DIALECT, GENDER, AND COLONIALISM
IN THE REAL CHARLOTTE
(Plymouth State University)
Abstract / résumé
This article analyzes how in The Real Charlotte Edith Somerville and Martin Ross use idiomatic speech, dialect, and
accent as means to challenge traditional notions of a unified Irish national identity or culture. While some critics
read such code-switching in terms of class, this article pursues this phenomenon in terms of gender and colonialism.
The multiplicity of different dialects and discourses within the novel and the ability for characters to move between
them implies that it is almost impossible to impose a single interpretive strategy or rubric onto Irish experience or
identity, thus illustrating the fluid nature of language. As a result, identity—individual or national—becomes a much
more difficult project. For Somerville and Ross, individual and national identity are both composed and
camouflaged by language.
Key Words: Dialect, Hiberno-English, Gender, Colonialism, Identity
Cet article montre comment dans The Real Charlotte Edith Somerville et Martin Ross utilisent tournures
idiomatiques, dialecte et accent pour contester la vision traditionnelle d’une identité et d’une culture irlandaises
unifiées. Tandis que certains critiques appréhendent ce jeu avec les codes en termes de classes, cet article examine ce
phénomène à travers les notions de gender et de colonialisme. La multiplicité de dialectes et de discours différents
au sein du roman, ainsi que la capacité des personnages à passer de l’un à l’autre, laissent entendre qu’il est
pratiquement impossible d’imposer des catégories ou des stratégies interprétatives univoques sur l’expérience et
l’identité irlandaises, démontrant ainsi la nature mouvante du langage. En conséquence, le projet de construire une
identité, individuelle ou collective, devient beaucoup plus difficilement réalisable. Pour Somerville et Ross, les
identités individuelle et nationale sont à la fois construites et masquées par le langage.
Mots-clés : dialecte, Hiberno-English, gender, colonialisme, identité
On the edge of a political and cultural revolution, Ireland at the end of the nineteenth
century provides an insightful look into the dialogic relationship between language and
nationalism. The literature of this period provides a uniquely situated lens through which one can
analyze the attitudes and reactions to the Gaelic revival and the newly formed Irish Renaissance.
As Seamus Deane notes, “Irish literature tends to dwell on the medium in which it is written
because it is difficult not to be self-conscious about a language which is simultaneously native
and foreign” 1. However, while most literary critics and historians focus their attention on (male)
Renaissance writers like W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and James Joyce, some of the most
penetrating writing was actually written prior to these Revivalists’ work. The Real Charlotte,
written by Irish cousins Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (Violet Martin), is a brilliant book
analyzing the complex relationship between language, culture, and imperialism in late nineteenth
Many critics dismiss The Real Charlotte as a typical, traditional nostalgic representation
of Irish Big House culture. Sean McMahon maintains that “the particular interest of the works of
Somerville and Ross is that they catch the whole system in full bloom before the winds of
nationalism and the late awakened English liberal conscience scattered the petals” 2. Although
1 Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals, London, Faber, 1985, p. 13.
2 Sean McMahon, “John Bull’s Other Ireland: A Consideration of The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross,”
Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 3:4 (1968), p. 122.
one can easily read the datedness (1968) of this last idealistic picture of Ireland, as recently as
1988, James Cahalan similarly claimed that Somerville and Ross were “traditional” novelists
who provided realistic portrayals of Irish life at the turn of the century. While I agree with
Cahalan that Somerville and Ross were able to “capture extensively and effectively a panorama
of Irish society” 3, I think he ignores their innovative approach to language and culture. Declan
Kiberd, Ann Owens Weekes, and Nichole Pepinster Greene are a few of the literary critics who
have approached the works of Somerville and Ross with the necessary level of theoretical insight
and sophistication. Declan Kiberd writes of Somerville and Ross’ “decentered narrative” 4, but he
is more interested in the text’s subtle exploration of consciousness and identity than its use of
linguistic structures. I agree with Weekes’ reading of The Real Charlotte’s “Bakhtinian world in
which the voice of authority—apostolic, paternal, social, or authorial—is constantly being
undermined by the parodic voices of those not fully suppressed” 5. While Weekes’ analysis of
discourse is concerned with social and linguistic constructions of gender, I am interested in how
Somerville and Ross use idiomatic speech, dialect, and accent as means to challenge traditional
notions of a unified Irish national identity or culture. Greene, while also writing explicitly on
dialect use in the novel, reads such code-switching in terms of class. I am more interested in
pursuing this phenomenon in terms of colonialism and gender. The multiplicity of different
dialects and discourses within the text and the ability for characters to move between them
implies that it is almost impossible for one to impose an interpretive strategy or rubric onto Irish
experience or identity 6. Many critics describe this difficulty as “a rift between [Irish] experience
and culture” 7; however, I read this rift as the untranslatability of language (as well as experience)
into Irish culture.
It is important to differentiate between Irish language and Hiberno-English. Historically,
the shift in Ireland from Irish to English as the national language began in the seventeenth
century but took place predominantly in the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1891, the number
of Irish speakers declined from three million to 38,121 monoglot speakers noted in the census of
1891 8. There have been many explanations proposed to explain this dramatic change 9: “the
Great Famine, the education system and the consequent growth of literacy in English, the
urbanization and commercialization of the role of English in political, legal, and administrative
life; the desire for Irish speakers to abandon the language,” etc.10 What can be concluded,
however, is that Irish became the language of “the outsider, the marginalized, the dispossessed,
the rural backward poor,” and English represented “the language of political and cultural
3 James M. Cahalan, The Irish Novel: A Critical History, Boston Twayne Publishers, 1988, p. 92.
4 Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, London, Random House, 1995, p. 76.
5 Ann Owens Weekes, Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition, Lexington, U of Kentucky P, 1990, p. 70.
6 Nichole Pepinster Greene, in “Dialect and Social Identity in The Real Charlotte” (New Hibernia Review 4.1
[Spring 2000] pp. 122-37), describes this move as “code-switching”: “Code-switching occurs in bilingual or
bidialectal communities […] where ‘each code is associated with a different set of social values’” (p. 126).
7 Quoted in W. J. McCormack, From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy, Tradition, and Betrayal in Literary History,
Cork, Cork UP, 1994, p. 5.
8 Gearóid Denvir, “Decolonizing the Mind: Language and Literature in Ireland,” New Hibernia Review 1.1 (1997),
9 One explanation which Denvir doesn’t consider is the refusal of those surveyed to admit to knowing and/or
speaking Irish during this period. It was well known that Irish-speaking people were discriminated against and even
punished for using their native tongue; it is not surprising, then, that perhaps those surveyed well less than
forthcoming about their linguistic habits.
10 Gearóid Denvir, “Decolonizing the Mind: Language and Literature in Ireland,” p. 45.
hegemony, spoken by the insider, the privileged, the ruler and the urban middle and upper
classes” 11. And all of this was the result of political, economic, and cultural colonization of the
Irish by the English. As Albert Memni explains, “the colonized no longer knew his language
except in the form of a lowly dialect. In order to emerge from the most elementary monotony and
emotions, he had to borrow the colonizer’s language” 12. Ultimately, as Benedict Kiely has
pointed out, the Irish novelists at the end of the nineteenth century found themselves caught
between three languages: Irish, Anglo-Irish (or Hiberno-English), and Standard English A13.
While many writers of the late nineteenth and twentieth century actually wrote in the Irish
language, Somerville and Ross used it infrequently in their works. Instead, they were more
interested in a specific Hiberno-English as it is spoken in Ireland. Hiberno-English is a variety of
the English language spoken in Ireland which developed from the English settlers in Ireland
beginning in the seventeenth century 14. It has specific pronunciation patterns, syntax, and
linguistic rules that make it unique, yet derivative, from traditional Standard English. As Alan
Bliss explains, “Irishmen learning English […] had to rely on teachers of their own race, whose
own English was very different from Standard English, so that there was nothing to check the
progressive influence of the Irish language” 15. As a result, not only were the “archaisms” of
seventeenth century English preserved, but they were combined with and compounded by Irish
linguistic modes and ways of thinking 16. Such distinctions show up particularly in The Real
Writers at the end of the nineteenth century consciously sought a more realistic portrayal
of Irish life and people, and one way to accomplish this was through language. As Gifford Lewis
notes, until then, such authenticity in scene, dialogue, and representation was rare 17. The curious
thing about this shift was that it was accomplished in English. As both Declan Kiberd and
Gifford Lewis note, the debate over Irish national identity at the turn of the century was held in
English, and in order to persuade those in power (England) and their audience (also England),
Irish writers needed to compose an Irish identity available and somewhat understandable to the
English reading public 18. But it is not so easy to persuade and critique one’s audience at the
same time. As Mikhail Bakhtin notes, a speaker in a text must orient his discourse toward the
conceptual framework of his listener; then, he must break through that conceptual framework and
construct his own discourse on “alien territory” in order to be able to “get a reading of his own
word, and on his own conceptual framework” 19. Writers like Somerville and Ross had to subvert
12 Quoted in Gearóid Denvir, “Decolonizing the Mind: Language and Literature in Ireland,” p. 46.
13 Benedict Kiely, “Dialect and Literature,” in Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, The English Language in Ireland, Dublin, The
Mercier Press, 1977, p. 97.
14 P. L. Henry, “Anglo-Irish and its Irish Background,” in Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, The English Language in Ireland,
Dublin, The Mercier Press, 1977, p. 20.
15 Alan J. Bliss, “The Emergence of Modern English Dialects in Ireland,” in Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, The English
Language in Ireland, Dublin, The Mercier Press, 1977, p. 17.
17 Gifford Lewis, Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R. M., Middlesex, Viking, 1985, p. 9.
18 Declan Kiberd, op. cit., p. 92; Gifford Lewis, op. cit., p. 9. David Martin argues that writing in English for an
English audience makes Somerville and Ross colonial writers; that is, “their values, standards, and outlook are
English, undoubtedly colored by the Irish scene and Irish habits. To have realized the Irish experience more fully
would have been to break radically with the ideological categories which formed their thought […]” (“The Castle
Rackrent of Somerville and Ross: A Tragic Colonial Tale?” Etudes Irlandaises 7 [Dec. 1982], p. 53).
19 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael
Holquist, Austin, U of Texas P, 1981, p. 292.
their critique of the imperialist project in Ireland at the same time that they sought to create an
accurate representation of Irish life and culture 20. The disparity between an “accurate” depiction
of Irish life, discourse, and culture and the critique, however, complicates the (English) reader’s
understanding of that culture until it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the ‘real’
portrayal of Ireland and imperial stereotypes of the Irish and their culture.
Combined with an awareness of post-colonial theory, Bakhtinian heteroglossia is an
insightful methodology through which to address modes of discourse in a novel such as The Real
Charlotte. Bakhtin defines heteroglossia as “another speech in another’s language, serving to
express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (324) 21 For Bakhtin, discourse “is never
unitary” 22; instead, “it lives […] on the boundary between its own context and another, alien
context” 23. But even this dialogism does not happen simply on a dualistic level. There is not just
one voice speaking to or reacting against a single other one. Instead, Bakhtin’s double-
voicedness is based on or is a result of a larger “fundamental, socio-linguistic speech diversity
and multi-languagedness” 24. The very manner in which Somerville and Ross composed their
books is an example of heteroglossia. They often had to write “sporadically, in the midst of a
spate of other distracting activities and frequently interrupted by the separation” 25. Somerville
wrote that “our work was done conversationally. One or the other—not infrequently both
simultaneously—would state a proposition. This would be argued, combated perhaps, approved,
modified; it would then be written down by the (wholly fortuitous) holder of the pen, would be
scratched out, scribbled in again” 26. What one sees in this description is a dialogic relationship
between different ideologies, discourses, and ideas 27.
These dialogues between discourses do not just create meaning on the level of language
systems alone; rather, they become ways in which to transmit, combine, and translate ideologies.
In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said translates much of Bakhtin’s theories on
narrative and heteroglossia into the imperial project. Like Bakhtin’s claim, “language is never
unitary,” Said writes culture is never unitary: “partly because of the empire, all cultures are
involved in one another, none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily
differentiated, and unmonolithic” 28. Therefore, much like discourses and language systems
depend on each other in Bakhtin’s system, Said argues that cultures in the imperial project
mutually inform and influence each other; one must “take account of both processes, that of
imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts
to include what was once forcibly excluded” 29. Gearóid Denvir claims that language is “the
20 Even so, many critics still claim that Somerville and Ross “sold their intimate knowledge of Ireland in order to
remain living in it” (Declan Kiberd, op. cit., p. 69). So, to some extent, many readers felt that Somerville and Ross’
“accurate” portrayal of Irish life was as guilty of perpetuating the stage-Irish myth as their predecessors.
21 M. M. Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 324.
22 Ibid., p. 288.
23 Ibid., p. 284.
24 Ibid., pp. 325-326
25 John Cronin, “Somerville and Ross,” The Anglo-Irish Novel, Vol. I: The Nineteenth Century, Totowa (NJ), Barnes
and Noble, 1980, p. 140.
26 Quoted in Wayne Hall, Shadowy Heroes: Irish Literature of the 1890s, Syracuse, Syracuse UP, 1980, p. 71.
27 While Bakhtin’s translator uses the word ‘language’ in his definition of heteroglossia here, Bakhtin’s theories are
predominantly interested in the use of discourses; that is, he analyzes the ways in which different characters,
narrators, and the author him/herself adopt and sometimes parody modes of speech based on subject position.
28 Edward Said Culture and Imperialism, New York, Vintage, 1993, p. xxv.
29 Ibid., pp. 66-67.
second phase of the colonial process” 30, working like what Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongo describes as a
“cultural bomb to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their
environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in
themselves” 31. The result is that Hiberno-English, as it is spoken in Ireland, becomes a
“palimpsestization” and “peasantization” of the Irish language 32. Language and literature, in
particular, become unique sites from which to critique and understand the imperial project.
Even in adolescence, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross realized that there was a unique
alliance between their Irish heritage and the English language. They realized that Ireland, as a
nation, had two languages. In 1886, they began The Buddh Dictionary: A Dictionary of Words
and Phrases in Past and Present Use Among the Buddhs. Somerville described the dictionary as:
the froth on the surface of some hundred years of the conversation of a clan of violent, inventive, Anglo-
Irish people, who, generation after generation, found themselves faced with situations in which the English
language failed to provide sufficient intensity, and they either snatched at alternatives from other tongues or
invented them 33.
Similarly, in 1920, they published a response to Dr. P. W. Joyce’s study, English as We Speak it
in Ireland. Joyce’s study set out not only to explain the many ways in which Modern Irish was
influenced by the English language (a contentious topic in itself), but it also explained various
characteristics and patterns within Irish speech including “assertion by negative of opposite,”
“exaggeration and redundancy,” and “the Devil and his territory” along with other sections on
idiomatic speech, the use of proverbs, etc. In their article, “The Anglo-Irish Language,”
Somerville and Ross wrote that while Hiberno-English is believed to be the same as Standard
(i.e., “British”) English, that belief is a “fallacy; it [Hiberno-English] is a fabric by Irish
architects with English bricks, quite unlike anything of English construction […] it is a tongue,
pliant and subtle, expressing with every breath the mind of its makers” 34. It is clear that
Somerville and Ross believed that Hiberno-English is unique to Irish experience, culture, and
history, and that attempts to portray it merely as another version of Standard English were not
only misleading but unjust.
Martin Ross, in particular, believed that Hiberno-English expressed a specific mode of
thinking and cultural experience that was unique to the Irish. In her essay, “Children of
Captivity,” she writes: “The very wind that blows softly over the brown acres of bog carries
perfumes and sounds that England does not know: the women digging the potato-land are talking
of things that England does not understand. The question that remains is whether England will
ever understand” 35. The problem, Somerville and Ross believe, is not simply a linguistic one;
rather, it is one of cultural conditioning. It is the
want of knowledge of the wayward and shrewd and sensitive minds that are at the back of the dialect…the
shape in which thought is born, the point of the mental attack, the moment in the metre of the sentence
where the weight must fall. These can scarcely be set down, yet they govern all. (“Anglo-Irish”, pp. 55-56)
30 Gearóid Denvir, op. cit., p. 45.
31 Quoted in Gearóid Denvir, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
32 Ibid., p. 51.
33 Quoted in Gifford Lewis, op. cit., p. 49.
34 Ibid., p. 102.
35 Quoted in Sean McMahon, op. cit., p. 126.
They realize that English speakers can understand the speech of the Irish, to some extent, but
they don’t believe that the English can ever know the Irish.
While Irish does not play a significant role in Somerville and Ross’ fiction, Hiberno-
English dominates their style and thematic focus. Both writers felt that there was a distinct
difference between Standard English, Hiberno-English, and Irish. However, while they wanted to
create an accurate portrayal of Irish life and culture in their work, they were also aware of the
dangers inherent in writing in an idiomatic style. Somerville writes in her memoir, Irish
Phonetic spelling in matters of dialect is a delusive thing, to be used with the utmost restraint. It is
superfluous for those who know, boring for those who do not. Of what avail is spelling when confronted
with the problem of indicating the pronunciation of, for example, ‘Papa’; the slurring and softening of the
consonant, the flattening of the vowel sound—how can these even be indicated? And, spelling or no, can
any tongue, save an Irish one, pronounce the words ‘being’ and ‘ideal’, as though they owned but one
syllable? Long ago Martin and I debated the point, and the conclusion that we then arrived at was that the
root of the matter in questions of dialect was in the idiomatic phrase and the mental attitude 36.
Even though Somerville writes that they chose to focus on idiomatic phrase rather than dialect
per se, there is a fine line between the two 37. Throughout their work, the writers use such
phrasing as a way in which to inject “Irishness” into the text. While they claim that “Irishness”
cannot be represented in language, they, in fact, attempt to do just that in their own work. They
claim that they want to recreate the “wayward and shrewd and sensitive minds” behind the Irish
dialect, but the only way they can achieve such an effect is through their manipulation of dialect,
idiomatic phrase, and accent.
There is little information regarding Somerville and Ross’ knowledge of the actual Irish
language, although there is some evidence illustrating that Edith’s grandfather, Thomas
Somerville, was fluent in the language 38. Perhaps since there were Irish-speaking ancestors in
Somerville’s background, she had some superficial knowledge of the language. However, Irish
only plays a small part in their writing, and it is often spelled phonetically rather than how it was
actually written. Sometimes when referring to characters in the novel speaking Irish, the writers
narrate just that: they were speaking in Irish. For example, when Julia Duffy comes to visit
Charlotte early in the text, she walks in on three old women “holding converse in Irish” waiting
for Charlotte to return home (RC, p. 53) 39. Similarly, in a scene between Julia and Norry the
Boat, Norry is described as pledging, “Drink this to your health!” with the tag, “she said in Irish”
(RC, p. 165, my emphasis). So, at one level, Somerville and Ross don’t even attempt to recreate
36 E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross, Irish Memories, London, Longman, 1918, p. 175.
37 As Gerald Delahunty explains in “Dialect and Local Accent” (quoted in Ó Muirithe, op. cit., pp. 127-49): “Until
recently, linguists and non-linguists alike would have defined ‘dialect’ in much the same words as the Oxford
English Dictionary does, as ‘one of the subordinate forms or varieties of a language arising from local peculiarities
of vocabulary, pronunciation, and idiom’”(p. 127). In the OED, accent is defined as to ‘consist mainly in a
prevailing quality of tone, or in a peculiar alteration of pitch, but may include mispronunciation of vowels or
consonants, misplacing stress and misinflection of a sentence. The locality of the speaker is generally clearly marked
by this kind of accent’” (p. 127). While Delahunty argues that linguists would protest the negative connotations of
the “mis”-pronunciations, what is revealed in these definitions is the methodological assumption of a “norm” for
standard pronunciation and the ignoring of cultural, class, and other “observable differences” among speakers of the
same language (p. 128).
38 Gifford Lewis, op. cit., p. 20.
39 All quotations are from The Real Charlotte (1894), New Brunswick, Rutgers UP, 1986 [RC].
an accurate linguistic portrayal of the Irish language in their novel. They merely assert it is being
spoken; they do not actually replicate it in their writing.
When the actual Irish language is seen in The Real Charlotte, it is generally used by
peasants and servants. Charlotte’s servant, Norry the Boat, is fluent in the language and is seen
throughout the novel “holding converse in Irish” with the likes of Mary Holloran and Peggy
Roche (RC, p. 53). However, the few examples Somerville and Ross provide illustrate only a
surface understanding of the language. Typically, they employ greetings such as “asthore” (my
dear) and “cead failther” (a hundred welcomes) (RC, p. 53 and p. 224). The one sentence-length
example they give, spoken by Mrs. Lydon, the tailor’s wife—“Arrah! dheen dheffeth, Dinny!
thurrum cussoge um’na” (“Hurry up with the coat, Dinny!”)—is easily deciphered by Charlotte,
who has a surprising knowledge of the language (RC, p. 240). Even though Somerville and Ross
only show peasants and servants speaking Irish, these characters are seen as magical beings, like
witches with incomprehensible linguistic power over other characters.
For the Hiberno-English speaking characters in the novel, the actual Irish language poses
a complex problem to their cultural heritage. Forcibly distanced from their native tongue by the
British imperial project, they now view it superstitiously as something foreign to their own
experience. For example, when Francie comes across Nance the Fool for the first time, she only
sees “a bundle of rags” from which
there issued a claw, which snatched the bottle and secreted it, and Francie just caught a glimpse under the
swathing of rags, of eyes so inflamed with crimson that they seemed to her like pools of blood, and heard
mouthings and mumblings of Irish which might have been benedictions, but, if so, were certainly blessings
in disguise (RC, p. 95).
Rather than recognizing Nance the Fool as a human being, Francie sees her as “bundle of rags,” a
frightening creature with “claws” for hands, “pools of blood” for eyes, who speaks, not in
familiar Hiberno-English, but in incomprehensible “mouthings and mumblings” which might be
either blessings or curses. The majority of the Irish characters in The Real Charlotte (except
Charlotte) are unable to speak or read Irish; the result is that those who do still speak it wield a
linguistic power over those Irish who do not. Because they can speak the original language of the
people, the peasants and servants, in many ways, are more “Irish” than their employers. They are
able to use discursive strategies to gain control over or avoid censure from those in power.
Various characters throughout The Real Charlotte use accents and dialect to conceal their
ambitions or intentions. Usually, such a change also implies power and/or control. For example,
when Francie meets her former lover, Hawkins, after her marriage to Roddy Lambert, she adopts
a “newly acquired English accent” in order to establish a sense of distance and superiority from
her past self and actions (RC, p. 246). This is perhaps all the more surprising since Francie begins
the novel with a horrible Dublin accent:
Francie’s accent and mode of expressing herself were alike deplorable; Dublin had done its worst for her in
that respect, but unless the reader has some slight previous notion of a how dreadful a thing is a pure-bred
Dublin accent, it would be impossible for him to realise in any degree the tone in which she said: ‘But oh!
Tommy Whitty!’ (RC, p. 4)
Francie’s adoption of Standard English pronunciation provides her with the (colonial) authority
she needs to face her former British lover. It suggests a level of maturity—social as well as
sexual—that she has not yet, in fact, achieved. Francie’s supposed sexual knowledge as a married
woman makes her seem alien to Hawkins, and her self-possession makes him more (sexually)
frustrated and in love than before. The fact that Francie chooses to adopt an English accent
instead of a more genteel Irish one perhaps signifies the underlying and unspoken imperial
presence. At the same time that she adopts the English accent to assume control over Hawkins,
she is also no longer seen as an other; she becomes English like him. In destroying the myth of
the colonized other as well as the sexual mystery of the virgin, Francie is able to break through
the cultural stereotypes and speak to Hawkins as an individual.
Hawkins, however, is perceived as a very different sort of linguistic threat from the rest of
the characters in The Real Charlotte. As a member of the British militia stationed in Lismoyle,
Hawkins is “more or less an unknown quantity; his mere idioms and slang were the language of
another world” (RC, p. 94). For Francie, Hawkins is more than just a representative of a foreign
colonial power. He not only promises her a more civilized culture, but he also stands for
forbidden sexual knowledge and desire. Therefore, he is threatening because he is a member of
the British militia and also because he introduces sexual knowledge and license into the rural
Irish community. Hawkins’s profligate behavior with the local Irish women wherever he is
stationed illustrates the multiples potential dangers of the (male) colonial presence.
Hawkins seems to represent a volatile, unknowable, colonial voice, one that cannot be
contained or controlled by Irish culture or decorum. During Garry Dysart’s birthday theatricals,
for example, Hawkins entices Francie into a secluded brougham in the back of the carriage
house. From this position, both Francie and Hawkins are hidden; even though the rest of the
audience can hear their stifled laughter and giggles, they are unable to locate their position.
Hawkins is saved form detection by the arrival of James Canavan as Queen Elizabeth: “even
Lady Dysart forgot her anxiety to find out where Mr. Hawkins’ voice had come from” (RC, p.
116). Hawkins’ power lies in its invisibility. He is not England itself, but he represents the
colonial power to the effect that the Irish community feel threatened yet beguiled by his
character—even though they don’t understand it 40.
In many respects, Pamela Dysart represents the point of intersection between the
unreadable Irish and the imperial British. Pamela is the ultimate reader of both cultures: “her
finger was always on the pulse of the person to whom she was talking” (RC, p. 49). Her
“imaginative sympathy” (RC, p. 219) allows her to see through many, though not all, of the
linguistic and cultural maneuvers that both groups make. While Pamela’s position closely
resembles Charlotte’s (she makes the same cultural and linguistic shifts between class, dialect,
and even nation), she is the only sympathetic Anglo-Irish Ascendancy character in the novel that
seems able to bridge the colonial gap between British power and Irish culture. For example,
Pamela voices her goodbye to the militia captain, Cursiter, “in the soft voice that was just Irish
enough for Saxons of the more ignorant sort to fail to distinguish, save in degree, between it and
Mrs. Lambert’s Dublin brogue” (RC, p. 270). Pamela moves between Hiberno-English and
Standard English dialects in order to mediate between her ‘other,’ ‘foreign,’ or ‘alien’ identity as
an Irish woman and her imperial ties to Britain as a member of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Pamela’s ability to manipulate the dialect also allows her to create a colonial identity for herself
40 The Irish characters in the novel vacillate between admiring and resenting Hawkins. Wayne Hall defines this
oscillation as “the Irish paradox.” Following Douglas Hyde, Hall explains how the nineteenth-century Irish
nationalist middle class and its writers, in particular, “alternately imitate England and then resent that imitation” (op.
cit., p. 57). The backlash of such imitation was a further commitment to all things Irish: language, traditions, national
identity, and, most importantly, cultural heritage. In the novel, then, Hawkins simultaneously provides a threat and a
foil to that culture and heritage.
that will be more poignant or perhaps sexually effective with the colonial captain. Her ability to
move in between the two in her “soft” voice provides an allure that perhaps pure Hiberno-English
or pure British English would not allow. As Pamela illustrates so well, language and discourse
become means through which one not only challenges (or reinforces) colonial ideologies of the
colonized, but they may also become a way in which each character may define herself in
relation or opposition to those cultural and imperial discourses.
In other situations in The Real Charlotte, the loss of dialect can reveal weakness and
cultural subterfuge. It can signify a loss of control or power within a given situation. When
Roddy Lambert is overcome with jealousy over Francie and Hawkins’ relationship, he betrays his
true emotions to Christopher Dysart: “During this recital, Mr. Lambert had been deficient in the
accent of gentlemanlike self-importance that in calmer moments he was careful to impart to it,
and the raw Limerick brogue was on top as he said, ‘Yes, by George! I remember a time when
she wasn’t above fancying your humble servant!’” (RC, p. 159). For Lambert, this slippage
before Dysart is particularly humbling. Throughout the text, Lambert sees Dysart as his rival—
socially, economically, and sexually—as well as a role model. Frustrated by Christopher’s
competition for Francie’s attention, Roddy believes that “if [he] could read The Field, and had a
more spontaneous habit of cursing, [he] should be an ideal country gentleman” (RC, p. 70).
Cultural and class identity for Roddy are simply the case of changing one’s linguistic habits. For
him to let down his accent of “gentlemanlike self-importance” before Dysart is like admitting
sexual and social impotence. Not only does he betray his love and jealousy for Francie, but he
also admits his lowly social origins. In losing his accent of gentility and social standing, Lambert
forfeits his sense of self-importance in relation to the colonizer.
Charlotte, of course, is the most adept manipulator of dialect in the novel. She is
described as being “addicted to a ponderous persiflage” (RC, p. 28), and she has a strong affinity
with language. She is an avid reader and consumes pulp fiction as well as intellectual texts in
various languages. Ultimately, she most accurately represents the dialogical and heteroglot
relationship between language and imperialism. Charlotte has “many tones of voice, according to
the many facets of her characters, and when she wished to be playful she affected a vigorous
brogue, not perhaps being aware that her own accent scarcely admitted of being strengthened”
(RC, p. 12). When she converses with others, Charlotte merely adopts the dialect appropriate for
the persona she has created for her audience. When speaking to servants or peasants, for
example, her voice is often sharp with authority and disrespect. When Francie first comes to visit
her at Tally-Ho, Charlotte easily chastises the cab driver before she quickly shifts into her
ingratiating welcome for her cousin: “‘Take your car out o’ that, ye great oaf!’ she vociferated;
‘can’t ye make way for your betters?’ Then with a complete change of voice, ‘Well, me dear
Francie, you’re welcome, you’re welcome’” (RC, p. 21, my emphasis). Charlotte easily moves
between tones of voice and accent depending on who she is speaking to at the time. For Lady
Dysart, Charlotte speaks in a “bluff, hearty voice which she feels accorded best with the theory of
herself that she had built up in Lady Dysart’s mind” (RC, p. 12). Rather than acting according to
her ‘real’ opinions, emotions, and personality, Charlotte assumes a ‘theory’ of identity that
mandates a different persona for each acquaintance.
While Charlotte recognizes that she has the ability to alter her dialect and tone, she does
not see discourse itself as dialogical. In Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia, novels are always
dialogic; discourses are in conversation with one another. But Charlotte is more interested in
control and domination than dialogue: “She had the unusual gift of thinking out in advance her
line of conversation in an interview, and, which is even less usual, she had the power of keeping
to it” (RC, p. 52). Charlotte goes into every conversation, then, seeing it as a one-sided activity in
which she asserts her own discourse, personality, and ideology onto that of another person. Not
only does this admission reveal Charlotte’s self-involvement, but it also illustrates her self-
control and power over others. As Edward Said perceives, “the power to narrate, or to block other
narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and
constitutes one of the main connections between them” 41. Thus, Charlotte uses her ability to
change dialect and accent, not as way to connect with other characters and social classes in the
novel, but as a way to “block” them in order to assert her own agenda. As the most powerful
character in the novel, perhaps it is not surprising that Charlotte’s philosophy of discourse is the
most similar to that of imperialism.
Both speech and cultural discourse allow the Irish to communicate with and elude the
colonial paradigm on many different levels. Not only is Charlotte skilled at adjusting her dialect
to entertain the higher echelons of Lismoyle society, but she can also move within the peasant
sphere. She knows enough Irish to “shock […] those who were uncertain as to its limitations”
(RC, p. 240). Charlotte’s knowledge of the Irish language makes her a threatening figure for the
peasants in the novel. They are not allowed to have any clandestine conversations without her
knowledge, and she has the ability to interpret both their language and their actions. She has “the
absolutely accurate business memory of the Irish peasant, a memory that in few cases survives
education but, where it exists, may be relied upon more than all of the generations of ledgers and
account books” (RC, p. 52). Charlotte’s power lies not only in her possessing the actual language
of the Irish peasants, but, more importantly, in her ability to adopt their cultural discourse(s) and
knowledge. The fact that she knows how to do business “the peasant way” makes her a
formidable force from which it becomes very difficult to protect oneself. As a result, when
Charlotte ventures into the booths and stalls of the shopping district, she becomes a mode of
surveillance, controlling the peasant class for the colonial project.
Both speech and cultural discourses allow the Irish to communicate and elude the colonial
paradigm on many different levels, and Charlotte’s power within the novel evolves from her
ability to move in between these different discourses. By participating in traditionally forbidden
discourses like business, Charlotte breaks down typical gender as well as linguistic expectations,
and, as a result, she becomes a dangerous force to those who uphold those structures—both the
peasants and the upper class Ascendancy as well. For example, when Charlotte joins the men
discussing the Land League bill at Lady Dysart’s tennis party, the archdeacon is filled with
dismay and fear: “The archdeacon fixed his eyes seriously upon her; Charlotte’s playfulness
always alarmed and confused him” (RC, p. 13). To those in power like the clergy, Charlotte’s
maneuvers suggest a threat to traditional hierarchical notions of power, gender, and social roles.
One reason Charlotte is such a threat to the other characters in the novel is that, like the
example of Hawkins, no one has the discursive knowledge to discern “the subtle grades of Irish
vulgarity” in Charlotte’s voice (RC, p. 12). To Lady Dysart, Charlotte is merely an entertaining
buffoon who keeps her from perpetual boredom. While the authors seemingly argue that it is
Lady Dysart’s radical social views that make Charlotte palatable, in fact, Somerville and Ross are
subtly criticizing her and their English audiences for failing to hear or read Charlotte’s linguistic
manipulations. Because Charlotte shows some kind of education and literacy—Lady Dysart
“welcomes a woman who could talk to her on spiritualism, or books or indeed on any current
41 Edward Said, op. cit., p. xiii.