Accents and social status

Are accents important in "Heavenly Creatures?"

[jp] They are extremely important, and Jackson was well aware of their importance. His basic casting decisions (see 5.3) were dominated by his stated desire to get the central characters "right." Jackson insisted on casting the central British characters with British actors, and the central New Zealand characters with New Zealand or Australian actors, so accents were a very important component of the casting decisions.

Beyond this, Jackson's choice of accomplished, seasoned professionals for several key roles indicates that it is worth examining accents in "Heavenly Creatures" in some detail.

Why are accents so important in this story?

[jp] In British society, spoken language and accents are potent, immediate indicators of social station and rank which are hard to mask. In Britain, especially at the time depicted in the film, it used to be possible to distinguish the following things about a stranger from a brief conversation with them, even if the subjects were never broached explicitly:

Christchurch was an archetypal British colonial society (see 5.4.4) with significant social pretensions. Despite what the glowing archival film footage said in the prologue of "Heavenly Creatures," Christchurch was a small, cozy and rather isolated community far from the revered Motherland, in 1954, and it took its "Britishness" very seriously indeed. Or, rather, it's middle- class Britishness very seriously.

Christchurch society would have been divided and categorized quite neatly along lines defined by spoken accent.

People would have paid very close attention to these things in their daily lives, and would have been very sensitive to these and other, even more subtle, indicators of class and social status.

In real life, there are several entries in Pauline's diaries which indicate that she was acutely aware of accent as an indicator of social status.

There are also antipodean accents, of course, varying with geographic location and social circumstances, background etc.

What did Pauline's accent say about her background?

[jp,sb] Pauline's accent identified her as a native, working-class New Zealander. Within the context of the times, this might have described Pauline's station in life for her entire life. However, the times were changing rapidly and Pauline may have been able to better herself considerably, through her education, especially at CGHS.

In real life, going by comments in Glamuzina & Laurie (see 7.7.6), Pauline may not have had as thick an NZ accent as she was portrayed to have in the film (but wasn't Melanie Lynskey's accent great?), possibly because of her parents' backgrounds and accents and possibly because she deliberately changed her accent.

What did Juliet's accent say about her background?

[jp] Juliet's accent, by way of contrast to Pauline's, clearly identified her as being genuinely English, not simply of British stock (an important distinction in a colonial society that looked longingly back to the Motherland and in which there were religious and social distinctions made between English, Irish and Scottish ancestry). Juliet herself emphasized that point (see 3.1.5) because it conferred extra social status.

Furthermore, Juliet's language and accent were consistent with a background that was intellectually rich, even scholarly, and permissive. It wasn't consistent with a long history of privilege, so her family was not rooted deeply in the various upper classes or minor aristocracies. Rather, Juliet's accent placed her family squarely in the upper-middle class intelligentsia. It would be necessary to listen to her parents to pin down her family background any further.

See section for a comparison between Kate Winslet's accent in "Heavenly Creatures" and Anne Perry's accent in real life.

Would Pauline have been aware of these distinctions?

[jp] It can't be emphasized enough that, for Pauline, just talking with Juliet would have blared out the inescapable social differences between them. Just listening to Juliet and the other Hulmes would have reminded her that Juliet came from a shining, impossibly-distant social stratum which both societies would have actively discouraged Pauline from aspiring to join. But aspire she did.

Similarly, the accents Pauline encountered in her school environment would have reminded her, a hundred times daily, that she was starting at the bottom of the social totem pole. Even her teachers (with one glorious exception, see had accents that defined them to be part of, or pretenders to, the English establishment in Christchurch.

However, the 50s were a time of quite radical social and educational reform in New Zealand, so things may not have been completely grim for Pauline's future. Of course, Pauline was just a schoolgirl, not a soothsayer, and she might have had little appreciation of this fact at the time.

It is clear from her diary entries (see 7.4.3) that the real Pauline Parker was extremely conscious of accents and their social/cultural/class significance and that she manipulated and changed her own accent to confer upon herself extra social status. This is very important to understanding the case.

Based on her accent, to what could Pauline aspire?

[sb,mc] I cannot agree that "Pauline couldn't even aspire to become a school teacher" [note: speculated by me in FAQ ver. 1.0 jp]. My reasoning is based on my own understanding of Australia in the 1950s, and an assumption that social mobility in NZ would not have been terribly different.

The 50s were a time when education really did open up for everybody; if you were reasonably smart and/or did reasonably well at school, you could get a scholarship, especially to a teaching college, and achieving schoolteacher was just about inevitable from that point. There were, of course, schools and schools, and someone from Pauline's background may well have ended up teaching out in the bush somewhere (like Sylvia Ashton Warner, portrayed in the 1985 NZ movie "Sylvia").

Given her intelligence, however, Pauline may well have achieved entrance to University, and gone on to quite other things if she had stayed in school, since she was in the top 'academic' stream (see 3.1.5). In real life, she may well have done this anyway, with the BA she partly acquired in gaol and which she completed later (see 3.2.6). I know lots of people from quite humble backgrounds who followed this path in the 50s and 60s. (I could even cite myself: my father's father was a fitter and turner, my father finished high school and became a white collar worker, and I was the first in that line of the family to get a tertiary education: typically upward socioeconomic trajectory for the times, certainly in Australia).

I know of successful NZ academics in their 50s with NZ accents you could cut with a knife, like Pauline's in the movie, and the art teacher's, so her origins needn't have prevented her from following her intellectual aspirations. [sb]

Re: Pauline aspiring to be a teacher. Most of the girls from Form IIIA went to Teachers' College or to University. It was extremely rare for any to go to Digby's instead, and dropping out was unheard of. That class sat School Certificate after 3 years, the rest of the school took 4 years (and the pass rate was higher than for the other classes). [mc]

What can be learned about Honora Rieper from her accent?

[jp] Sarah Peirse did a tremendous job with Honora's language and accent in "Heavenly Creatures." She was able to paint a complex and very sympathetic portrait of Honora by using her voice.

For example, Honora's accent was softer than Bert's accent and Pauline's accent--consistent, in fact, with Honora being born abroad in real life, in England (see 3.2.5), though that fact is never mentioned explicitly in "Heavenly Creatures." However, Honora's accent in the film was very far from the adenoidal, sing-song accent of her real-life birth city, Birmingham. This might be consistent with Honora having spent more than half her life in New Zealand. We never hear 'Nana' Parker speak, so we can't compare her accent with Honora's (possibly this was deliberate because Birmingham is difficult to do right, and hard for foreign ears to understand when it is. jp). Fresh off the boat, Honora would have said she was from 'BEHH-ming-guhm' and would have sounded like she had a permanent head cold (apologies if I offend any Birminghamese).

According to Honora's softer accent, she may have sacrificed some social status when she undertook her relationship with Bert, in addition to taking on the scandal of running away with a man far older than she. (Actually, in real life, there is evidence to support this idea and the scandal was larger than even this, since Bert was married, with another family, and never divorced. See 3.2.9).

Honora's family may have been living in an environment that was socially lower than the one in which she had grown up (there is convincing evidence for this--her father had been a chartered accountant), or lower than the one to which she had aspired. 'Nana' Parker's bitter comments to Pauline would tend to support this history (See above. In fact, Pauline's comments attributed to Nana Parker were not true. See 7.3). Honora's background, especially her coming from England but not being afforded the extra social brownie points awarded to the Hulmes, would have made Honora particularly sensitive to issues of class and status and quite prickly about them. There is plenty of evidence in "Heavenly Creatures" that this was the case, and that Honora never forgot her Midlands roots, steeped as they were in bitter class conflicts extending back for centuries. Honora's accent also adapted to her situation. For example, her accent was raised in social tone whenever Honora was dealing with her social superiors: in her conversations with Dr Bennett, with Hilda Hulme and, especially, with Dr Hulme. Conversely, her accent slipped whenever she was angry, or when she was rebuking Pauline. When Honora showed John-the-prospective-boarder her home, her social tone was raised a peg to tell him the house was respectable; after he had been dismissed, in shame, her few words were a wonderful mix of haughty, angry attitude and contemptuous working-class tone. Wordplay involving the adoption of higher- or lower-status accents is commonplace in British societies, especially among the working class, and can convey important information about attitudes, prejudices and agendas.

Honora's accent was a very important weathervane for her attitude towards Juliet. It changed considerably, when talking with Juliet or about her, between the time when Honora was introduced to Juliet (more on that below in 3.1.14), and those darkest days, for Honora, before Pauline's final visit with the Hulmes. Compare those accents with her tone and accent in the final scene in the Park--there, Honora's accent tells us she was at last comfortable again and, she thought, in control.

What can be learned about Bert Rieper from his accent?

[jp,jwwm,sb] Bert was a working man who was comfortable with his lot in life, according to his accent. Bert's words and language were changed to fit the social situation, but his accent wasn't. He was a man with no social pretensions.

To the trained antipodean ear [jwwm] Bert's accent has a slight Australian feel and, indeed, in real life Bert hailed from Tasmania. [sb] (see 3.2.9).

What can be learned about Hilda Hulme from her accent?

[jp] Diana Kent is a seasoned and accomplished stage actor, so the accent she gave Hilda Hulme was also deliberately tailored.

Hilda Hulme's accent spoke of an upper middle-class background or, perhaps, slightly higher than this; landed gentry, most likely [note: I have found out that in real life her father, a prominent Anglican clergyman, was listed in "Who's Who." That would probably put Hilda's family background at the landed gentry stratum. jp]. Hilda had probably been raised by nannies and had definitely been well-educated at 'good' girls' schools. In Hilda's case this probably meant being sent away to an academically accomplished boarding school, not a fluffy finishing school that catered to the aristocracy. We get the impression that Hilda had fond memories of her own school days and her own deep adolescent friendships with other girls. She may well have gone on to University, and may have met Henry there. We get the impression from their accents that Hilda's social station, or at least her family background, was higher than her husband's.

Hilda's accent wasn't modified and was never condescending in her dealings with her social inferiors, which spoke of a liberal attitude to class and social status, also consistent with a landed gentry upbringing.

What can be learned about Henry Hulme from his accent?

[jp] Clive Merrison also did a first-rate job at conveying subtle cues about Henry Hulme through his language and accent.

Unlike his wife, Henry's accent and manner of speaking were those of a consummate intellectual. His accent and manner had been shaped almost entirely by his education, which had obviously progressed to the rarified stratospheres of Oxbridge and beyond. The status arising from his educational background, relayed through his accent, would have been of utmost importance in Henry's day-to-day professional life at the University.

However, Henry's accent did not possess that extra something that would have indicated a privileged background. It is difficult to read Henry's accent back any farther than his University days, and this may be deliberate deception on Henry's part. There is a hint of Midlands broadness to Henry's vowels.

And, unlike his wife, Henry modified his accent and tone noticeably according to the social situation, most noticeably when addressing his social inferiors. This paints a picture of a man who was not only highly attuned to social distinctions, but who actively sought to maintain them in their status quo, with himself at or near the top. Given the lack of vocal evidence to support a long history of social privilege for Henry, this implies that Henry was a successful social climber who had scaled to his present status through his own achievements and, perhaps, by marrying slightly above his station.

What can be learned about Bill Perry from his accent?

[jp] Bill Perry's accent was straight middle to lower-middle class working professional and, according to his accent, he probably hailed from the southeast of England [note: In real life, Bill Perry was actually born in Canada. see 3.2.8]. He had had a practical, even "red-brick" university education, not the rarified Oxbridge education of Dr Henry Hulme. Given Bill's profession, engineering, this probably meant Durham University, or Manchester or, perhaps, Imperial College, London. Or, perhaps, he had been trained on-the-job during the War.

Bill Perry owed whatever social status he had to his own efforts and hard work. Unlike Henry Hulme, however, Bill's abilities were not sufficient to let him scale the heights of British society. Even though there was a turbulent, almost- anything-goes period immediately following the War in Britain, real social revolution in the U.K. would have to wait for the 60s. (When it came, though, it came with a bang.)

Hence, Bill Perry's social status was decidedly inferior to both Hulmes and, in particular, it was inferior to that of Hilda Hulme. This puts Hilda and Bill's relationship into a very interesting light because, socially, they were quite distant from each other. Getting involved with Hilda was effectively a big but dangerous move up in the world for Bill, while it was a very risky move, socially, for Hilda. Maybe this is an indication of just how bored Hilda was with her life or, more intriguing, it could be a little clue that there was more of an emotional component to their relationship than there appeared to be from the surface. See 3.2.8 Bill Perry would have fallen, rationally, between Juliet's and Pauline's stations in life. He would have been derided mercilessly by both girls, of course.

Back Forward