I wonder what Jane Austen sounds like, and by that I don’t mean just what her voice sounded like, but the entirety of her world. As I sit here and write I can hear the hum of the refrigerator and the high-pitched whine of the space heater when I crank it to eleven, competing with the high-pitched whine of the tinnitus in my right ear. A little earlier I could hear my neighbor playing the piano and sometimes I hear one of the mysterious electronic beeps that comes from some unidentifiable piece of technology. And occasionally I hear a car pass by and a plane fly overhead.
I’m also proofing my book and to do that I instruct my computer to speak the text aloud, using a digitized voice called Serena, which has a very decent Received Pronunciation accent, aka BBC narrator voice. (You should hear Serena speak Welsh, and if you have a Mac, you can.) Yesterday I was cleaning house and to multitask I was listening to a Librivox recording of Emma, narrated by the very popular Elizabeth Klett, who has recorded a lot of Jane Austen fan fiction. I like Klett’s voice, especially her flat American Midwest narrator voice, the closest we have to RP.
What is RP? Well I don’t want to tempt you down that rabbit hole, but broadly speaking it’s the voice we imagine we hear when we listen to the BBC World Service, even though I most associate the voices of Neil Nunes, Bola Mosuro and Alan Kasujja with the BBC because those are the Newsday presenters I hear when I listen to the BBC at 10 pm. Nevertheless, Received Pronunciation is the voice that’s supposed to represent generic, educated British, even though only 2% of the UK population speaks it.
It’s based on the accents found in the southeast of England among those who attended posh boarding schools and went to Oxford or Cambridge, and I think it’s more an aspirational voice than an actual one. In fact it was originally called Public School Pronunciation, although there’s some debate how far back the term Received Pronunciation was coined or popularized.
When I did a not very rigorous search of English accents on YouTube, I found a lot of examples of Cockney, Yorkshire, Welsh and Scottish; and Liverpool and Birmingham and Bristol, but relatively few examples of Hampshire speech, where of course Austen was born and spent the majority of her life. I guess it’s not considered very remarkable.
Back in 2013 many people answered an accent tag challenge that required them to read a list of words and answer questions about common words, like what is a generic term for a carbonated beverage? The Hampshire respondents sound to my ear like generic Brits and I have an image of Jane Austen speaking this way. Interestingly, if you listen to Derbyshire respondents to the accent tag, you will have a completely different impression of Darcy.
There’s a fallacy, however, in thinking that present-day accents are representative of what people sounded like two hundred years previous. Most people understandably believe that at the time of the American Revolution, we Americans sounded like the British and over time we rebelled against the Received Pronunciation of our oppressors and started pronouncing the “R” in “hard.” But again a not very rigorous Google search finds lots of people maintaining that it was the British who diverged, that we Americans stayed true, with the implication that the British accent of 1800 was much closer to the American accent of today. I can never really find any source that I consider authoritative, however, most of the articles being attributed to “a linguist.”
I find this speculation to be suspect for several reasons. British immigrants to the US would have come from all over the British Isles and the experience of the New World, the contribution of indigenous languages and the rapid expansion and consequent isolation of people in the vastness of America of course altered our speech. I think the American accent at the time of the revolution must have been all over the map.
Nevertheless this does make me wonder how rhotic Austen would have sounded. Would she have pronounced the “R” in “hard” and would she have said the “A” in “bath” with a broad “A”?
Beyond accent, I also wonder if Austen herself would have really spoken the complex, well thought out sentences she gave to her characters. Would her speech patterns have resembled Darcy’s when responding to needling from Caroline Bingley: “Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?” Or later when Elizabeth refuses to join the group of Darcy, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst: “You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.”
Did people really talk like that back then? Today we’d say: “No, you go on. You don’t need me to be a third [or fifth] wheel.” But how much wittier what Austen writes—unless everyone talked like that. Were they so verbally skilled they could come up with clever bon mots like that on the spur of the moment, or did people actually pause to stop and consider what to say before they said it? I like to think of Elizabeth exchanging quips with Darcy like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but maybe their conversation would have been interspersed with pauses for thought.
(Of course I’ve read enough examples of speech from Austen’s day to know that people really did talk that way. As clever as Austen is, it’s dangerous to credit her with too much, like those list of words and phrases she invented, when I’m sure in many cases hers are just the first recorded uses of those phrases.)
Another thing that divides us from the aural experiences of the Regency is that no one would have known how their voice sounds to others. Austen would have never heard her recorded voice or the voice of anyone else. She could have never played the guess the narrator game, when you’re listening to a documentary and your husband asks, “Who’s that?” and you condescendingly reply, “Peter Coyote.”
She would have never heard the 60 hertz (or 50 hertz in the UK) whine of mains electricity. She could have heard recorded music, however, in the form of a music box, but not in the sense we know it. In general, I think she would also be largely unfamiliar with the repetitive sound of machinery, unless she should visit something like a mill.
And this aural landscape would have extended to her word choices. Nothing would have ever beeped or buzzed (except for bees) and she would never have complained of static or feedback. I sometimes wonder if it was a quiet world, like what a city dweller imagines the countryside must be like. But then I remember when being in the country of awakening to the sound of chickens and ducks and I think of those Regency servants who woke early to get the fires started or the sound of passing carriages and the realization Chawton Cottage wouldn’t have had double-glazing. And there would have been more songbirds. So maybe it wasn’t a silent world.
And finally there’s just the actual quality of Austen’s voice. Would it have been nasally, deep or musical? And here we come to the one thing I almost sure of—her voice would have sounded sarcastic, arch and dry. I would not have it any other way.
Or maybe I’m not sure. The issue of what Austen sounds like has proven to be difficult to pin down. I asked my friend Chris Sandrawich, who is with the Midlands chapter of the Jane Austen Society in the UK, if he had any thoughts on the matter. As usual he replied with his usual very learned and entertaining opinions, but then he would reply again and again with qualifications and elucidations. Finally I received this:
“What little I have read so far in research throws a shadow of doubt over everything I had suggested in my first e-mails to you. Do not rely on them. It is also likely that my views about Dear Jane will have to undergo quite a sea change. I’m not sure I will like it. Meddling with things and digging up the past, they say no good comes of it and I’m being humbled into agreement.”
So apparently I’ve blundered into deep water and all I have resolved is that it’s impossible to know what Austen sounded like. If I want to continue imagining Austen with her perfect Received Pronunciation, I should feel free to do so.