Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Minding your manners -
- or those of your characters.
The practice of using first or Christian names almost universally is a relatively recent phenomenon. My first job was a temporary one in a bookshop in the early 1970s. The manager addressed all the staff as 'Mrs' or 'Miss'.
My grandmother, born 1887, and the woman who was her next door neighbour for many years, called each other 'Mrs Surname' to the end of their lives.
Aunts and uncles were known by their surnames - the Brontes and their Aunt Branwell, in fiction the Bennets and their Aunt Gardiner.and Aunt Philips.
Holmes and Watson used surnames throughout, although they shared rooms for many years and there are hints in the stories of the deep affection which they felt for each other.
Writers of historical fiction sometimes have their characters using first names even when it is anachronistic or inappropriate for them to do so. This is presumably to establish a mood of informality or intimacy.
However, if people in the past did not need to resort to first names in order to be intimate, the writer should not need to either.
Topics of conversation and tone of voice can establish intimacy. So can physical proximity - walking arm in arm, for example.
Setting too can create an atmosphere of intimacy, for example an enclosed space such as a carriage or a small room. In a crime or adventure novel, the lady and gentleman might be trapped together in a cellar or secret passage.
Conversely, two people can be intimate in a public place where everyone's attention is elsewhere. On a dance floor, perhaps, where the music prevents their conversation being overheard by others. Or the parlour of a busy inn, or the drawing room of a country house. Jane Austen's novels contain many examples of characters having private exchanges while surrounded by other people.
It is the historical novelist's job to establish the mood while remaining true to the period in which he or she is writing.