I’ve written a couple posts about accents – specifically, about how to write a character who has a different accent to you, and some subtle differences in British and American English.
Today I want to talk about an amazing debut novel that I think handles accents brilliantly – In for a Penny by Rose Lerner. The book knocked my knee-socks off for loads of reasons, but in this post I’m going to look at some of the ways she shows her characters’ different speech patterns.
In for a Penny tells the story of the impoverished Lord Nevinstoke (Nev) and Penelope Brown, a brewer’s daughter with a hefty dowry. Penelope’s father began amassing his fortune when she was a baby, so she has never lived in penury. Her parents are part of a rising middle class, so they speak much differently than Penelope’s titled husband.
Here’s how Rose Lerner subtly slips in references to how they speak, without beating the reader over the head with dialect.
1. Have other characters notice the difference.
If everyone in your novel comes from the same world, they’ll probably consider each other (and themselves) accentless. It’s really only when we meet others that we’ll think about our own accents.
Weeks after Penelope first meets Nev, she can’t get him out of her mind, and she can’t figure out why. She thinks about his physical characteristics, then:
But it was his voice that stayed with her the strongest; the timbre of it was imprinted on her ear, and there was nothing ordinary about it. It was rich and mellow, and there was something graceful in the careless rhythm of his speech.
Not only does Penelope notice his accent, but she thinks of it in terms that reflect his character and upbringing. He’s never had to be careful about his decisions, used to a life of excess. His voice evokes these same images in Penny.
2. Have other characters reference it.
When they first become betrothed, Penelope is worried about how her family will be treated in Nev’s world. She asks Nev to promise her one thing:
“I am very fond of my parents, my lord. I could not be mistress in a home in which they were not welcome. I don’t mean you must entertain them with your friends, but just that they might visit me, and perhaps have dinner with us every so often when we dine en famille.” Miss Brown met his gaze squarely. “I won’t have my mother hurt. I know she drops her h’s, but if she should ever get so much as a hint that you despise her for it–”
Penelope understands her mother’s accent not only projects her social class but is also one of the biggest barriers to her mother being accepted by Nev’s family.
3. Let your characters use their own grammar, not yours and not your English teacher’s.
Grammar can change based on region and class. Subtle grammar differences can help a reader hear your characters’ accents.
For example, Penelope’s mother may drop her h’s, but her father the brewer has the strongest accent. This is partly underscored by his grammar. Just after Nev proposed to Penny and leaves, Mr Brown says:
“My, you got rid of that Bedlow fellow quick, didn’t you? I told him it were a waste of time…”
4. Spell a word phonetically.
This is one that can backfire, so use is sparingly (and, like I said in a past post on accents, question every phonetic spelling that you’ve seen a lot because it could be hackneyed language).
Penelope’s father refers at one point to “a dook.” Although I’m sure this won’t work for some people, I thought it was a brilliant reminder of his accent. Many upper-crust Brits pronounce ‘du’ as ‘jew’, so ‘duke’ sounds like ‘jewk’. Some regional British accents pronounce ‘du’ as ‘doo’, so ‘duke’ sounds the same way Americans say it. That’s why I’m not sure it’ll work for American readers who aren’t familiar enough with variations of British pronunciation and how they reflect class and background.
It worked for me, though.
Can you recommend any great novels that help you hear a character’s accent in a subtle, but effective way?