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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: going Erewhon with Christina Rossetti

ChristinaRossettiQuote

It’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday and you can see by her quote that Christina Rossetti was a poet, not a novelist. I love working on the Dictionary Project, but sometimes I wonder if it would have been better had I never started the novel I’m working on. Then last night, there was a plot twist in a recurring dream I am having about a dystopian post-apocolyptic future. Do I really need to start another project right now? Do I?

As a poet, Rossetti contributed several new words to the English language, including burnishment (a polish for metal) and shallowing (an adjective to describe something, or someone, that is increasingly shallow).

The nineteenth century was a great time for adding words to the English language; more words were added (especially during the second half of that century) than at any other time in the modern history of the language. They also invented dystopian fiction.

Dystopian fiction is utopian fiction’s jealous sister. While utopian fiction puts on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and insists that, if you listen to her, everything will be fine; dystopian fiction doesn’t think things are ok, but is going to show you that things could get worse. The first dystopian novels only problematized utopian fantasies, as in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), which seems like a utopia at first…

erehwon

Though I’m not sure that Erewhon can really be called the first dystopian novel, it introduced a popular dystopian theme: the tyranny of machines; a theme we are still terrified by to day (think of Stephen Hawking and artificial intelligence). The notion of machines developing consciousness started in Erehwon.

As writers, not starting a work means not exploring certain ideas, which is why – as much as I love Christina Rossetti – I don’t think that not beginning particular works is so sad. I’m glad that I’ve begun the projects I am working on at this time, but should maybe hold off on starting anything about dystopian post-apocalyptic futures until I finish a few other things.

Are you a writer? How many works in progress do you have right now, or at any given time? How many are too many?

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A mini-guide for writing Victorian erotica

Ashbee

This post is about the language of sex.

“I loved cunt, but also she who had it; I like the woman I fucked and not simply the cunt I fucked, and therein is a great difference.” Excerpt From: Anonymous. “My Secret Life, Volumes I. to III. / 1888 Edition.

Erotica is a growing field of literature, especially in eBooks. Erotica is also a growing branch of historical fiction. My Secret Life by Walter is a great place to go for tips on how to make your nineteenth-century characters talk dirty to each other, until I am able to give you a copy of the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties of course!

My Secret Life is the memoir of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s sex life. It was first published over the course of about seven years, beginning in 1888. It’s long and repetitive, but offers a frank discussion of hidden aspects of nineteenth-century life.

Although the work is attributed to Herbert Spencer Ashbee, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would talk about ‘fucking a cunt,’ but ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ were commonly used in Victorian pornographic literature. The words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ predate Victorian literature by hundreds of years. That means it wasn’t just Victorians, who used those words, their grandparents used those words!

NaughtyWords

Other old words for female genitals include: ‘chose,’ ‘privy chose’ (the vulva), ‘honour,’ ‘muff,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘cunny,’ ‘bearing place,’ ‘lap,’ twat,’ and my personal favourite ‘crinkum-crankum.’ ‘Shell’ and words related to shells could also be related to female genitalia, like ‘conch’ and ‘cunnus.’

Male genitalia could be referred to as: ‘jock,’ ‘arrow,’ ‘loom,’ ‘member’ or ‘virile member,’ ‘virility,’ ‘needle’ (though if you used that now, it would sound like you were diminishing its size), ‘cock,’ ‘other thing,’ manhood,’ propagator,’’handle,’ ‘shaft,’ and ‘Roger.’ There are more specifically Victorian words for penises though, like ‘organ,’ ‘intromittent apparatus,’ ‘root,’ ‘middle leg,’ ‘pisser,’ and words that sound like names, including: ‘Dick,’ ‘Mickey,’ ’Johnson,’ ‘Peter,’ and ‘John Thomas.’ I’m sorry to anyone actually named ‘John Thomas.’

‘John Thomas canoodled her honour’ is a very Victorian sounding sentenced, but it doesn’t sound very sexy, like: ‘His middle leg was now in her lap.’

There are fewer words that are anachronistic to Victorian erotica. ‘Pecker,’ ‘willy,’ ‘dong,’ ‘wang,’ and ‘schlong’ have no place in nineteenth-century bawdy talk, whereas ‘cock’ is perfectly acceptable. If you are talking about lady parts, don’t say ‘snatch,’ or ‘beaver,’ but ‘cunt’ is fine, as Ashbee demonstrates (I think it was Ashbee, who wrote or compiled My Secret Life).

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Make your own Victorian colloquialisms

Lucy Westenra as portrayed by Carol Marsh in Dracula (1958).

Lucy Westenra as portrayed by Carol Marsh in Dracula (1958).

There are lots of words that we use in formal writing that were only beginning to be tossed around in the nineteenth century, like ‘noticeably,’ which first appeared in print in 1845, and ‘blithering,’ which was coined by Punch in 1889.

A colloquialism is a word, or phrase, that is used in informal speech, but not in formal writing. English had not yet been standardized by the nineteenth century, which makes identifying colloquialisms that were colloquial within the period trickier. There were no set rules about which words could and couldn’t appear in formal writing, but upper- and middle-class Victorians often had strong opinions about what words counted as slang.

“I do not, as you know, take sufficient interest in dress to be able to describe the new fashions. Dress is a bore. That is slang again, but never mind; Arthur says that every day.” – Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Bram Stoker’s character of Lucy Westenra provides an interesting study of late-Victorian opinions on language. In the same letter that she writes the sentence: “Just fancy!” she calls the noun ‘bore’ slang. I could write a whole book on this problem alone, but the key is that there’s nothing random about the quirky opinions women, like the character of Lucy Westenra, had about language.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, women’s intellectual abilities were on trial, as women began entering university programs and demanding a role in politics. Moreover, they lived in a world that was literally inventing itself as it went along. It seemed clever to turn the verb ‘notice’ into the adjective ‘noticeably.’ If you are writing historical fiction, your character might try it with other verbs as well.

Words that you invent this way will be appropriate to the period and can add some levity to scenes that require it. ‘Grieve’ can become ‘grieveably’ and ‘shout’ can become ‘shoutably.’ I can’t create the context that those words will be hilarious in, but I know you’ll think of something!

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Bram Stoker’s Rules for Cursing

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 1.23.44 PMThis post is reposted from my other blog.

I must tell you beforehand that Mr. Morris doesn’t always speak slang—that is to say, he never does so to strangers or before them, for he is really well educated and has exquisite manners—but he found out that it amused me to hear him talk American slang, and whenever I was present, and there was no one to be shocked, he said such funny things. I am afraid, my dear, he has to invent it all, for it fits exactly into whatever else he has to say. But this is a way slang has. I do not know myself if I shall ever speak slang; I do not know if Arthur likes it, as I have never heard him use any as yet. – Bram Stoker, Dracula

In that passage from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy is writing to Mina. In it, she provides a wonderful peak into late-Victorian usage of colloquial language, from an upper-class woman’s perspective. Her description reminds me of when I first had to describe to my daughter the appropriateness of swearing:

“Certain words have the power to hurt people, some of those words also seem to amuse other people, and some of them are appropriate to use some of the time, but you have to be careful when using them. Pay attention to who you are speaking with, and never say anything like that in front of grandma, a teacher, or someone younger than you.”

That’s why Mr. Morris never speaks slang to strangers. He knows Lucy finds it funny, so he does it to make her laugh. As of yet, Lucy is not sure she will ever find an appropriate situation to use slang.

Passages throughout Dracula demonstrate how the use of slang and profanities was informed by gender and class.

In Dracula, Stoker makes the old seaman speak in a phonetically-spelled Whitby accent, littered with colloquialisms.

“An’ when you said you’d report me for usin’ of obscene language that was ’ittin’ me over the ’ead; but the ’arf-quid made that all right. I weren’t a-goin’ to fight, so I waited for the food, and did with my ’owl as the wolves, and lions, and tigers does. But, Lor’ love yer ’art, now that the old ’ooman has stuck a chunk of her tea-cake in me, an’ rinsed me out with her bloomin’ old teapot, and I’ve lit hup, you may scratch my ears for all you’re worth, and won’t git even a growl out of me. Drive along with your questions. I know what yer a-comin’ at, that ’ere escaped wolf.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

I’ve never enjoyed reading phonetically spelled dialects, but this passage adds to what Lucy has to say about colloquial language by offering a working-class male perspective. Even as a working-class man, he recognizes that some words are obscene, though he appears to have developed such a habit of using obscene words that he doesn’t always remember to think about his audience when speaking.

Though this is just one late-Victorian writer’s perspective on the use of Victorian language, it’s something to consider when deciding whether a character you’ve set in the era would use the word ‘fuck.’