A New and Exhilarating Weapon.

Bee Wilson’s 2018 LRB review of The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice and a Mystery about Words in 1920s England by Christopher Hilliard (Oxford, June 2017) is full of all sorts of interesting things, as obviously is the book, but I want to quote some bits about language:

Edith Swan, a 30-year-old laundress from the seaside town of Littlehampton in Sussex, was accused of sending a letter to a sanitary inspector called Charles Gardner that contained words of ‘an indecent, obscene and grossly offensive character’. […]

The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard is a short but dazzling work of microhistory. It uses the story of some poison pen letters in a small town to illuminate wider questions of social life in Britain between the wars, from ordinary people’s experience of the legal system to the way people washed their sheets, and is a far more exciting book than either the title or the rather dull cover would suggest. For a short period, the mystery of these letters became a national news story that generated four separate trials and, as Hilliard writes, ‘demanded more from the police and the lawyers than most murders’.

This is a book about morality and class, about the uses and abuses of literacy and about the tremendous dislocations in British society after the First World War, which extended far beyond those who had suffered the direct trauma of battle. Hilliard uses these poison pen letters – written in language that was as eccentric as it was obscene – to ‘catch the accents of the past’. The Littlehampton Libels is about a battle between two women who were members of only the second generation in Britain to benefit from compulsory elementary education, women for whom the written word was a new and exhilarating weapon.

Hilliard asks what it was like to live in a society where ‘nice’ women had to pretend that they were ignorant of all profanity. Melissa Mohr claims in her excellent book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) that the British started to swear more during and after the First World War, because strong language – like strong drink – is a way to alleviate despair. In 1930, John Brophy and Eric Partridge published a collection of British songs and slang from the war. They claimed that soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning ‘that a noun is coming’. In a normal situation, swear words are used for emphasis, but Brophy and Partridge found that obscenity was so over-used among the military in the Great War that if a soldier wanted to express emotion he wouldn’t swear. ‘Thus if a sergeant said, “Get your —ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’

As former soldiers re-established themselves as civilians, swearing became normalised, but it was only acceptable when used by men and addressed to men. The story of the Littlehampton libels reveals the extent to which British society at this time clung to certain beliefs about women and language. One of these prejudices, fiercely held, was that a ‘respectable’ woman was incapable of allowing a dirty word to sully her mouth. Another was that women who did swear were beyond the pale, and therefore capable of anything. The tenacity of these prejudices within the legal system would allow Edith Swan to send multiple poison pen letters to her neighbours over a period of three years and contrive to have a less ‘respectable’ woman – Rose Gooding – twice sent to jail for crimes of which she was entirely innocent.

Gooding (spoiler!) was eventually freed and exonerated:

In the end​, Rose Gooding’s faulty spelling helped to save her. Inspector Nicholls painstakingly went through 27 letters that Rose sent to Bill from Portsmouth jail and found that she always misspelled the word ‘prison’ as ‘prision’. This was a mistake that the author of the libels never made (one of Edith Swan’s school teachers said she was ‘very clever at Essay writing, and a good penman’). Unlike Rose Gooding’s public exclamations of ‘bloody old cow’ and so on, which were easily copied by Edith Swan in the letters, ‘prision’ was a little quirk of Rose’s language that no one knew about except for Bill. On 25 July 1921, the Court of Criminal Appeals heard Rose’s case and overturned both of her convictions.

But it’s appalling what she had to go through because she seemed so clearly of a lower class than the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Swan.

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thus if a sergeant said, “Get your —ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger

    Subtractive syntax!

  2. David Eddyshaw says:
  3. Time to start your monograph.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Syntax can be divisive too, as I know from following many comment threads here, especially foreign syntax. But division is only a kind of glorified subtraction, so I expect Subtractive Syntax will weather that challenge as well.

  5. The best details are the periscope in the post office’s mail drop-off (she might easily have used the pillar box outside), the policewoman spying through a slit in the fence and ‘Mr Boniface the fishmonger’.

    I recently saw (I can’t find it) a transcript of a 1920s letter from Edward, Prince of Wales to his girlfriend Freda Dudley Ward that contained a lot of fucks & fuckings. I think it must have been common in the speech of the youngish upper-class after WW1.

  6. John Cowan says:

    Were they swearwords, or meant literally, or some of each?

  7. As former soldiers re-established themselves as civilians, swearing became normalised,

    My grandfather was in the trenches during WWI. Speaking around us kids he had a strange hiccup before most nouns. Occasionally it was rather more than a hiccup, which would draw stern glances from my grandmother.

    They were the most grandparently grandparents anyone could wish for. How could anyone re-establish civilian life after seeing such horror? (Nearly all of his unit were wiped out in a gas attack. He, as youngest there, had been sent along the line with some pointless message.)

  8. Were they swearwords, or meant literally, or some of each?

    No, merely swearwords. A good point, John. I think of the literal use as having made a conversational comeback in polite society only recently; the past 25 years, maybe. I don’t know if that’s right, nor when it went out (if it did).

  9. John Cowan says:

    I agree, but I don’t think of letters between lovers as “in polite society”. Certainly Joyce’s letters to Nora (NSFW) are full of such terms used literally, and they were written in 1909. What’s more, though her letters to him have not been preserved, it is clear from what he says that they were also full of the same thing.

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    Looks like Larkin was wrong. I’ve always suspected it.

  11. True or not, I remember reading that the speech of the Ottoman Turks in their heyday was so ornamented with honorifics that they needed no swear words. You could elicit the same shock simply by leaving them out. This could be described as subtractive cursing.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    # nirvana is attained by letting go—that is, by subtraction [of illusion] #

  13. True or not, I remember reading that the speech of the Ottoman Turks in their heyday was so ornamented with honorifics that they needed no swear words. You could elicit the same shock simply by leaving them out. This could be described as subtractive cursing.

    I’m sure the language had swear words, which you could have heard by going to the docks, but that’s a side issue; the point about mandatory honorifics (or polite linguistic forms in general) is correct, and also true of modern Persian, where taarof is mandatory and devilishly hard to get the hang of.

  14. Reminds me of Gogol’s “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”.

    Two gentlemen in that story managed to mortally offend each other while continuing to speak the most polite language (extremely polite by modern standards).

  15. “Fucking” is no longer a warning that a noun is coming. A few months ago, then-presidential candidate Kamala Harri made some news reports for being overheard complaining “I’m fucking moving to Iowa”, since she would be campaigning there so much, demosntrating adverbial rather than adjectival usage. One of her aides anonymously pointed out that it would have been much worse if she had said “I’m moving to fucking Iowa.”

  16. Yes, when I was young the adverbial was “fucking-well”.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    It is sad to see these essential grammatical distinctions lost in the speech of the young. I blame texting.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    It isn’t lost, it has been moved to word order – like pretty much all of the rest of English grammar.

  19. a warning that a noun is coming

    If it ever actually was; it has always seemed to me that this interjection can combine quite fucking freely.

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