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XXXIII. voices.

An exceedingly well-informed young woman said to another, in my hearing, the other day, “Do you not think that there is something in a voice?” It was my impulse to answer, “There is everything in a voice.” What is beauty, symmetry, or grace in man or woman if, the moment the lips part, there issue sounds so discordant that they drive you away like the harsh scream of a peacock? If we travel in the dark by stage-coach or sleeping-car, we instantly form an opinion of every person around us whose voice we hear. Their standard of manners, their chances of training, their course of education, often the very locality from which they come, reveal themselves. Qualities of character, as peevishness or sweetness, habitual interests, home habits, all indicate themselves there. And yet the voice has been until lately quite neglected in our schools. At this day, if anything is taught in that direction, it is mainly elocution; that is, the pronunciation of words and the utterance of sentences, while the [167] voice itself, which is the foundation of all elocution, remains untrained.

Yet there is no training which we as a nation need more. Whether by change of climate or of habits, we in this country have lost the good average of clear enunciation which prevails in England. Through the general spread of popular education we have really less of local dialect than the English; and the mere pronunciation of words is on the whole as well done here; it is in the tones of voice that the disadvantage lies. English people make the mistake of supposing that what they call “the American twang” is universal, just as we make the mistake of supposing the dropped “h” to be universal in England; but each evil is too common. Nor is it in comparing the best-trained people especially that we notice any drawback among ourselves, for English public speakers are very awkward compared to ours; and there is now much of the Dundreary affectation in London fashionable circles. But that the ordinary well-to-do Englishman speaks in a more agreeable voice than the ordinary well-to-do American is something that there is no use in denying; and when the comparison is applied to the average woman, the answer is still more inevitable. I must confess to preferring a well-bred American woman to her English compeer in every aspect but this one; her greater [168] quickness of mind is as unquestionable as her greater vivacity of spirits or taste in dress; it is only when you come to the voice that she is at a disadvantage. It is not that one does not hear attractive voices of women in America; they, indeed, are growing more and more common, and this is encouraging, because it shows that the climate offers no real obstacle. But, after all, there is in the voice of the typical English “gentlewoman,” tame, conventional, narrow though she may be, a peculiar and soothing charm --a combination of mellowness and clearness and crispness that makes you willing, for the first few days at least, to listen to the very tamest discourse on lawn-tennis or water-colors or the new curate, for the sake of the agreeable vehicle by which it comes.

It is amusing to find that Mr. Andrew Carnegie --“the star-spangled Scotchman,” as William Black, the novelist, appropriately calls him-interrupts his altogether jubilant book on “Triumphant democracy” by an expression of discontent over the American voice — the only thing about which he makes the slightest concession. “The American voice,” he says, “is thin to begin with — the effect of climate, I fear-and to this is added the abominable practice of slurring over or cutting off inconvenient syllables. The American woman is the most intelligent, entertaining, and agreeable in the world. If [169] she had her English sister's voice and enunciation, she would be perfect, but these she has not.” 1 I am, I trust, almost as ardent an American as my friend Mr. Carnegie, although he thinks that only adopted citizens have this emotion in full force. Certainly I have little more liking than he for royal families and hereditary nobles, nor does it seem to me that even the manners of the community are benefited by their presence. The difference in voice is not a social difference between the two countries, but mainly, no doubt, a partial modification of organs in a new environment. In other words, it is something for attention and education; we have to work out our own salvation in this respect.

It is altogether probable that there is to be a new voice developed in America, as there is already a new temperament. It used to be thought that we could never be so strong or healthy as the English, because we were thinner; but it is now pretty well proved that we needed only to become acclimated and adapt ourselves to the new ways of living. So with the American voice; it will probably never be a chest voice, like the English, but it will come more from the head, and when well trained will be an instrument capable of finer modulation and greater expression. As the very best American manners — such [170] manners, for instance, as those of the late Mr. Charles Dabney, so long our consul at Fayal — seem to me finer than the best English manners, so the very best American voices seem to me better than the best English voices, being equally clear and mellow, with more positive sweetness and far more range of expression. But such really good voices are rarer here than in England, mainly because there is not the same close attention given to the matter on this side the Atlantic. An English mother, in the well-bred classes, is as solicitous about her daughter's way of speaking as about her clothes-perhaps more so, if we may judge by results. An American mother, under similar circumstances, is apt to attend to the clothes, and leave the voice untended. In schools, however, and especially in public schools, this matter is being more and more brought to attention. Remarking, a few years since, in a large family, how much better the youngest daughter used her voice than any of her sisters, I found with surprise that much of the difference was due to the pains taken in the public schools of the rural city where she lived-schools which she alone had attended. If we can once see American education achieving superiority in a point like this, it will be striking at the very root of the evil.

1Triumphant Democracy,” p 337.

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