by Hugh Gilmore
I’ve been away from this column since last April, but now I’m back and might as well get restarted with a reading story. This one comes courtesy of my wife, Janet. A new medicine blurred her reading vision. She can read, but her eyes soon tire from the effort and she has to stop. Since reading is one of the principal pleasures of her life and she doesn’t much like television or full-length Netflix-type movies, she’s not left with a lot to do in the evenings. She’s had her eyes refracted recently, though, and is expecting new eyeglasses in about another week.
At first I sat merrily in my brown leather chair and read at will, wallowing in my usual orgy of the printed word. But then I looked up and felt a huge sympathy for her. I asked if she’d like me to read something aloud to her. Yes, she said, and thus the adventure began.
I got up and scanned “her” bookcase in the bedroom (yes, we do), offering various tomes until she settled on “Appleby House,” by Sylvia Smith (2002). This paperback version has the kind of clean, smooth covers that are much more pleasurable to touch than any Kindle I’ve held.
After doing our night ritual (locking doors, brushing teeth, taking meds, fluffing pillows), we cozied up in bed and I began to read aloud to her.
The book is a memoir set in a London boarding house and describes the then-38-year-old female author’s year there in almost diary-like fashion. The house and its mostly female lodgers’ happenings are described in brief, simple and meticulous detail. (So much so, one reviewer called her style “pointillistic,” and another called it “conscientious minimalism.”)
Whatever. “Appleby House” had been chosen and therefore I would fem up and read it to my wife, Janet. With no preparation but great enthusiasm, I began, determined to make each character sound English and distinct from the others. Since most of the featured characters are female and the book is written in first-person, I gulped at the challenge.
But I love reading out loud. I am a former English teacher of the maniacal sort who loved to keep his students enthralled with his rendition of (you guessed it): “The Raven,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Hamlet’s ravings, “The Highwayman” – in short, the entire Western literary canon. I’d have read “War and Peace” to them if they’d have let me.
Back to our bedtime antics: Doing a cold reading is not easy if you’re hammy and put vigor into your speaking parts. It’s easy to get tripped up, for example, by a line that starts with quotation marks. You can’t know which character is speaking. You can start off reading as masculine-voiced Uncle Herbert only to have the line end with “… Aunt Sylvia said.” And then you have to read the line over, changing the gender and the intonation of who said what to whom. That can break the spell if you’ve managed to create one.
Worse, doing an “English” accent is only easy if you know nothing about English accents. There are at least 50 of them. To begin with, Great Britain has very distinct regional dialects. For example: Scottish, Northern, East Midlands, West Midlands, East Anglian, Welsh, Southern and West Country. Plus, each of those has a variety of distinct local accents. And major cities often have accents different from the surrounding countryside.
Consequently, one character in the “Appleby House” book might have a Yorkshire accent, another a Leeds. Or Lancastrian, Scouse, Geordie, Brummie, Essex, Cockney or Mockney (Cockney-affecting persons like Mick Jagger and and the late David Bowie). Plus BBC English, Posh and Royal Family Posh.
As I read, I could hear myself sounding like whatever English actor/entertainer or newscaster I was thinking of at that moment, sometimes doing three different accents in the same two-sentence speech by a single character. Without rehearsal or coaching, it’s hard not to break from one remembered movie scene to another. If a Brit ever heard me reading “Appleby House” aloud, he’d get a good laugh. It’s like here in America when most untrained actors do U.S. “Southern” speech by switching from Virginia to Texas to Alabama or Mississippi, up and down social class and regional lines, spoken by the same person.
Sport that I am though, I benefited from knowing that I was reading to a woman with a great heart who loves stories set in England starring people who speak and sound English. I – oops, we – finished the story last night. Reluctantly. As a good book can make you do, I miss the people from that boarding house already.
I did learn a few things about reading English accents aloud, however, and I’ll briefly share them with you. First, if called on to read an entire book aloud, be a real American about it – SELL IT. Second, count on most Americans having tin ears and thinking the English actually do speak the way your performance says. Third, read only to kind and indulging souls, like my lovely spouse, who are waiting for their eyeglasses to be ready. Finally, forget the accent. Just read. Concentrate on the story and the persons in it and let them all speak for themselves. If the stories are good, you and your listener will have a great experience.
I’ll tell you a secret: I liked reading to me missus and I hope she wants me to start speechifying another one soon.
Hugh Gilmore lives in Chestnut Hill and is the author of several novels, story collections, non-fiction eBooks and a memoir. This column marks his 13th year writing his “Enemies of Reading” column for the Local.