Letters—Issue 47

Anachronisms and artistry

Has anyone else noticed the anachronisms in Charlotte Randall’s The Curative (reviewed in the December 2000 issue)? The text is littered with them. The majority do not derive from matters of fact but from linguistic disjunctions so that the tone of the book constantly seems to be slipping away from late 18th/early 19th century England towards modern New Zealand. The effect is strange, once you become aware of it: something like the incongruous verbal idioms of Hercules or Xena Warrior Princess.

For example, there are usages such as “good on it” (p58), “shickered” (p59), “having you on” (p60), “stymie” (p120) and passages like this one on p128:

“I heard the apothecary say you’re not as mad as you pretend,”[Porlock] murmurs.

“I wouldn’t be so gullible as to believe everything the apothecary tells you. If I were you.”

“Well, you’re not me. I decide for myself what to believe.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I always do …”

 

How has this come about? One explanation is that Randall is simply a sloppy researcher, that having read Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry 1535-1860 and Masters of Bedlam she felt no further need to inquire into the culture and language of the period she is writing about. Another possibility, though, is that the effect is deliberate.

There are hints that the latter might indeed be the case. On p109, Randall has the apothecary Haslam “make up” the name of an imaginary country. It is “Shangri-La” – a place invented by James Hilton in 1933. On p124 her hero, Lonsdale, coins the word “paranoia” with its modern meaning. On p202, he predicts modern relativism by suggesting that “around the end of the second millennium” we will live in a world “where every man has his own truth”.

What are we to make of a book about the nature of language, reality and sanity in which the voice purports to be that of an 18th century gentleman but is in fact deliberately and subtly modern? Could it be that Lonsdale is not who he seems? Is he perhaps a modern man who only thinks he is unjustly locked up in Bedlam? If so, he is clearly insane and the theme of the book is turned on its head. Far from narrative being the touchstone of our sanity, it is a symptom of our madness. Such a conclusion would, perhaps, do no more than confirm some people’s deepest suspicions.

 

Chris Else
Wellington

 

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