terms that had never been used in common speech, terms that appeared once in a book before vanishing without a trace. They also said Egan mixed up old slang collected by Grose with contemporary 1820s words in a very confusing way. This may explain why so many of the "Regency" phrases readers have come to know and love thanks to Heyer appear nowhere else but in her works.

But I also ran into another interesting phenomenon. I knew from reading the biography of Heyer's written by Jane Aiken Hodge, that as her fame grew and she attracted imitators, Heyer became increasingly annoyed at how others plagiarized her books. To get back at them she started putting in invented details and language, so that when she found them in other author's work she could prove those authors were plagiarizing her.

In the course of my research I noticed something else that may be related to this. Heyer appears in several cases to have used a phrase found in an 1820s slang dictionary giving it the reverse meaning to what you find in the dictionary definition. The first time I found one of these dictionary definitions that were the opposite of what Heyer used the word for, I thought maybe Heyer had just got it wrong. The second one made me think she was doing it on purpose.

No I'm not going to tell you what those phrases were, though one was one that is very common in today's Regency novel. You'll have to do your own research for that, but since it is great fun reading old slang dictionaries, that is something to look forward to.

The other thing that I learned after putting several days into this effort was what a great job Heyer did at finding the very few slang terms and phrases in these dictionaries that don't sound downright peculiar when used in a sentence. She found almost all of them that, for one reason or other, give off a rich odor of Regency authenticity. Most real Regency slang words sounds like they are part of a foreign language and it would be almost impossible to use them in a sentence in such a way that the reader could understand them without providing a long and distracting explanation.

Few of the authentic terms are linguistically interesting or have a nice sound. Very few feel "19th century", and oddly some sound so modern you can't use them in a historical novel, like "kid" as in "Here's to you kid" or "crib" meaning place you live. Heyer found the words that do have a nice sound, are easy to interpret, and give off a nice historical aroma. Wisely she left the rest behind.

If she invented a few of these slang terms or phrases, well good for her. I'm pretty sure she did. She also picked up a certain amount language that came from the late Victorian period, just as she imposed dance cards on the Regency period, though they are a late Victorian invention which were still in use in the 1920s when she started writing.

Note: The only reason you will read that dance cards were invented in the early 19th century is because Heyer made everyone think they were. No one has ever been able to find an early 19th century dance card to substantiate the claim, though there are many late Victorian ones around.

NOTE: The book that embodies what I learned about real Regency slang is is Star Crossed Seduction. It and will be released on August 30, 2011. You can pre-order it using the links you'll find in the column to your right.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A False Deluding Young Man

I was listening to Steeleye Span's wonderful version of a traditional ballad, All Around My Hat, today and for some reason the lyrics really leapt out at me, reminding me of the chasm that looms between you, me, and all the women who lived in the time periods we historical novelists like to write about.

This chasm involves the way we now perceive virginity.

The lyric in question is this:
Other night he brought me a fine diamond ring
But he thought to have deprived me of a far better thing
But I being careful like lovers ought to be
He's a false deluding young man let him go farewell he
The premise of the song is one you will rarely see explored in a mainstream romance today outside of the Christian market, for the modern reader no longer views virginity as a precious possession.

But the need to preserve virginity dominated the lives of all women world-wide until the 1960s. It still dominates that of the majority of women living in traditional societies around the world. It does so for the reason that any woman who has sex in a culture that does not give her access to reliable birth control is almost certain to become pregnant. Marriage is the way that traditional cultures provide for children, since these cultures rarely allow women to earn enough money to support children on their own. So in traditional cultures, a pregnancy that takes place outside of marriage is an economic threat--someone will have to pay to raise that child--usually the community. So society attempts to prevent unwed pregnancy from occurring by treating it with fear, censure, and shame.

Traditional cultures are also dominated by the double standard, which was still very much alive in my childhood. They do not blame men for attempting to seduce young women, but shame and shun unmarried women who fall for male wiles.

The invention of the birth control pill, which unlike earlier forms of contraception, worked, changed this within the blink of an eye. The cultural expectations that women would stay "pure" lingered on for a decade or two in the more traditional segments of society--but when women realized they could have sex safely and without "paying for it" our overall cultural expectations changed in ways that won't go away.

But when we modern women write Romances set in the world where there is no effective birth control we face a challenge. To relate to way our modern readers' expectations we have to completely disrespect the reality faced by the women we are supposed to be writing about.

Our readers want our characters to have sex, lots of it. And that's what they get, but the only way we can do this is by completely ignoring what sex meant to people in the Regency or Victorian era.

A properly raised virgin in the Regency or Victorian period who had sex with a man she wasn't married to was either a) making an extreme political statement, b) ignorant of what she was actually doing (which happened more than you'd think since women were given no sex education until the eve of their marriage, and sometimes not even then.) c) drunk or drugged, or d) mentally abnormal.

Editors and agents tell us we have to ignore all this to sell books, and we do. But the recent trend, which makes the loss of virginity a nonissue for our historical heroines the way it is for today's teens, drains away rich sources of conflict that could provide emotionally compelling stories that readers might prize.

When we create a heroine whose decision to have sex outside marriage is a radical act with frightening implications, we raise the stakes. If you don't think this can be done in a way that will move the modern reader, go reread Laura Kinsale's Flowers from The Storm.

My characters do have sex--and sexual tension drives my plots, but my heroines are rebels. They know their willingness to give themselves to a man outside of marriage is a heroic act, courageous or foolish, but never routine.

I'd love to put the narrator of "All Around My Hat" into a story--a woman who fights her own heart to withstand the advances of a man who as much as she loves him, shows her through his willingness to seduce her that he isn't worthy of her.

What do you think?