In this week’s blog post, we’re going to go back to the 1800s—we’ve already been there once before with George Sand, but this time, we’ll be talking about bonnets and changing grammatical patterns.
I’ve said more about who I am as a writer in these blog posts than who I am as a reader, but those two things can’t easily be separated. As a part of my summer reading, I started Elizabeth Gaskell’s 700-plus page novel, Wives and Daughters. I have an abiding fondness for nineteenth century novels. I quickly became immersed, then worried that I would finish too soon and not be able to take it on vacation, read more slowly, took the book on vacation, and ended up finishing it this week.
In brief (gentle spoilers regarding the novel throughout this post), Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and her father, a country doctor and widower. The plot revolves around Dr. Gibson’s second marriage, the new characters introduced by this, and what this means for Molly as she grows up. True to form for the nineteenth century, Molly and Cynthia (her new stepsister) almost lose their characters due to impropriety and gossip and are in danger of catching scarlet fever.
Often a book written in the past will cause a reader to focus on social mores and practices of etiquette that are no longer conventional. While I do notice those things and find them fascinating, what I find myself particularly paying attention to are how grammar and usage change over time. Gaskell, a contemporary and friend of both Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, was writing Wives and Daughters in the mid-1860s. I often note that semicolons or commas are used then in ways that I wouldn’t use them today, but of course could not be said to be “wrong” because they occur in a different moment of grammatical time.
In the Oxford English Dictionary’s overview of nineteenth-century English, several of these grammatical changes are detailed. One of these examples “was the rise of the progressive passive. This new construction—as in ‘the ship is being built’—was at first used alongside the older construction (‘Every body here is talking of a Steam Ship which is building at Leghorn’, as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in a letter in 1819). But by the end of the century, the new form was clearly dominant.” It’s interesting to note that not everyone was happy about these changes, and just as more prescriptive users of the language continue to balk today, “[r]esistance to the progressive passive continued to be expressed across the century.”
But there was even more happening in English usage: “The increasing use of got (‘it got broken’) was taken as further evidence of linguistic deterioration, as was the split infinitive, a construction which also emerges as a popular shibboleth at this time—in spite of its widespread use, as by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.” I was absolutely delighted to find an example from Wives and Daughters here! The example provided (I’m not sure where in the novel it’s from) is as follows: “In such conversation as was then going on, it is not necessary to accurately define the meaning of everything that is said.” The italics in the text are mine, used highlights the infinitive (to define) and the adverb (accurately) that splits it.
I’ve talked about the split infinitive here before, but I didn’t realize that the 1860s marked a time when writers were splitting with more impunity (which I certainly encourage). To recap, the reason that the “rule” about not splitting infinitives exists is because, early on, the grammar of English was being modeled on the grammar of Latin, and in Latin, it’s physically impossible to split an infinitive (it isn’t two words—”to” plus the verb—like in English).
Wives and Daughters begins with a fashion moment: Molly Gibson, a child at the start of the novel, is excited about a village fête where she can wear her new bonnet. I took the opportunity to do online search for bonnets, and I discovered the very unexpected news that bonnets are having a fashion moment (#Bonnetcore)! I’m quite simply delighted and am looking into adding a bonnet to my wardrobe soon.
And if the novel begins with a bonnet, it can be said to end with a shawl. I was never more fond of Clare Kirkpatrick (Dr. Gibson’s second wife) better than when she says, in the penultimate chapter, “let me go to sleep, and dream about my dear Cynthia and new shawl!” Mrs. Gibson, I can certainly relate to falling asleep while creating outfits in my head! And while this is nominally the end of the novel, it isn’t really.
Now we come to the main reason that I’ve been thinking about this book all week. I could tell that the book was was nearing the end, and I had settled myself on my chaise to read. I was finally going to find out if Molly and Roger would realize their love, if Dr. Gibson would regret his second marriage, how Osborne Hamley’s secret amour would resolve. And then I got a quite disturbing surprise. I had not read the introduction to the book before diving in, and thus I didn’t know that Elizabeth Gaskell died before writing the final chapter. The conclusion in the book is written by Frederick Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, and while it provides what information is included in the writer’s notes, the story is essentially over.
Sad as I was to learn that Elizabeth Gaskell was unable to finish the work, I was glad to learn that she had left a happy ending for Molly and Roger among her papers. And I find that I love Elizabeth Gaskell even more now, having learned that she was unafraid of grammatical change—and understood the importance of a new shawl or bonnet!