Wednesday 3 July 2013

Was Charles Williams's accent deliberately adopted - 'Mockney' rather than Cockney?


In commenting on Charles Williams at another blog -


- I suddenly had the idea that Charles Williams accent, which struck some of his Oxford friends as 'Cockney' was instead an affectation - or what we term 'Mockney' - a mock-Cockney accent, designed to give an impression that the speaker is 'a man of the people'.


The possibility arises because Charles Williams was actually a University-educated Public Schoolboy whose father had been a clerk - yet CW struck others of that educated class (such as CS Lewis) as if he were of lower class origins and education.

Why should this be? - essentially, I think it was mostly Williams accent, plus perhaps some strange manners and mannerisms.


But why would Williams have a superficially-Cockney accent and strange manners?

My answer: because he deliberately adopted them at some point in his youth or young adult life - for whatever reason CW wanted to appear as something other than he was, he wanted people to assume he was an outsider, of lower class origins.

By the time Williams met the Inklings, this affectation of accent had long since become an ingrained, spontaneous habit. 


Plenty of English people have done and do the same - indeed English public life has been since the mid 1960s largely populated by people of upper middle class origin who try to appear to be of lower class or regional origin - ex Prime Minister Tony Blair (Fettes, Oxford, Mockney) being an example.

Why not Charles Williams? It is known he was extremely self-conscious, he struck most people as extremely affected (yet carried this off by his charisma and magnetism), he was very pro-Middle Class in his social views (and thereby implicitly unimpressed by the Upper Class), he seems to have habitually behaved in an odd and stand-out kind of fashion - wanted to be regarded as one of a kind.

He loved ritual and formalisms of his own devising - indeed, Charles Williams was exactly the kind of person deliberately to change his own accent in order to stand out and emphasize his outsider status and to identify with the lower class audiences of his London evening lectures, and the disciples who came from them.


The more I think about it, the more plausible it becomes!

Charles Williams was a Mockney! - and one of the earliest examples of the type.



Wurmbrand said...

I wonder what E. L. Mascall would think about the matter:

Samson J. said...

"... an ugly man with a rather cockney voice." Hehhehe - thanks for sharing. Actually if you read the next page or two of what you've linked it really makes Williams come off as rather a decent sort of person. It's a shame what happened to him...

Anonymous said...

This was certainly not the impression of various people who knew him, who thought 'Cockney' an inaccurate description, but were clear about his simply having a distinct 'local' accent - Dame Helen Gardner used to do a jolly imitation of it!

I am not sure if many - or any - records survive. I heard a fine reading of the opening lines from his Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury play at the Wade Center which (at least the time) was taken to be read by Williams himself, though the late Humphrey Carpenter had his doubts.

In his Arthurian Commonplace Book (now in the Bodleian Library) he is clearly concerned about the pronunciation of the names (such as 'Galahad').

It would be interesting to know if he could 'do' more or less 'Received' voices: though there are few now alive who could say.

My impression is that it was not 'affected', but not simply 'unconscious' either - my guess is that he could use intonations and bearing to effect, while in another sense he was basically unselfconscious about them.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Logothete - The difficulty is

1. Who was in a position to know whether at some point in his youth, Williams adopted a regional accent? or

2. Who could tell the difference between an affected and a genuine local accent? - in my experience most people are hopeless at recognizing accents, and certainly could not tell the difference between a fake and put-on accent.

But I would reiterate that St Alban's grammar school would at that time have made it its business to eradicate local accents (that was very much part of what such schools were about - core business for them). English state grammar schools had elocution classes even in my father's day (1930s-40s), and these were continued after school at teaching college.

So the *probability* is that if Charles Williams had a regional accent (which he did ) then this was either because he adopted it ('Mockney') or because he *actively* resisted its eradication during school and college.

But, either way, CW had a 'cockney'-type accent essentially because he *wanted* one!

I would think we can rule-out unselfconsciousness when it comes to CW!