Chameleon

http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/
http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/

Dear Reader, you will not be surpriz’d to observe that in recent days a steady consumption of Regency period and related writing may be persuading me to pursue certain patterns of speech in my writings. Having recently completed First Impressions, Charlie Lovett’s Austen-inspired cozy mystery, while simultaneously reading a selection of Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra, I find that it is difficult not to chuse similar turns of phrase and even spellings.

I have also finished Black Hearts in Battersea, the second of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books, set in the 1830s in what might have been a pre-Victorian world … if Queen Victoria had in reality come to the throne. You will doubtless recall that Aiken was much enamoured of Miss Jane’s novels, even to the extent of penning some continuations. And now I am deep into Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a work which deliberately echoes — without straying into parody or pastiche — the writing of that late Georgian era.

But then, I cannot but observe that I myself have leanings towards overblown phrases, for I rarely eschew the liberal usage of the comma, colon, semi-colon and dash. The reason must be an obsession with qualifying every statement, so as to excise ambiguity and evade accusations of generalisation. Where are the instances when I heed the injunction “Write as you speak”? When will I cleave to the modern style of writing plainly? Can I ever cast off the clout of anachronistic circumlocutions? Will I further descend into the slough of circuitousness, the whirlpool of wordiness, the maelstrom of mellifluence?

I digress.


But I wonder if not more of us are tempted into a way of writing that mimics the style of what we’re reading. After all, some of us have to guard against unconsciously adopting the speech patterns and vocabulary of those we’re speaking to — it’d never be right for me to exclaim “What’s up?” to a younger audience, or to address a Glaswegian as Jimmy and ask him if he’s alright (I’m not desperate for a Glasgow kiss any time soon).

Not so long ago there was a fashion for fridge magnets that allowed one to select words and phrases that borrowed from or aped the Romantic poets or even Shakespeare. Friends and family with these scattered over the front of their fridges would often find me obsessively crafting halfway decent Elizabethan blank verse or iambic pentameters that almost convinced browsers they were quotes from a lost Shakespeare play or unfamiliar sonnet. (That obsessive ‘crafting’ may suggest somebody with ASD or Asberger’s, but this discussion may well be for another post …) I found it surprisingly easy — with the choices on offer including thee and thou, wouldst and couldst — to formulate pastiche couplets that pretty much made sense.

But yet again I diverge from my drift, which is this. These Regency-style writings may have the late Georgian period in common but there are subtle  differences which shade from one end of a spectrum to another. My Dear Cassandra, an edited selection of letters from Jane Austen to her sister, is of course grounded in reality: her daily routines, the friends and acquaintances she meets, the social gatherings she attends. However, there is little pertaining to current events, whether political (though she is not keen on the Prince Regent) or about the war with France (except news of when her brothers are on home leave) or social (members of the working classes get incidental mentions but we look in vain for commentary on the abject poverty that existed in parts of the kingdom). When we come to the later fictions centred on this period (1811-20 for the Regency era, 1795 to 1837 for the Georgian period proper) there are marked differences in tone, not least with extending beyond the boundaries of landed gentry and of gentlemen and their families. Before embarking on a brief examination of these novels I want to bring two terms to your attention: Paracosm and Uchronia.

I’ve mentioned Uchronia before, I think. Formed by analogy with Utopia (“No-place”) Uchronia is a common term for alternate history or alternative history. This is historical fiction loosely based on aspects of real history but where at some stage that history has diverged from that which we know (hence “No-time”, as Uchronia implies). Paracosm (“parallel world”) on the other hand is defined as a “detailed imaginary world”: it was originally used by child psychologists to describe complex mental worlds first created in childhood. The Brontës, Tolkien and C S Lewis famously developed their juvenile imaginary worlds into grown-up literary fictions, but I wonder how many other fantasy worlds created by adults also have their roots in childhood world-building daydreams.

Book Actual Time Place
My Dear Cassandra (Jane Austen) Factual
First Impressions (Charlie Lovett) Factual Paracosm
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) Factual Uchronia Paracosm
Black Hearts in Battersea (Joan Aiken) Uchronia Paracosm

How does this all apply to my chosen reading? My Dear Cassandra is clearly factual (insofar as we can accept her viewpoint as a reflection of reality, which I hope we do). First Impressions borrows some facts (such as where Jane was at certain points in her life) but then embroiders so much that the author could very well be writing about a different person with the same name; he also invents some locations in amongst real places like Chawton, London and Oxford. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is partly factual — it includes the basic timeline of the Napoleonic Wars for example — but also posits a separate kingdom in the North of England in the medieval period (making it overlap into Uchronia); it also presupposes a realm of Faerie that co-existed with our human world (suggesting a Paracosm, because so much of its backstory echoes the fairy lore many of us, including the author, must have imbibed in our childhood).

And then we come to Dark Hearts in Battersea. This novel definitely partakes of  Uchronia as it involves a timeline where the Hanoverians never ruled in Britain — so no monarchs called George I to George IV from 1714 to 1830 — but the Stuarts continued instead through to 1833, when this story takes place. But it also is a kind of Paracosm, full of the kind of escapades that Joan enjoyed reading in favourite authors like Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and John Masefield and with which she enthralled her younger brother when she was in her teens; and we mustn’t forget that though some of the England she describes seems familiar there are odd geographical discrepancies: a castle in Battersea Park for instance, or a village inland from York called Loose Chippings. As the series continues such discrepancies continue to proliferate.

Now you may be wondering about that chameleon and where it comes in all this. Of course many species of chameleon can change colour and merge with their usual background — as well as using colour change to communicate to potential mates or to warn off rivals — and so are a great metaphor for fictions which may appear to conform to factual history and geography but which frequently belie that impression.

But in earlier times, from Pliny onwards, it was believed that the chameleon survived merely on air. Shakespeare famously mentions the creature in Hamlet, when Claudius asks the Prince “How fares our cousin Hamlet?” and Hamlet, punning on the word ‘fare’, declares “Excellent, i’ faith; of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed …” And in one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one character declares that “The chameleon Love can feed on the air,” though he himself would rather have meat.

In short, and to cease from further gratuitous diversions, I’ve found these Regency-inspired novels comparable to chameleons: to some they degree resemble the reality of the early nineteenth century without being truly so; and they do indeed eat the promise-crammed air, conjuring nourishment almost out of nothing. And now my tale is done; if you want any more you can tell it yourself.

April 29th marked the fourth anniversary of my Calmgrove blog on WordPress

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15 thoughts on “Chameleon

  1. Had a good laugh at that first section but I’m surprised you were able to drag yourself away from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to write this fascinating and enjoyable post! Glad you did though 😄

    1. Well I’m pleased you found this enjoyable, Alastair, as I had great fun writing it. And tearing myself away from Messrs Strange and Norrell wasn’t too hard as I tend to read about them at night, reserving the day or evening to compose my posts!

  2. Oh, this was such fun to read Chris! I could definitely relate to this, “I wonder if not more of us are tempted into a way of writing that mimics the style of what we’re reading.” I’ve certainly observed this in myself!

    Anyhow, happy readings & congratulations on your 4th anniversary!!

  3. elmediat

    Great post. Belated congratulations. I would suggest Galen Beckett’s series, which starts with The Magicians and Mrs. Quent. It is based on the following question: “What if there was a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë?”

    A very bizarre Steampunk reality can be found in Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian world of books – full of plucky orphans, great adventures and mechanical creatures. Starts with The Court of the Air.

    Urchonia.net has a very comprehensive list of works dealing with all manner of alternative realities and allohistories. Includes list of winners for the Sidewise awards.

    1. Thanks for all these references, I can see I shall have to find a way not to sleep at night if I’m to get through all the books bloggers have kindly recommended for me!

      I’ve come across the Uchronia site before now, bah, another site for spending an inordinate amount of time exploring — thanks a bunch!

  4. The unflagging persistence with which you have sustained your efforts for four full years is worthy of commendation in the highest degree. ‘Twere as well that I should add, though, that your fancy that language can be caught as one would a palsy is completely absurd; indeed, it can have no credence. Nonetheless it is an absorbing theory …

    1. To read or not to read? That is the question: whether to broaden the mind and absorb the words and phrases of outstanding authors or to shut the mind against the sea of writings and by one’s soloing join them … T’is a conundrum devoutly to be dissed.

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