Sunday, February 26, 2006

Regency Cant or Modern Parlance?

As a relatively new author of Regency-based fiction I often find myself agonizing over just how much langage of the time to introduce into my work. Should I go for authenticity, aided and abetted by the extensive dictionary of 'Regency-speak' which I've built up over the years? Could the use of obscure terms slow the pace of the plot and would I be better advised to leave the Regency dictionary gathering dust on its shelf and express myself in a manner that's more likely to be familiar to the modern-day reader?

For instance, most aficionados of the Regency period would have no difficulty in understanding me if I were to refer to a gentleman becoming 'leg-shackled' or 'falling prey to the parson's mousetrap', since they would immediately realize that he was about to be married. And if I were to refer to a charactger that had 'pockets to let' or indicated that he was 'on a repairing lease' then few readers would doubt that said unfortunate individual was short of funds.

On the other hand, supposing I accused someone of telling 'crammers', 'bamming' or becoming involved in a 'brangle', would those expressions be as easily understood and, morer to the point, would they slow the story down or, worse, cause the reader to lose interest?

I'd be interested to know what you think.



Laura V said...

One can usually work them out from context. If they're ones used by Georgette Heyer, then it seems likely that more people will have heard them before. But you have to be careful to get it right, and 'right' doesn't necessarily mean just 'right' according to your dictionary. Something might just not sound 'right' to the reader if that's not the form they're used to from reading Heyer and other authors.
I think you can manage quite well without most of them, though. I have a feeling that most M&B regencies have fairly little regency cant. It works well (after all, it's not as though Jane Austen characters use such expressions very much).
I think it's much more important to avoid glaring anachronisms.

Stephen said...

At risk of being accused of heresy, I have to say that I am not a huge fan of Heyer's use of cant. It's not the words themselves - I can usually understand them without any real difficulty from the context if nothing else. My dissatisfaction is with her tendency to suddenly start trowelling it on for a page or two, and then dropping it completely. She also tends to put cant into reported speech while all around is in direct speech. This has a distancing effect which is not, I think, always intended.

While it sometimes works reasonably well as a POV trick (eg the opening passage of The Unknown Ajax, where we are introduced to the Darracott family from the perspective of the footman, Charles) it is less effective when used by the upper classes - see Felix Hethersett's speech to Nell Cardross while they are standing around in Ryder Street towards the end of April Lady.

And while Heyer gets her cant mostly right, she does occasionally come up with oddities, like "fat as a flawn" used in The Unknown Ajax and at least one other book. The normal usage is "flat as a flawn" (a flawn being a custard tart).

My advice would not be to avoid cant altogether, but to be judicious with it.

Wendy Soliman said...

Interesting and intelligent comments from both Laura and Stephen. My own inclination is to use cant sparingly, ensuring that it's in the correct context, which seems to be what you are both suggesting.

Wendy Soliman