Thar’t a Mard Arse
Artefact 2: Dialect | Feature 1 of 4
Baby Lawrence illustration by acclaimed comic-artist Hunt Emerson. From the Guardian award winning ‘Dawn of the Unread’.
In 2016 we visited the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum and spoke to museum guide Jackie Greaves shortly before she was made redundant. Jackie, an Eastwood native, nominated the Eastwood accent and dialect for the Memory Theatre. In the first of four essays, James Walker explores the role of dialect in representing mining communities from ‘within’.
Museum tour guide Jackie Greaves nominated the Eastwood accent and dialect for D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre.
Lawrence’s writing captures the dialect speech of Eastwood. This small town in the Erewash Valley straddles the southern end of the Derbyshire border and the north west of Nottinghamshire. Consequently, there can be great variety in speech patterns between neighbouring towns – although trimming off of syllables was a distinct feature of the border accent.
Dialect can be understood in terms of structure (grammar) and pronunciation (accent). When families from different regions merge, it becomes even more varied and complex. Lawrence’s mother, Lydia Beardsall, was raised in Sheerness and so her southern twang most likely gave the impression of sounding a bit snooty when they returned to their Nottingham roots. She certainly aspired for more, having come from a family who had once been factory owners, once being the operative word.
Lydia no doubt felt she had married beneath herself when she fell in love with Arthur Lawrence. Born in Brinsley, Arthur began working down the pit aged ten – following in the footsteps of his own father Bert. John Worthen writes, ‘Arthur’s job as a miner had taken them where the best-paid work had been during the boom years of the 1870s, and they had lived in a succession of small and recently built grimy colliery villages all over Nottinghamshire’. They settled in Eastwood for good in 1883, moving around when the opportunity arose to signal their improving social status. These new homes, different streets, and Arthur’s improved status as a little butty – a mining contractor who still got his hands dirty – would bring them in contact to different forms of working class culture and language, nuances adroitly captured by Lawrence’s pen.
Arthur wasn’t alone in moving around for work. The population of Eastwood in 1811 was 1120. By 1851 this had grown to 1720. But by 1901 it had more than doubled to 4815. This was partly driven by movement of miners from other pits along the Erewash Valley, such as Strelley, to the new reconstructed pits around Eastwood. The pay of a miner doubled between the 1850s and 1914 to an average of 9s 101/2 d a shift. The mingling of these pit workers from different regions would enrich and diversify dialect further, not least in providing different names for working tools.
Wherever they may have come from, they all had one thing in common: They were absolute beefcakes. It’s this that gave their dialect its distinctive meaty quality. Words are bellowed from thick chests which ‘caresses the blood’, as we see in Women in Love: ‘Their voices sounded out in strong intonation, and the broad dialect was curiously caressing to the blood. It seemed to envelop and run in a labourer’s caress, there was in the whole atmosphere, a resonance of physical men, a glamourous thickness of labour and maleness surcharged in the air.’
When Lawrence used dialect in his early plays about mining communities they were dismissed as a ‘sordid picture of lower-class life’ with middle class Edwardian critics unimpressed with ‘its lack of verbal beauty’. Lawrence was a master of dialect, using multiple variations of speech patterns that drew influences along the Erewash Valley.
By using dialect, Lawrence enabled the reader to understand a collier’s particular social class, their education, and their intelligence. The way his characters spoke represented the history of the community, even down to what street they lived on.
Between 1911 and 1913 he wrote three plays that would be known as the Eastwood trilogy: A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. In 2015 the three plays were combined and conflated in Ben Power’s Husbands and Sons. Although Emile Zola had previously written about coalminers in Germinal (1885) and Vincent Van Gogh moved to the Borinage in Belgium to live among the miners he painted, Lawrence was the first writer, indeed artist, to portray them from the inside.
When Lawrence grew up in Eastwood there were ten local pits. His father would make the daily mile trek to Brinsley Colliery to help produce 500 tons of coal a day before stopping off for a skinful in the local. When he eventually returned home there would be blazing rows, with the children caught in the middle. It was this experience, this inside knowledge, that enabled him to paint such a vivid picture of working-class life – warts and all. Dialect, that most intangible of cultural artefacts, was integral to this, and is the reason that we have made a space for it in our memory theatre.
The reason that dialect is so important to Julie is because language creates a sense of belonging as well as place. We recognise ourselves in those distinct speech patterns. Hilary Hillier, a sociolinguist interested in grammatical constructions, and the wide range of purposes for which they are used, summarises the importance of dialect and community as this:
“….Is it just too fanciful to make some explicit language-related connections and parallels between Paul Morel and Lawrence himself? Like Paul, Lawrence eventually goes out into the world, ostensibly leaving behind both community and (dead) mother. However, it is clear to us (to this reader at any rate) that Lawrence actually took both the community and the dialect with him – at least deep in his consciousness and literary sensibility if not in his actual speech. He then gave them to the world and, in effect, back to the community in re-created form. And, most significantly in the case of the dialect, in a permanent, because written, form. May I personally claim this as Lawrence’s most precious gift to Eastwood and its community?”
A.R. and C.P. Griffin, ‘A Social and Economic History of Eastwood and the Nottinghamshire Mining Country’ in Keith Sagar, A D.H. Lawrence Handbook (Manchester University Press, 1982).
Hilary Hillier. Talking Lawrence: Patterns of Eastwood Dialect in the Work of D. H. Lawrence. (Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2020).