A few months ago, while reading Hilma Wolitzer's novel, Summer Reading, curiosity grabbed me. The fictitious book club in Wolitzer's story, set in the beach communities of the Hamptons, was reading the classics. They often referred to Villette, a nineteenth century novel by Charlotte Bronte. Remembering the pleasure I had when reading Jane Eyre, also by Bronte, I thought I'd curl up with a delicious book and let the hours slide by. Instead, I was stumped by the verbiage.
Jane Eyre was probably the same, but I read that so long ago, I don't remember. That novel might have been assigned at school and I had to read it. Perhaps it's the movie I remember enjoying more than the actual book. Whatever, the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester hooked me and I hoped Villette would do the same. Sorry, Ms. Bronte, it didn't. But, it did get me thinking about language and how it has changed over the past 162 years since Villette was published.
Below are a few excerpts from the beginning of Villette. Perhaps they will also make you ponder the English language and its usage then and now. I took the liberty of re-wording these passages in today's language and I'm not sure which I prefer. There is a beauty to Bronte's words. Of course, there are beautifully written books published today with words that evoke all of our senses and transport us to different times and places, where we can smell the aromas and feel the textures, but even in those, the wording is simpler. Take a look at Bronte's and then play with the phrasing and, please, share what you come up with.
Bronte: One day Graham, on the occasion of his birthday, had some friends - lads of his own age - to dine with him. Paulina took much interest in the coming of these friends; she had frequently heard of them; they were amongst those of whom Graham oftenest spoke.
Rosen: To celebrate his birthday, Graham invited some of this buddies for dinner and Paulina was excited. She'd heard him speak about them so many times and here they were, in the flesh.
Bronte: After dinner, the young gentlemen were left by themselves in the dining-room, where they soon became very merry and made a good deal of noise. Chancing to pass through the hall, I found Paulina sitting alone on the lowest step of the staircase, her eyes fixed on the glossy panels of the dining-room door, where the reflection of the hall-lamp was shining; her little brow knit in anxious meditation.
'What are you thinking about, Polly?'
'Nothing particular; only I wish that door was clear glass-that I might see through it. The boys seem very cheerful, and I want to go to them: I want to be with Graham, and watch his friends.'
'What hinders you from going?'
'I feel afraid: but may I try, do you think? May I knock at the door, and ask to be let in?
I thought perhaps they might not object to have her as a playmate, and therefore encouraged the attempt.
Rosen: Walking down the hall, I spotted Paulina sitting alone on the bottom step. The reflection of the hall lamp shined on her little brow knit in deep thought. Her eyes were fixed on the dining-room door.
"What are you thinking about Polly?"
"Nothing. Only I wish that door was clear glass. I want to be with Graham and his friends. All that noise they're making, it sounds like they're having fun."
"So why don't you go in?"
"I'm scared. Do you think I should?"
I told her to go ahead and knock.
This scene reminds me of the times when, as a little girl, I sat on the top of the steps in my house wishing I could be downstairs with my brother and his friends. Just like Polly, I was much younger, and there was no way my brother wanted me down there. Instead of using Bronte's words for Graham - "As if I would be troubled with you! Away to mama and Mistress Snowe, and tell them to put you to bed." - my brother merely yelled, "Ma, get her out of here!"
So tell me, have we lost something in changing our phrasing over the centuries? Are we less refined? Or, have we simply eliminated unnecessary wording to get our point across? And what about the words and grammar we use when texting? Now, that's a scary thought - what will our writing be like in another 162 years - and what does it say about us? I implore you to share your thoughts.