Austen, Dickens and me: The art of literary ventriloquism

I’ve never much liked the word ‘pastiche’ . It always sounds rather condescending to me – as if the meticulous re-evocation of another’s style is some rather inferior form of passing-off.  Personally, I prefer ‘literary ventriloquism’.  The art of catching a recognisable and distinctive voice, just as Dickens describes young Sloppy doing in Our Mutual Friend, when he reads aloud from the newspapers, and ‘does the Police in different voices’.

I’ve written two novels now, both of which have drawn more or less on the techniques of literary ventriloquism. The first was a full-blown attempt to mimic the style and language of Jane Austen; the second involves ‘recalling to life’ some of Dickens’ most distinctive characters (to use a memorable phrase of the novelist’s own).

I was writing The Mansfield Park Murder when the film of The Duchess came out, and I remember hearing it reviewed on Radio 4. The critic admired the gorgeous settings and costumes, but was rather less enthusiastic about the script – especially the scene where Georgiana offers to make a ‘deal’ with her husband, when the word she would actually have used at that time was ‘bargain’.

It was a useful reminder of something I already knew – that even relatively small mistakes can lethally undermine the authenticity of your prose. My mission, which I chose to accept, was not to commit any such fatal faux pas myself.

In practice that meant downloading all Austen’s novels, and checking pretty much every word as I went along. And it wasn’t just whether a term was in use then, but how it was used. My favourite example of this is ‘intriguing’. At one point I wanted my thief taker detective, Charles Maddox, to refer to a suspect as ‘intriguing in both senses of the word’. Only I couldn’t. Intriguing in the sense of ‘plotting’ is fine – it’s the original meaning of the word – but intriguing in the sense of ‘fascinating’ doesn’t come into English until 1909. Needless to say, 99. 9% of my readers would have neither known nor cared, but I did. It cost a lot to cull that sentence, but once I know it was wrong, I couldn’t keep it.

Austen and Dickens could hardly be more different stylistically, but in technical terms the task I took on with Dickens was actually remarkably similar to the one I faced in The Mansfield Park Murder. Though the only ventriloquism I needed here related to the characters I included from Bleak House, since I’d decided early on that any attempt to ‘write like Dickens’ in the main narrative of the novel was doomed not just to pastiche, but to downright parody.

The Dickensian cast I ended up incorporating presented some quite different challenges. Jo the crossing sweeper, for example, was by far the easiest. He talks in a highly stylised ‘mockney’ that’s very easy to reproduce- “I don’t know nothink”, “He wos wery good to me, he wos”. But with Tulkinghorn and Inspector Bucket the task was far less about the vocabulary, and far more about the cadences. What you might call the rhythm of the prose. So here’s a test for you. One of the passages below is me, and one is Mr D – can you tell which is which?

“Oh I know all about that,” says Bucket, tapping his nose with his busy forefinger. “I know what’s what, and who’s who, and loyalty’s a quality I prize a good deal even when it’s misplaced. As it looks to be in this case.”

 “And lookee here,” resumes Bucket, taking him aside by the arm, tapping him familiarly on the breast, and speaking in a confidential tone.  “You’re a man of the world, you know, and a man of business, and a man of sense.  That’s what YOU are.“

Full marks for anyone who spotted that the genuine article is number two.

I do enjoy being a literary ventriloquist, and I think you can actually learn a great deal as a writer by undertaking such an intellectual exercise, but the more books I’ve written, the more I’ve come to see it as a stepping stone, rather than a destination. So it’s probably no accident that there’s much less mimicry in my second book than in my first, or that the one I’m just completing now is written almost entirely in ‘my own voice’. From now on – as Mike Yarwood used to say – this is me….


Published in 2012

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