English is not a static language. It’s constantly changing, whether we like it or not.
Twenty years ago, “mouse” meant a rodent we hoped never to find in our houses. Now, it’s a friendly little gizmo we’ve grown quite attached to and use every day. In old black-and-white musicals, a guy might have sung about “making love” to a girl and simply meant he wanted to hold her hand and maybe steal a kiss. Today, it would mean he wants a whole lot more than that.
These are fairly recent examples of change. So it shouldn’t surprise us when some of the language in Jane Austen’s novels, written two hundred years ago, doesn’t sound quite right to our modern ears.
Actually, her language is one of the aspects of her books I enjoy the most. But emulating it as faithfully as possible has gotten me into some trouble. For instance, one reviewer on Amazon severely berated me for more than once using the word “saloon” in The Darcys of Pemberley, assuming it was a typo and that I surely meant “salon” instead. According to the definitions given in my 2004 Webster’s Encarta Dictionary (and every American western movie ever made), she would be right.
Saloon: commercial establishment serving alcoholic drinks to the general public. Salon: grand sitting room in a large house where guest are received and entertained.
However, my higher authority was Pride and Prejudice (which possibly the outspoken reviewer had never actually read???). In this excerpt from chapter 45, Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner have just arrived at Pemberley at the invitation of Miss Darcy:
On reaching the house, they were shown through the hall into the saloon, whose northern aspect rendered it delightful for summer. Its windows opening to the ground, admitted a most refreshing view of the high woody hills behind the house, and of the beautiful oaks and Spanish chestnuts which were scattered over the intermediate lawn.
Austen repeated “saloon” a second time shortly thereafter, confirming it was no mistake. So when in The Darcys of Pemberley (and later in Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley) I called the same room the same thing, I was technically correct. Nevertheless, I had stumbled my reader and that’s not a good thing. She (and perhaps others) had come to that unexpected word and tripped over it, pulling her out of the story and giving her a negative impression of my work.
At least in this example my use of a troublesome word, whose meaning had changed over time, was only regarded as a typographical error. I got into more serious trouble with “intimate.” Austen used it 100+ times in her writings, and as far as I can tell, not once did she mean anything sexual by it. Yet, when in TDOP I have Darcy telling Elizabeth that it’s unfortunate she once had a rather “intimate” association with Wickham, noisy protests arose from more than one quarter. “Elizabeth would never!” “Darcy wouldn’t believed her capable of such a thing!” Obviously, some readers thought the word inferred a sexual relationship not intended by the author or by Mr. Darcy either. Yikes!
The word “intercourse,” used dozens of times by Austen to mean any type of exchange between people, usually conversation, must also be handled with care for the same reason. Even an innocent word like “nice” can be misunderstood. As often as not, Austen meant subtle/careful/fastidious/fussy rather than pleasant/kind. And “wonderful” was intended to describe something exciting particular admiration, surprise, or amazement (full-of-wonder), not simply good or great.
…and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books – or at least books of information – for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 1)
Hopefully, the modern reader reading Jane Austen isn’t led too far astray by the differences in her language and our everyday meanings. As for me, I’ve learned to steer clear of using potential stumbling words in my writing whenever I can, or at least to clarify what I mean through context. But it’s not always possible.
A case in point. The lady in charge of a manor house in those days was the estate’s “housekeeper.” That’s what she was called; there’s no other word I can use for her. As the highest ranking position to which any female employee could aspire, the title carried with it a great deal of respect among the staff and also from the family they served. But unless the reader understands that, they will likely think of someone down on her knees scrubbing floors instead of what she really was: an important member of the household’s management team. I guess there’s nothing I can do about that.
It’s a continual balancing act: trying to use period-correct language while at the same time writing for the modern reader. I can get into trouble if I stray too far on one side or the other – using right words that now convey wrong meanings, or making the language sound too contemporary. Either error can detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
Has this happened to you? In your reading, have you sometimes stumbled over a clunky word that didn’t seem to belong? Did you misunderstand Austen-style language when you first began reading Regency fiction? Any other related pet peeves?