Robert Louis Stevenson ‘Thrawn Janet’: Audiobook Recording

I’ve decided to start using this site again to play around with the possibilities of recorded audio form in reading and thinking about nineteenth-century literature and its sonic aspects. For the first post in this vein, here is a recording I did with my excellent Glaswegian pal Lucy Brown, back in – I think – 2011, when I was supposed to be finishing the PhD, but decided, unaccountably, for a month or so, that maybe I could become an audio book entrepreneur instead (hmm…).

A masterpiece in the Scottish Gothic tradition, ‘Thrawn Janet’, published in London’s elite Cornhill magazine in 1881, was RLS’s first substantial experiment in fiction with a Scots voice. This voice, which delivers the Gothic content and is the second of two we encounter in the story, estranges at the same time as entrances the implied reader, who has already been interpellated by the initial non-dialect, RP voice, as one of his kind: that is, civilized, educated, the kind of person that reads the Cornhill. The two voices make a telling contrast – the first voice, that of a breezily literate character, whose sentences can be easily read silently off the page, as if they were written, indeed, expressly for that purpose; the second, a working-class character, avowedly suspicious of ‘book-learning’, whose sentences in dialect imply the form of oral, gossipy speech that has had to be transcribed into writing, with difficulty, and against the grain. The last voice is the one on which the story ends, and this decision to leave the reader cast adrift, as it were, in the thought world of its oral, anti-literary culture, is one of the most striking formal features of its complex contribution to the late nineteenth-century revival of the Gothic within literature.

Putting these voices from the page into actual rather than implied oral form, through reading them aloud and recording them thus, so they can be read likewise, repeatedly, has curious effects on the relation, the dynamic, between these two voices. The latter voice migrates from the realm of silent reading difficulty to that of sonic pleasure, the meaning-making musicality of its lively, emotionally engaged speech comes through strong in the recording, commanding an immediate authority that, I think, is more slowly won, when the story is read silently – at least, by those of us for whom the dialect Stevenson uses is very unfamiliar. It would be really fascinating to compare with different readers, who have different degrees of familiarity with Scots dialect, the phenomological experience of reading this story in, alternatively, scriptural/textual and oral/audible form…

In this recording, we decided to characterize and differentiate the two voices, not only according to the clear class divisions implied in Stevenson’s story through his use of dialect and non-dialect, but also gender, and national identity, the second voice being a female Scottish one, and the first, an English male (yours truly, Matt Ingleby!). This shift between the two voices accentuates – in sonic form – the substantial difference between the world views they embody, and raises questions for the reader, about the way the local currencies of violence, real or imagined, within the community narrated by the tale and embodied by the second voice, intersect with the symbolic forms of violence – classed, gendered, and also raced – at work in the world implied by the first voice: that is, in the world of the implied Cornhill reader.

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