Voicing the Text: Speech, Speakers, and the Performative Anthology – blog post by Lynda Mugglestone

In Victorian use, speaker claimed a range of meanings. Some were long-established. ‘One who speaks or talks’ was, the OED confirms, a fundamental aspect of English. So, too, were senses which directed attention to public as well as private converse or which set out a range of qualitative patterns in relation to individual use. In the OED, ‘fayr speakers’ were commended in a quotation from 1375. A letter from Dickens, written in 1866, trenchantly referenced the other end of the spectrum (‘Almost the worst speaker I ever heard in my life’).

Relatively new, however, was speaker in signifying the innovative text type first introduced by William Enfield in 1774. The Speaker; or, Miscellaneous Pieces selected from the Best English Writers, Enfield’s title-page stated. ‘A title of books containing pieces adapted for recitation or reading aloud’, the OED explained. A speaker in this sense was a kind of performative anthology, marked by its selection of exemplary texts in prose as well as verse. Here, orality and literacy intentionally combined. The reading lesson, as nineteenth-century exponents frequently observed, was perhaps better understood as the hearing lesson; oral performance (and reading aloud) was often made proof of both proficiency and comprehension. ‘The voice is the mirror of the mind’, as Alfred Macleod, appointed to teach reading in the public schools of Aberdeen, declared in his First Text Book of Elocution (a work in its third edition by 1881).

Enfield’s work, originally written for the students of the Dissenting Academy at Warrington, was still in print almost a century later. It gave rise to a host of adaptations and appropriations. Speakers, as class-book and textbook, and in private and public use, were a popular and prominent generic form, filtering into practical pedagogy at a range of levels while, by the end of the nineteenth century, also impacting on school assessment and training. Anthologies of this kind, used for educational purposes, clearly obviated the expense of having multiple copies of individual literary works. In Victorian use, they can, however, illuminate aspects of the literary landscape in significant ways.
Enfield’s focus, as his title-page indicates, was on the ‘best English writers’. The sense of a national literature, seen in broad rather than narrow terms, was, however, a further conspicuous feature of later works. As for the Dublin-based David Charles Bell, nation was an overt organizing principle. ‘The poets and poetry of Ireland have not been forgotten’, he reassured readers and teachers. ‘The Extracts have been revised and enlarged with the greatest care … selected from the writings of the most popular authors in British, Irish, and American Literature’, advertising for his Modern Reader and Speaker (2nd edition, 1850) likewise proclaimed. Elsewhere, too, a commitment to literary transnationalism was commonplace, evident in, for example, the striking popularity of Scott (who often appears in multiple extracts or ‘pieces’ within the same collection) while Burns’s ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ was another favourite. Notable, too, was the inclusion of ‘Scots ballads’, or Scottish writers such as Joanna Baillie, Robert Pollok, or Charles Mackay, or Irish writers such as Thomas Moore (whose ‘Tear of Repentance’ was another staple).

Selections of this kind – often coupled with popular but non-canonical extracts from periodicals alongside the prominence of the Dublin-based Felicia Hemans (whose ‘Casabianca’ or ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’ is another high-frequency ‘piece’) – shed light on practical reading communities in Victorian use. The role of speakers in forming, informing, and performing literary taste was a frequent refrain. ‘By ‘exercising a careful and judicious choice’, as Bertha Skeat, mistress of the County Girls School in Llandovery in Wales, stated, ‘we can do a good deal towards laying the foundations of a good literary training’ while, at the same time ‘developing a talent for reciting with expression’. Charles Plumptre, lecturing in London in the 1880s (and offering private as well as public instruction) made the same point. If Eliot and Gaskell rarely appear, ‘pieces’ from Dickens, Thackeray, Bulwer Lytton, and the Brownings are pervasive, as in the marked-up extract (above) from Dickens’s Dombey and Son, included in Alexander Isbister’s popular Outlines of Elocution and Correct Reading (London, 1870). Affect, as in the ‘Pathetic Pieces’ that featured in Enfield’s original collection, remained important. In Victorian speakers, the death of Little Nell, and extracts from Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers were other popular choices, along with tried and tested pieces from Shakespeare (or political rhetoric such as Lord Brougham on the slave trade and its needful abolition).

Seen in structural terms, however, the real innovation of Enfield’s Speaker (and, indeed, speakers more generally) arguably lay not – as the OED suggests –  in the presence or absence of a particular word in the title but in the distinctive textual hybridity they also reveal. Speakers can indeed be recognized by their collection of assembled ‘pieces’ for reading aloud. But salient, too, as Isbister, Bell, Plumtre, and Macleod – among others – confirm, is the presence of a kind of prefatory textbook, dedicated to elocutionary instruction and in which the stigmatization of disfavoured elements, both national and local, was plain. Enfield, for example, had stressed his aim to provide a ‘just and graceful elocution’ for his Warrington students in ways that incorporated remedial instruction in the statusful proprieties of, for example, /h/-fullness or the ‘proper’ distribution of /v/ and /w/ or, say, the diphthongal realization of ou in words such as out (where the retention of northern monophthongs was firmly proscribed). ‘A good articulation, proper emphasis, purity of pronunciation, due attention to pause and accent’ were all attributes that speakers, and speakers, should secure, John Connery likewise affirmed, here in his New Speaker (published in 1861, but overtly inspired by Enfield’s work). In texts of this kind, literature and language existed in careful symbiosis, placed within a remit that, across the nineteenth century, increasingly brought into focus the assumed proprieties of ‘standard’ speech for ‘standard’ texts.

Seen in this respect, however, nation and transnationalism can reveal an uneasy co-existence. ‘Good’ reading might require a ‘good’ voice in ways that return us, in some respects, to the qualitative meanings that speaker early acquired. But, as a wide range of works made plain, a good voice was prototypically marked by its erasure of localized elements in ways that rendered speakers agents of attempted standardization – and, where relevant, of anglicization, too. The work of the Bell dynasty – David Bell teaching in Dublin, his brother Alexander Melville Bell in Edinburgh (where he taught elocution to James Murray of OED fame), and their father Alexander Bell working in London – can, on one hand, hence usefully emblematize the geospatial diversity of speakers and their provenance in Victorian use (few speakers were products of the metropolitan elite). On the other, they clearly suggest the extent to which familiarity with national varieties of English also underpinned a critical proficiency in isolating particular regional features for remediation and change. Scottishness undeniably contributed to Melville Bell’s explanation of the working of the lungs (‘The common Scotch bagpipe gives an excellent and most convincing illustration of the comparative efficacy of a partial, and of a complete inflation of the lungs. See the piper, when the bag is only half-filled, tuning the long drones…’). Yet it informed, too, remedial specifications by which Scottish speakers must curb their rhoticity (and modify particular vowels). Irish and Welsh speakers fared no better. Nor did Northern English for which detailed directives were provided to rectify what was deemed ‘mispronunciation’. ‘Provincialisms’, as Isbister likewise made plain, were inimical to the educated accent that recitation required (while ‘one of the most striking defects in the reading and speaking of ill-educated persons is a vulgar pronunciation of the vowels’). Across countless works of this kind, detailed transcription systems, expositions on individual phonemes, alongside sections on speech training (often headed ‘oral gymnastics’) served to inculcate the proprieties and praxis of a supra-local voice. The presence of /h/-fullness, /ʌ/ rather than /ʊ/ in words such as cut, diphthongal enunciations of words such as made and note, and a lengthened ‘Italian a’ in, for example, fast and cast, were all routinely part of the regulative processes that they present. When ‘a defective articulation was to be corrected, a dialectic vowel-habit anglicized’, speakers were invaluable, as Melville Bell affirmed.

Speakers, and their pervasiveness in Victorian education and use, can, in this light, present us with an intriguingly under-investigated resource. They present, for example, a visible traction between linguistic and literary concerns – one which vividly illuminates the tensions between diversity and unitary forms, and of transnationalism alongside Anglicization. A rhetorical inclusiveness can thereby co-exist with the specification of national norms, and a dialectic of linguistic suppression alongside liberal statements of literary acculturation. Such tensions can, in part, be traced back to Enfield’s formative work (and the elocutionary heritage of writers such as Thomas Sheridan whose work on education and a ‘standard’ voice clearly shaped some of Enfield’s methods and concerns). In Victorian use, however, they were to constitute a significant part of the rhetorical deregionalization (and its attendant praxis) that framed the emergence and consolidation of Received Pronunciation or RP – while evoking other forms of ‘imagined community’ by which literary inclusiveness and supra-local speech might effectively combine.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *