Writer in Residence

What Did Charlotte Brontë Sound Like?

By Lesley Krueger


Actor Pascal Langdale was our first choice as narrator for the audio book of Mad Richard. His voice is compelling, his accent British by birth and his audition thoroughly professional. It seemed a simple choice.

In fact, we lucked out, since Pascal is adept at British regional accents, and my novel is full of them. Even before the recording sessions started last week, Pascal was in touch to discuss both the accents and the tone of voice you would expect from different characters.

Turned out he knows the difference between the accent in Chatham, England, where my main character Richard Dadd grew up, and the accent only a few dozen miles down the road in east Kent.

During the 19th century, with London less than a hundred miles away, people in Chatham sounded roughly Cockney. Kentish Cockney, let’s say. Pascal was full of ideas for crafting different speaking voices for Richard Dadd, his father and brothers, teasing out not only their personalities but their individual ways of speaking, since they were all educated differently, with Richard destined by his father’s ambitions to be a gentleman.

Of course, you can go too far down that road. Charlotte Brontë is the other main character in the novel, and although everyone knows she grew up on the Yorkshire moors, her 19th century contemporaries wrote down their surprise that her speaking voice sounded Scottish.

Charlotte’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë (originally Brunty or Prunty or O’Prunty) came from northern Ireland, which had seen widespread Scottish immigration. With Charlotte brought up in the parsonage in Haworth, her father a commanding presence and her family (at first) large and all-encompassing, Charlotte hadn’t socialized much with other “gentle” Yorkshire families and hadn’t picked up the local accent. The Scottish burr makes sense.

Yet it wouldn’t make sense to people listening to the audio book. Charlotte Brontë sounding Scottish? You’d lose a few people with that one, and confuse even more.

Then there’s the fact that Charles Dickens, who appears in the novel as both a young man and a middle-aged pater familias, was said to have smoothed out his accent over the years. He seems to have started out speaking something resembling Kentish Cockney—having grown up, like Richard, in Chatham—and gradually moved toward a more plummy received English accent. It would be confusing to have the same man sounding too different in different chapters. Best to pick something in between and stick with that.

Finally, and most importantly, we’re not really sure what people really sounded like back when. Scholars can guess. Words that don’t rhyme in Shakespeare’s plays when actors speak them today probably rhymed at the time, and scholars think they can work out how. But I’m not a linguist, and in the end, I have to throw up my hands and say, We’re not going to be accurate, so let’s make it pleasing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Lesley Krueger is a novelist and screenwriter. Richard Dadd’s first cousin-in-law five times removed (if she has the genealogy right), Lesley drew on family information unknown to biographers in writing Mad Richard. The author of six books, she lives with her husband in Toronto where she’s an avid member of a women’s hockey league and a writer-mentor at the Canadian Film Centre. Find her online at LesleyKrueger.com.