Next stop on my trip through the M.M. Bennetts Award finalists is P.D.R. Lindsay’s Tizzie. Although Lindsay lives in New Zealand, her family roots are in Yorkshire, the setting of this novel.
I mention that only by way of partial explanation of one of the most striking features of this book – its utter and complete mastery of the rural Yorkshire dialect. From the first paragraph onward, Tizzie captures the speaking rhythms and vocabulary of 19th-century Yorkshire farmers with amazing fidelity and precision. I was immediately immersed in the concerns and thought patterns of the main character, Tizzie Cawthra, simply by virtue of her poetic and quaint rural dialect.
And oh, Tizzie has troubles. As an unmarried woman thought to be past marrying age (29), she has been “taken in” by one of her brothers, whose family treats her as little more than a slave, or worse. Her immense store of knowledge about dairying and cheesemaking, handed down through the female side of the family over the generations, serves as the family’s financial bulwark, but Tizzie never sees a penny of it. Scorned as a failure by the family because of her lack of a husband, Tizzie can only find comfort in her beloved niece Agnes, who is similarly abused as a “useless girl.”
Tizzie’s brother’s family surely enters my list as one of the most appallingly vile sets of people I’ve read about in a long time, counterbalanced precariously by the kindly schoolmaster and fair-minded squire of the village, who appreciate Tizzie’s talents and share her aspirations for young Agnes. Tizzie’s struggles to find a sliver of freedom for herself, and a glimmer of hope for Agnes, are depicted with heart-aching care.
Fans of the gauzy PBS version of Yorkshire rural life will find parts of Tizzie hard to take. Farm work during that era was backbreaking and mind-numbing, set against an omnipresent worry that the year’s earnings might not make the rent and the family would be put off. The economic and social pressures that weigh on Tizzie make her battles against them all the more heroic. And I use the term “heroic” most intentionally here; Tizzie is indeed a hero as she labors to carve out a space of freedom for herself and her niece.
SW: Tizzie struck me immediately with its evocative use of Yorkshire dialect. Can you tell us about that dialect, and how you came to have such a mastery of it? Did the use of that dialect pose particular challenges for you as a writer?
I grew up in Yorkshire listening to several of the Yorkshire dialects. My father was strict and my siblings and I were not allowed to speak like that ourselves, but we heard it daily from the men on the farms around us, the women in the street and shops, a sort of general broad accent was used by most Yorkshire people. Being kids we picked up and could use some of the more colourful expressions. I used to love listening to the oldest grannies and grandads who spoke the purer dialects where I could only understand one word in twenty. There was a special rhythm to that speech. Even now I love the sound of the Dales dialects. Many of the words are pure Old English, or Norse-based and have fascinating histories. Sneck and thwaite, yat and mither, thole and crowdie, nipper and laiking, they sound grand. And it is not only the words but the way they are used which is a delight to my ear. I tried to convey some of that musical quality to the readers without losing them but any real dialect expert would not approve of the way I’ve used some of the words. My American Beta readers hated the dialect and asked me to take out as much as possible. It became a delicate balancing act, but Tizzie had to sound on the page as she did in my head.
Dialect is always a difficult choice for a writer as many readers are put off by having to deal with the unknown. As a writer I have to make things clear for my readers so I did try to put every word in context or use it in such a way that a reader could substitute a word they would know and so understand what Tizzie was thinking or saying. I know I did not succeed, but some readers have told me they loved the way she spoke, or they loved it because she sounded just like their old Nan, so perhaps a little of the music of the dialect made it off the page.
SW: A little further on that topic — I noticed that some characters are distinguished by their ability to shift in and out of the local dialect, while others are not. And then there are characters for whom the local dialect is practically a foreign language. Do you see the characters’ language use as a marker of social distinction?
Oh yes, speech marked your social class and from the Regency onwards people were clearly ranked by their speech. The old Squire, Sir Charles’s father, would have been a jolly, broad Yorkshire speaker and not give tuppence for London and London society and their pernickety ways, but his wife had had a London season and did mind about being thought a country bumpkin. Their son and heir, Sir Charles, was brought up to remember that and went away to an expensive public school where any dialect would be beaten out or mocked out of him. It was the language of the peasant not the gentleman. Even servants who wished to be more than gardeners, stable men or kitchen maids had to try and mend their speech. Readers of The Secret Garden will remember that the serving girl, Martha, tells Mary that she is only allowed to help in the house as a favour because her speech is ‘too broad.’ People learned to manage this dual system in order to get better jobs or positions. Dialect at home and standard at work.
The Schoolmaster is an interesting character in this way of dual speech in that he had joined the army and been made sergeant then was invalided out. But his friendship with his captain, Sir Charles, (he’d saved him from a couple of disasters) and their mutual interests meant that he could train as a teacher, with Sir Charles’s support, and so he had to move up the social ranks. As a senior teacher and Sir Charles’s school inspector he needed to speak ‘standard’ English but as a Yorkshire lad he knew his dialect and used it occasionally to good effect.
SW: Tizzie herself is such a great character — so rich and well-rounded. Had you been thinking about this character for a long time? What got you started with Tizzie?
I like cooking, especially old recipes. Dorothy Hartley’s book Food in England had a bibliography which set me chasing up books. I found the wonderful Elizabeth David’s book on bread which had a reference to an old Scottish cook book. I was hunting up oatcake recipes and this book was recommended for its scone and oatcake recipes. The writer aimed to preserve traditional recipes and mentioned their history and why they were made. One of these traditional oatcakes was the St Columba’s cake, an oatcake made on June 9th, St Columba’s eve. Into this cake went a silver coin. The cake was toasted over a fire made of sacred rowan, yew and oak wood and the child who found the coin in their piece of cake got to keep the year’s crop of lambs.
What an idea for a story!
I wrote one, not a great one because it was all sweetness and light and a good story needs friction. But the idea grew because I know families. Imagine what happened if the same child found the coin? Would a mother cheat to see all the children had the coin and so those valuable lambs? Would children fight and fall out for ever because one had the lambs and the other did not? The ideas buzzed inside my head quietly for a while and I tried to write a story, but the idea grew too big for a short story. It might be a novel though and I wondered about who and what and where, which is when I first began to hear Tizzie’s voice, this Yorkshire voice, in my head. Other writers will know what I mean, but it does sound a little crazy, this voices in the head business. It comes about, for me, after a lot of thinking and musing and wondering about a story idea. I will find that a character is coming to life, first as a voice I hear, then as a face I see. Thus Tizzie appeared. Tizzie, the aunt who wanted her niece to get the coin and the lambs. Tizzie who had to stop wearing rose tinted glasses and see her life as it really was. Tizzie, who was a simple, kindly soul, trying to cope with a great deal of devious evil. She was, for me, real and alive.
SW: The farther I got in the book, the more I felt that a dominant and growing theme in it is the amount of casual violence that occurs, and the disregard some of the characters have for the harm they cause. Nowadays we would call it “domestic violence,” but in that time seemed to be part of the fabric of existence. Do you see this as a theme in the book?
I have the greatest problem with themes because I always start off thinking I am writing on one theme but the story ends up about others. Any first draft is a confused mess as I try to force it my way and it goes off on its own path. In Tizzie what I wanted readers to understand was that we all wear rose tinted glasses and we need to see truly and honestly to live our lives well, which is not easy. We can choose to see or not to see. I always write about people having choices. But there was also this underlying theme of man’s inhumanity to man, and the casual unthinking unkindness which people with power often show to those who are powerless. It can be seen in families, in groups who have to work together. There is nothing ‘old’ about Tizzie’s treatment. It still happens today. I have seen in schools and in businesses the Killing by Kindness method of putting people down, pushing them out, or rendering them powerless. I have also seen the outright, devious and cruel methods which people use to gain power or get rid of people. Tizzie faces both sorts of ‘violence’ and yes, it became a theme, one I hope readers will think about and may be more aware of it happening around them.
SW: Another element of book that resonated with me is the sense of old folkways and folk wisdom being slowly lost, with Tizzie as an example of someone who possesses an enormous store of folk wisdom. Do you see this time period as a shift in our ways of knowing and doing things?
It seems to me that every generation discards the old, the things the parents did, and takes up the new. Traditions which parents valued are often derided as old fashioned or useless. Sometime traditions had to change for simple economic reasons. With luck the following generation might seize on some of their grandparents’ traditions as quaint or an excuse for a celebration, drinking or stopping work, and there might be a few people around who remembered how the traditional activity went.
In Tizzie’s era, the 1880s in Victorian Britain, economics played a large part in losing traditions. It was a period of economic depression and there was a world-wide slump in agricultural prices because New Zealand had just learned how to send chilled meat to Smithfield market in London and their cheese and butter soon followed. Exports of cheese and butter from America also added to the English farmers’ problems. Prices fell. Farmers had a hard time paying their rents. The pressure was on for change in order to survive.
Maggie was always chasing Tizzie up to make more cheese, butter, and clotted cream. Tizzie used the old, careful, slow methods traditionally successful, but you can see how the pressure would build to become more efficient, cut out some of the traditional ways in order to speed things up and produce more. The blessing of the Hall dairy is one example of a traditional way of introducing the correct bacteria to a new dairy, but it was slow and there were other ways of doing it.
SW: What’s your next project?
Right now I’m fighting my way through the first draft of a novel set in 1872 in the India of the British Raj. I anticipate that the characters end up in New Zealand, however I am not sure where the novel will now end as the characters have done their take over and might go back to Britain. I am at that dreadful writing stage where I have to make the middle of the novel fit onto the end and it is tough going as my carefully planned ending has vanished and I don’t know where I am going. Writing becomes an act of faith until that glorious moment when it all makes sense.
Tizzie had to be written in the 3rd person POV because it was too painful to write in 1st person. This is a 1st person novel simply because my male main character insists on having his story told this way. He is a merchant banker, son of bankers, an observer, thinker, and excellent seeker of new opportunities for banks and business. His family is one of the new Victorian families whose wealth and education made them independent of the mainstream upper middle class Victorian mores. He has a Quaker mother and a Jewish father. He’s been tipped out of his comfortable life in the bank to extract justice and revenge on behalf of a group of families, and himself, and he has to travel to India to deliver it. It’s another difficult story to write because of what the poor MC has to go through.