Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Chaucer and language

I never did any Chaucer in school but read the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales while hiking through Cornwell a few years ago. I had a Middle English version that I'd borrowed from my husband with helpful notes scribbled in the sideline to translate it, and I got through it in about three afternoons, it's not very long.

The General Prologue isn't much more than a collection of character descriptions but they are incredibly skilful and, beautifully presented. They have levels - the realistic, the satirical and the allegorical and they challege what you think about them. The writing is gorgeous. It doesn't try to make you think, it doesn't force you with an opinion, in fact it provides basically no opinion at all, and at the same time it's written well enough to get you thinking exactly what Chaucer wants you to think.

The language is old and obscure, but in a way it makes it more exciting to read, as you're having to translate as you go. It's like finding some ancient scroll, or an alien code, and creates an even deeper sense of a little world in a drop of water. I remember reading Shakespeare at school and there was this sort of unspoken assumption that the language would be a barrier, a hurdle to try and get over. I think that particular attitude misses a trick. The language does make it difficult to read like an ordinary book, but it makes it more exciting to explore.

In Chaucer particularly the fact it's written in Middle English makes it all the more exciting when you find a sentence that you can easily translate. After a while you start reading the words with strange pronunciations and saying 'eek' instead of 'also' in general conversation. It's like a foreign language, but it's your foreign language, and you can see how words and phrases have evolved over time into modern English. In Chaucer's time there are sayings, and memes, and stylistic conventions that you can see reflected over time.

It's history and literature all mixed up together by an incredibly talented writer. A little snapshot of a strange world which is oddly familiar. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Anthropological fiction: three men in a boat

I got a Kindle for Christmas last year, and as a result I've started reading quite a few Project Gutenberg books. For the uninitiated, Project Gutenberg provides free ebooks, in particular those books where the copyright has expired. As my maternity money has really started to bite, I'm been downloading more and more of them. I've just finished reading Three men in a boat by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome K. Jerome, image in the public domain
 via wikimedia commons
Although I have my issues with Victorian novels, I really enjoyed this one. Maybe because Jerome actually succeeds in being vaguely humorous, or because he's not trying to make any political points. As well as enjoying the writing what I liked the most was the beautiful little glimpse it provided into Victorian life. Just by writing from the point of view of the time he was in, the author gives a little anthropological study of a way of life that is now almost completely alien.

Things I found particularly fascinating:

  • The 'boys'. Every shop they visited had a 'boy' working there, and several turned up to watch when they were trying to hail a taxi. 
  • Servants. Random housekeepers, washing ladies and charwomen turn up in what are clearly middle-class households. What's most interesting is that in an era of sexual inequality a large number of these random servants are women. Speaking of which...
  • Sexual inequality. Women are described as basically another species. It's not malicious, or degrading, just very alien. He devotes a full mini-chapter to the experience of having the boat pulled by 'girls'.
  • Entertainment. This stands out because while on the boat the guys are entertaining themselves by going to the pub in the evening and chatting, which is pretty much what most people would do on a boating trip nowadays. Whenever he goes off into an anecdote about home life though, you're suddenly plunged into a world of piano playing, music hall songs, and party games.
There's a wonderful blend of the familiar and the strange that make it so enjoyable to read. One minute it's packing a hamper with a dog (relatable) or the annoyance of that one friend who has to work the first day of the holiday and so decides to meet up downstream on the second day (very relatable - that friend was my husband!). Then the next sentence will be everyone lighting up pipes, or an anecdote that involves a household with at least six children in it. Sometimes I had to actively remind myself that the book was written over 100 years ago, other times it's impossible to ignore.

I enjoyed the historical anthropology of it so much that it almost tempted me into reading Dickens again. Almost...