Friday, 29 July 2011

Swearing in the time of William IV

What I’ve been reading: Laurie Graham; At Sea and Perfect Meringues and The Ten O’Clock Horses; Catharine Arnold; Necropolis: London and its Dead and City of Sin: London and its Vices; Ginny Redington Dawes with Olivia Collings, Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830

I’m looking out the window at a beautiful, sunny, Newcastle winter day, which makes a change from the spectacularly foul weather we’ve been having here lately. Apparently we’ve had the most rain in July in 21 years, or something. Australians are great ones for comparisons - it’s always the hottest day since 1962, or the worst floods since 1939, or the biggest cyclone since the last biggest one. As bad as New Zealanders when it comes to the weather.

I’ve been enjoying the rain and wind, though. Reminds me of home. Except for last Thursday, when the Surfer and I drove down to Sydney for the weekend. The weather was atrocious. The wind was almost gale force, the rain was sideways, you could barely see the road and we lost a hub cap and that bit of trim that goes along the side of the car.

We went down because I had a meeting with my publisher, HarperCollins Australia. Work on the new book is trotting along nicely, but the Surfer didn’t get to surf because the waves were a murderous four metres at all the beaches. Coming across the harbour from Manly to Circular Quay on the ferry was great fun – the swell was HUGE.

Nobby's Beach, Newcastle, a few weeks ago.

Sydney, view of South Head from North Head, last weekend

And now I’m back at my desk polishing the manuscript – ‘polishing’ being a euphemism for fixing all the bad bits – so it can be ripped apart again at the next meeting. It’s a long process, editing, but always worth it.

The Research

I admit there is a hint of swearing in this new series, so people offended by foul language will just have to read with their hands over their ears. But it’s about convicts and various characters from the underworld in the 1830s, and therefore hard to avoid. So I’ll just dive in here.

Interestingly, the word f***ing, and I’m referring to the ‘ing’ part, didn’t come into use until c.1840, although the obscene f*** by itself first appeared in writing in 1503. The etymology of the actual word isn’t clear, but it doesn’t come from ‘fornicate under command of the King’ as is popularly thought. I’ve occasionally used f***ing anyway, despite the anachronism, because it has the 21st century impact I’m looking for. Bloody, as in ‘you bloody bastard’, just doesn’t cut it, even though back then bloody was considered a foul word and was very popular with the London underworld. Or anyone who felt like swearing, really.

Shit has been in constant use since the 14th century, so not much has changed there. Bugger comes from the French bougre, which came from the Latin Bulgaris. Something to do with a sect of allegedly homosexual Albigensian heretics, apparently. It originally meant sodomy, as defined by England’s Buggery Act of 1533, but by the 19th century bugger had become a general and versatile swear word.

C***, which has Greek origins, appears to have started out as a descriptive word rather than obscene. There was a Gropec***elane in the brothel area of Southwark c. 1230, and Lanfranc of Milan used it when writing about surgery in 1400. But by the end of the 17th century it had become legally obscene and you could be prosecuted for printing it. That didn’t stop people saying it, though.   

Which all goes to show that there’s nothing new under the sun. Note that most of this information is not the result of my own painstaking research – I’ve pinched a lot of it from a fascinating tome called Slang Down the Ages: the historical development of slang by Jonathon Green (Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2003). Very handy book. In future posts I’ll look at insults from the 18th and 19th centuries – much more colourful than swearing – and the fascinating subject of cant, the language of London’s criminals.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

So who was William IV?

I decided when I started this blog I’d post regularly every three weeks or so, and look, I’ve got behind already. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started when I was rushing to get the draft of the new book finished. Well, it is finished now, and I’ll be spending the next month or so editing it.

For me, this means fixing (hopefully minor) plot holes (quick note to self – sort out where Angus the cat has ended up), adjusting pace so there are no boring bits, reworking ugly sentences and stilted dialogue, and fixing silly mistakes, eg. characters whose brown eyes in chapter three have turned blue by chapter eleven. Spell-checker deals with (most) spelling mistakes, though I always leave the grammar-checker turned off. This is because correct grammar can ruin dialogue and, I find, wreaks havoc with what I like to think of as my ‘voice’. Also, frankly, I’m not very good at grammar and wouldn’t know what’s ‘correct’ anyway. Clearly I wasn’t listening at school during that bit of the curriculum.
After this the manuscript goes to my publisher, where it gets edited several more times. This is a long and extremely thorough process, and then there’s the cover and all that sort of thing to be done, so it’ll be ages before this book appears in the book shops. In the meantime I’ll be starting work on the next volume in the series.

The Research

I’m contemplating writing a few paragraphs on swearing during the era of William IV, seeing as that’s the time period for the new series and it’s an interesting subject, but first who was William IV and when did he reign?

Well, William IV was the third son of George III, and brother of George IV. George IV had been Prince of Wales (or Prince of Whales, as he was known, because he weighed 17 stone) and was George III’s first son. The second son, Frederick, died before his chance came to get on the throne. To see the most excellent Oscar-winning film about George III, check out ‘The Madness of King George’, 1994, on DVD with Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren.

When George IV died in June 1830, leaving no surviving children, William succeeded and reigned until he died in June 1837, also leaving no children, after which Victoria, as heiress presumptive, became queen. Victoria’s father Edward had been George III’s fourth son, who had died in 1820, the same year as his father, leaving Victoria his only surviving heir.

William’s reign is sometimes included in the somewhat all-encompassing term ‘the Georgian era’ named for Georges I-IV, and even more loosely lumped into ‘the Regency period’, due to George IV having been the Prince Regent from 1810 to 1820, when he took the throne on his father’s death, depending on what site you look at on the internet. But neither term fits particularly well, given that all the Georges had slipped their clogs by the time it was William’s turn.

It’s strongly suspected that George III had the dreadful blood disease porphyria, which turns your wee purple and can cause severe mental disturbance. He talked incessantly and obscenely, which brings me back to bad language. Swearing in the late 1830s was different to swearing now – more words to choose from for a start – but I’ve run out of space so I’ll consider the subject in more detail next time.   

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Never let a chance go by...

Well, here I am living in Newcastle, NSW. Why have the Surfer and I crossed the ditch? Basically, so I can write a series of novels set in Sydney in the late 1820s. I thought about trying to do it from New Zealand, but it’s a big project involving a lot of research, and moving to Australia made more sense than endless transTasman flights and expensive accommodation bills.

We chose Newcastle because it’s a lot cheaper and less hectic to live in than Sydney, and it only takes 2½ hours on the train to travel down to the big smoke. There’s a good university here with a great library, and various other pluses. We’ve been here now for nine months, and I feel like I’m finally settling in. We live in one of those apartments with a lift and a balcony and an arrangement where visitors have to buzz to be let in, which is all a bit strange because I’m used to living in proper houses with garden paths, clothes lines and lawns. Not that we ever mowed ours. I miss New Zealand, though, and my family, friends and my cat, Albert. But I talk to him on skype regularly.

Newcastle is a bit of a patchwork city, lots of what used to be small villages now joined together and spreading out down the coast, but each little nucleus still retains its own character. The port is seriously busy and has a sort of industrial beauty about it, and every day you can see the coal ships waiting in line out to sea. And in the space of about two square kilometers in the city centre you can move through precincts that go from trendy to shabby chic to just shabby, then derelict right next to luxuriously modern. Hunter Street, the city proper’s main drag, is famous. It’s mentioned in ‘The Newcastle Song’ from the 1970s, which some readers might recall. You know, the one about the blokes sitting eight abreast in the front seat of a hot FJ Holden with chrome-plated grease nipples and twin overhead foxtails pulling up outside the Parthenon milk bar looking for sheilas? The chorus goes, ‘Don’t you ever let a chance go by, oh Lord, don’t you ever let a chance go by.’ We looked for the Parthenon milk bar, but apparently it’s long gone.

Here’s a random list of some pros and cons of living in Newcastle and Australia in general, from a Kiwi perspective, naturally:

Good things: fantastic old architecture; beautiful beaches and scenery; interesting and cute furry animals; good public transport (more on that in a later blog); shoes I only ever saw in magazines at home; tremendous public generosity in times of disaster; loads of antique shops; cheap electricity and petrol; bats that fly every night; good coffee and amazing cakes; an absolute wealth of accessible historical archives; vibrant markets every weekend, etc.  

A baby wombat at the Australian
Reptile Park. Cute, eh?
Church of Christ, Newcastle.

Not quite so good things: disgustingly huge spiders; 40+ degree summer days with 90% humidity; weird traffic controls, like four stop signs at four-way intersections and no one knows who should go first; REALLY loud cicadas and frogs in the summer; shopping trolleys that ONLY go sideways; not enough cats; endless ads on the telly for insurance; what appears to be a deliberate refusal to televise Warriors games; banks with hideous fees and computer systems that crash regularly; etc. Australian readers can feel free to say if you don’t like it, go home.

But the reason I’m in Australia is not to eat cakes, run away from spiders and bang trolleys into parked cars at the supermarket - it’s to write four new books. So every time I blog, which will be every couple of weeks or so, I’ll be telling you a bit about my Australian travels – or ‘travails’ as a friend amusingly put it – and how the new book is going and what I’m currently researching. So here’s a quick introduction:      

The Research

The novel I’m currently working on is the first in a series of four based around four main characters, loosely inspired by several of my own convict ancestors, one of whom was transported to Australia on the Lady Julian(a). For a very lively and fascinating account of that voyage, read The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees. My characters are named Friday Woolfe, aged 18 and a prostitute (and, no, she doesn’t have a heart of gold); Sarah Morgan, 17, an unemployed apprentice jeweller and semi-professional thief; Harriet Clarke, 17, a skilled sempstress; and Rachel Winter, 15, daughter of small landowners in Guildford. The first book – working title Behind the Sun – begins in 1828 in London where the girls are all arrested for various crimes and incarcerated in ghastly Newgate prison before being transported to New South Wales.

They voyage to Australia on a fictional convict ship I’ve called the Isla, which I’ve based on descriptions of real convict transports and the Endeavour replica whose home base is the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour in Sydney. The Endeavour of course wasn’t a convict ship, but going aboard gave me a good idea of how crowded everything is above deck on a tall ship and the claustrophobic conditions below deck, though I understand Cook’s ship was even more cramped than normal, because of his large crew. Imagine living like that for months on end!

On the voyage my girls meet Bella Jackson, another convict – wealthy, charismatic and extremely powerful – who becomes Friday’s arch-enemy throughout the series. They also meet Gabriel Keegan, a fee-paying gentleman passenger travelling to New South Wales to take up a government position, who will have a devastating impact on all their lives.  

So far the girls have just arrived in Sydney, and I’ve been doing loads of research into the Parramatta Female Factory, where virtually all female convicts transported to New South Wales stayed before they were sent out on assigned service. 

Newgate Prison

Deck of Endeavour replica,
 Australian National Maritime Museum.