Today I watched the 1985 film version of the 1908 novel A Room With a View by E.M. Forster. I’m always struck by the level of dialogue in that period. I find myself asking if people really spoke that way.
There is one character in the story, Cecil Vyse, who is described as “pretentious.” He is pretentious to be sure, even in comparison to the other characters. To be pretentious in a world that seems characterized by pretentiousness is an achievement.
But then I am brought back to Earth by the thought that my judgments about the period are manifested by the biases of my own time. It makes me wonder what the denizens of E.M. Forster’s time would have thought of the English language culture of today.
Modern readers of 19th Century English Lit often seem prone to comment on the puffed up dialogue. This says something about our own time. We consider their speech pretentious only because of the brutality of our own. Just listen to the way the kids these days are talking. It’s enough to make even the most narly leather-sporting street punk curl their nose.
The class argument can be made but it doesn’t really hold. The novels of the period tend to focus on the lives of the aristocracy and therefore higher language is to be expected. While that may be true, society’s measure of status has changed since then. The amount of respect a person gets is more based on educational credentials and less on the amount of land they own. Ask yourself if the average university graduate in our society speaks on the same level as any bit player from one of Jane Austin’s books.
I have to admit that despite the prudeness so often associated with Victorian culture, there is a certain cleanness about it that I admire. In their excessively high-brow manner there is honour and dignity alongside a transcendent pomposity.
We may think those people were pompous but really they were just using the english language in the full breadth of it’s possibilities. And what’s wrong with that? So the next time you want say something like “Oh the very site of him/her causes my ardent bossom to heave” and that voice in your head tells you that it’s probably not a good idea, don’t hold back, just let it out. You’ll be doing the English language a favour.