Tuesday, 11 October 2016

In Which I Hear Voices - Catherine Butler

Two voices are there: one is of the deep,
And one is of an old half-witted sheep –
And, Wordsworth, both are thine!

What would Wordsworth’s words be worth were we to weigh them wisely? For James Kenneth Stephen, that all depends on which voice he is using: the one that echoes “the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody”, or the one that explains laboriously that “that two and one are three, /That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep”. Stephen (whose sonnet on the subject I have mangled above) finds the poet’s double-voicedness a source of irritation, and perhaps the more so because the two voices are so very similar to each other. Wordsworth is often at his best when using a plain style, teetering indeed on the brink of banality:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

It’s not only poets who write in stereo, of course. When children’s writers use first-person narration, there are inevitably two voices at work. One belongs to the child narrator (the narrator usually is a child), the other to the adult writer. If the narrator is an older or particularly articulate child the two voices may seem to merge into each other – a situation that brings its own complications – but what about when the narrator is young, and perhaps naïve or not particularly skilful with language? How can children’s writers produce good books using such intractable tools?

One approach is to use dramatic irony, perhaps to comic effect. For example, the narrator in E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers (1899) has his own voice, but the perceptive reader is flattered that he or she sees more than the narrator does.

There are six of us besides Father. Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don't care because I don't tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all. Dora is the eldest. Then Oswald—and then Dicky. Oswald won the Latin prize at his preparatory school—and Dicky is good at sums. Alice and Noel are twins: they are ten, and Horace Octavius is my youngest brother. It is one of us that tells this story—but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don't. It was Oswald who first thought of looking for treasure. Oswald often thinks of very interesting things. And directly he thought of it he did not keep it to himself, as some boys would have done, but he told the others, and said—

The Treasure Seekers is a deserved classic, but the general danger with this approach is that readers are invited to laugh at the narrator rather than engage with their concerns. There are alternative approaches, however – one of which is exemplified in the work of Jacqueline Wilson.

Wilson’s most famous books are all first-person stories with child narrators. Sometimes she does, indeed, use dramatic irony, but often there’s something else going on.

Take The Illustrated Mum (1999), published exactly one hundred years after The Treasure Seekers. The narrator is Dolphin, who tells us on the first page: “I’m still in the Juniors and I’m useless at any kind of writing.”  Here is a puzzle, because this 10 year old, who’s so “useless” that she draws pictures in her mother’s birthday card rather than write a message, has apparently produced a 223-page account of her recent life in perfect English!

Of course we can make allowances for convention. And it’s true that much of the time Dolphin’s voice sounds more or less like that of a 10-year-old:

I sniggered. Mrs Luft sniffed disapprovingly, folding her arms over her droopy old-lady chest.
   “How’s that mother of yours, then?” she asked.

Sometimes, though, we get a glimpse of something more sophisticated.

I carefully patted her long thin arm with the new tattoo etched into her sharply pointed elbow. She seems too lightly linked together, almost as fragile as the daisy chain round her ankle. … Marigold was still engrossed in telling her mouse saga. (75)

Is our inarticulate ten-year-old likely to use “etched”, “engrossed” and “saga” in this situation, or to describe her mother as  “too lightly linked together”? I suspect not.

Nor is it a question of language only. It is a rare ten-year-old who has the adult distance to add “but unwisely” in the following exchange:

    “It’s bad enough when the boys fight, but it’s appalling when a girl starts using her fists,” she said.
    “That’s sexist,” I said, accurately but unwisely. (82)

And what about this passage from the end of the novel?

She carried on like she was the most uncool conventional mum in the world, with virgin skin. I looked at her, my illustrated mum. I knew she really did love me and Star. (292)

“Virgin skin” seems a most unlikely collocation from any ten-year-old, let alone this one. And “illustrated mum”? Presumably Dolphin is here alluding to (and punning on) the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story collection, The Illustrated Man – but it’s a rather arcane piece of knowledge…

I could easily multiply these examples. I don’t say any of this to criticise Wilson – on the contrary, I greatly admire her confidence in being able to write like this without breaking the illusion that a ten-year-old girl is speaking. I only began to notice these features when I read the book for the second or third time, after all, and I don’t believe that they’ve generally been experienced as a problem by Wilson’s readers. But what’s going on? How is it that this bumblebee can fly?

Here’s my guess. Professional impersonators don’t generally try to look or sound exactly like the person they’re impersonating. Rather, they identify one or two distinctive features – irregularities in pronunciation, idiosyncratic hand gestures, and the like – and concentrate on mastering those. Once we recognise those key points, we are prepared to overlook (in fact our brains often insist on it) the myriad ways in which they don’t look or sound like the person concerned. Perhaps, for an experienced writer like Wilson, “talking like a ten-year-old” is a similar technique. The details of language are less important than emotional understanding. Dolphin’s helplessness, her longing for her mother to be happy and her family whole, ring utterly true.

And getting that right is what makes Wilson a great children’s writer.


Gillian Polack said...

I have a tendency to teach the dual narration thing even when a writer uses a third person narrator. Very few writers can write a narratorial voice that's either fully independent of their authorial voice or fully subsumed by it. I count it as a win when the student can see what they're doing and identify their choices.

Emma Barnes said...

Wonderful post, Cathy. I would say though, with Dolphin, that she might be a child who is supposedly "bad" at writing because she struggles to get things down on paper, rather than because she is inarticulate. Unless you imagine she has to physically write down the book, then she could be mentally telling someone the tale in her head, or dictating it, and she could do this extremely well regardless of her "writing" skills. (This is actually something I try and get across to kids on my school visits, that the most important thing about being a "writer" is making up stories where people want to know more, NOT whether you have neat handwriting, spelling, punctuate correctly etc. It's easy for kids who have great imaginations to think they are "no good" at writing when actually they are terrific storytellers.)

You are right, though, that even taking that into account, it's unlikely she would use some of the phrases you've identified. And, in fact, every first person book with a child narrator is inherently unlikely, regardless of the type of language used, because of the craft involved in creating such a book. So every such first person book requires a suspension of disbelief. But then, we know its fiction, and I suppose it's enough to feel that there is an authenticity, in that this is the story such a child would tell, had they the skills and opportunity. And Jacqueline Wilson scores hands down in that respect.

Catherine Butler said...

Oh yes, I quite agree that Dolphin is more articulate than she believes herself to be. But her articulacy is often of an implausibly literary variety.

Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting post, Cathy. Thank you.

Stroppy Author said...

Great post. I think you're right - but also a child reader enjoys the new words and phrases that come from the bit of adult articulacy appropriated by a child narrator. Crafting an entirely convincing child's voice is a skill, but one that I suspect will be admired by adults looking at the artistry rather than by children who want to read a good story well written.

C.J.Busby said...

To some extent, it's the same convention of story-telling that means there are no 'umms' and 'ahs' and digressions in speech, and we accept that someone can get a whole conversation down verbatim. This is just how novels work. But I think on the specifics of the child voice, you're right, it's the quirks and tics that tell us it's a child, and so we accept the odd unreal sophistication without blinking. A bit like ignoring anachronisms in historical novels.