Wilfred Owen, World War 1, Berlitz School, Birkenhead, Received Pronunciation accent, Liverpool accent, Bordeaux, Bagnères-de-Bigorre, Craiglockhart Military Hospital, Horace Annesley Vachell, Siegfried Sassoon.
Today Wilfred Owen is remembered primarily as a war poet. His war in France is well-documented; you can walk the former battlefields in his footsteps, Owen’s poetry and letters in hand (or in ear). His experiences of French trench warfare provoked, we know, much trauma, leading him to expose the ‘pity of war’ through his poetry: as such, the war is credited as a core inspiration for his greatest work. What’s perhaps less well-documented, is the extent to which France helped shape Wilfred Owen away from the war. How did his earlier two years in and around southwest France help to shape his adult personality, his social skills, his outlook on life – perhaps even his art? It’s hard to say; but there are clues. But what’s becoming clearer is that this period, and this region, helped Owen to change something that would have been instantly recognisable to those who knew him over time: the way he spoke.
Introduction: Owen the Outsider
What was Wilfred Owen’s speaking voice? In truth, we can’t know for sure, because no-one ever recorded him speaking. Naturally then we have to look for clues in his history, in his writing, and in the testimony of those who knew him.
It’s generally accepted that Wilfred Owen spoke with something close to an upper-class English accent. In part this is because his poetry has often been recorded by actors who possess, or can adopt, a Received Pronunciation (or ‘RP’) accent – the default ‘voice’ for powerful English people. Kenneth Branagh’s voice – heard at the Forester’s House in Ors, where Wilfred wrote his last-ever letter in that cramped basement – stands as a typical example. Received Pronunciation is so-called because it has long been accepted (or ‘received’) as the default voice of England’s social elite. (There is a useful discussion of Received Pronunciation here (Robinson, 2019) on the British Library’s website, along with a recorded example of an older speaker.) But was it ever Wilfred Owen’s accent? And if it was, what role, if any, did France play in Wilfred’s acquisition of the accent?
Biographers have tended to represent Wilfred Owen either as someone who enjoyed a level of personal privilege, or at least as someone who sought it out and revered it. There is for example Wilfred’s late August 1918 encounter, just before he crossed to France and to his doom, with an unnamed and privately-educated ‘Harrow boy’ (Owen, 570) on Folkestone beach, reported in his 31.8.18 note (Letter 647) to his mother Susan. Harrow School is one of England’s oldest, most exclusive, and most expensive private schools: alumni have included British Prime Ministers; the sport of squash was invented there. ‘Harrow boy’ is thus shorthand for wealth and privilege.
So, what was Wilfred’s attitude towards this beneficiary of such privilege? Biographer Dominic Hibberd thought that for Wilfred, his meeting with someone ‘of superb intellect and refinement’ (Ibid) was ‘almost like finding one’s ideal self’ (Hibberd, 151). Biographer Guy Cuthbertson asserts that Wilfred ‘was at heart a conservative and was delighted to encounter the rich and powerful’: it was ‘clearly class – especially “the way he spoke” – that excited Owen when he met the Harrow boy’ (Cuthbertson, 265). Biographer John Stallworthy references the encounter (Stallworthy, 268) to recall Wilfred’s earlier reading of Vachell’s Harrow School-set ‘The Hill’, which had been, Wilfred told Susan on 21 February 1918, ‘lovely and melancholy’ (Owen, 535).
But it is worth quoting further from that February 1918 letter, written from Scarborough on the north-east English coast. After telling his mother that ‘he was very comforted in Scarboro’’ – then, as now, a relatively poor town – Wilfred summarises Vachell’s Harrow-set novel as a tale of ‘…hills on which I will never lay, nor shall lie; heights of thought, heights of friendship, heights of riches, heights of jinks’ (Ibid). The ‘loveliness’ was what would always be denied him; the melancholia was his sadness at missing out. He might have been longing for the life enjoyed by the boy he would eventually meet, some eight months later on that beach at Folkestone; to the untrained ear, they may even have sounded alike. But the Harrow boy’s world could never be his. Indeed, Wilfred’s reading of Vachell’s novel may have left him thinking of himself as the unlovable Scaife – a ‘poor Demon son of a Liverpool merchant, bred in or about the Docks’ (Vachell, 1905) – a young man who ‘can’t help being a bounder’. (Wilfred had himself spent at least six formative childhood years at school in Birkenhead, close to Liverpool.) Scaife’s problem, explained well-bred John – nephew of a ‘world-famous pioneer’ who ‘took continents in his stride’ – was that Scaife ‘wants breeding… but he’ll never get that – never’ (Ibid).
Accent: the need to change
Despite a years-long commitment to changing both his manner and his speaking voice, Wilfred would remain, like Scaife, a troublesome outsider to the traditional English public school and Oxbridge ‘club’. Born in England in Oswestry, close to the northern border with Wales, and schooled for years near Liverpool among citizens known for their sharp wit and guttural accent, Wilfred was the lower-class son of a humble railway clerk (later Stationmaster). Vachell’s Scaife may have lacked ‘breeding’, but he at least had family wealth: Wilfred had neither.
Owen’s British biographers have tended to dismiss the idea that Wilfred ever spoke with a northern English accent – especially a Liverpool accent. Certainly, such an accent would have been surprising for a well-connected English officer-poet. Even today, strong regional English accents are more or less unheard within mainstream national media that focus on news, politics, or indeed aspects of the arts. For residents in England who were born outside the UK, RP has long been – and remains still – the default ‘voice’ for those with power within society.
It follows then that the outsider who wants to thrive in England will want to understand, possibly even adopt, such an accent. In Bordeaux, Wilfred taught English to non-English pupils; and while the big majority of his French clients (initially at that Berlitz school) were drawn from across France’s social spectrum, that wide demographic soon narrowed. Quickly talented-spotted by powerful people in France – whose heads may have been turned by rumours (arising, apparently, from Wilfred himself) that he was the son of an English knight – Wilfred was soon moving in privileged circles, teaching English to ever higher-status pupils.
It’s fair to assume that Wilfred Owen’s wealthier, ‘posher’ French clients would not have wanted to visit Britain speaking with, say, a Liverpool (or ‘Scouse’) accent. After all, accents, we know, provoke prejudiced reactions(Cauldwell, 2014). It makes sense then that, as Wilfred settled into his new post at the Berlitz School, he would take drastic action. On 14 February 1914 he wrote to Susan that he was ‘at last beginning to report something like an accent’ (Owen, 226). That same month, he could be found on the streets of Bordeaux – ‘Revelling! in the Carnival!’ Masked with a ‘home-made domino’ and wearing ‘a laurel wreath on my head’, he was, he reported delightedly to Susan; ‘twice choked with confetti’ (Owen, 235).
By the start of June 1914, Wilfred was feeling confident enough in the permanency of his new accent to share news of the change with his sister Mary. ‘I don’t know whether you will remark any difference in my vowel values when you hear me again’, he offered – adding that it was the Mother ‘whose child is Invention’ who had ‘obliged me to mend my speech’ (Owen, 258). We can assume from Wilfred’s explanation that he felt that changing his accent was necessary, in order for him to earn his living as a teacher. But it must also have suited him, as his friend circle began to expand, to sound like a higher-status Englishman. And not only when speaking in English: in this same letter he claimed to be able to differentiate as many as four French accents that surrounded him – although none of these, he implied snootily, were sufficiently high-status for him to copy: ‘I shut down my imitative faculties when speaking with the majority of people I speak with’ (Ibid).
The following month saw Wilfred take his new persona out into the Bordeaux streets to celebrate Bastille Day. Writing joyously afterwards (again to his sister Mary), he reflected on how his usual ‘self-conscious’ state – a worried sense that he was ‘the centre of attention’ – had been blown away by ‘real Bordeaux Red & White’ (Owen, 265). Studious young Wilfred Owen – the lone, bookish, bedroom-bound ‘Old Wolf’ known to his family back in England – was becoming something of a party animal.
August 1914 found Wilfred somewhat becalmed, working as a live-in tutor to the Léger family in pretty Bagnères-de-Bigorre, some 300km south-east of Bordeaux. There he continued to reflect, in Letter 278 to Susan, on how an accent might ‘be cured’ (Owen, 271). Ostensibly, he was referring here to his young pupil Nénette Léger – who, ‘at the sacrifice of her accent’, had been ‘go[ing] to school with the peasants, and makes great progress’ (Ibid). Someone – Wilfred, presumably – would need to ‘cure’ her of her lower-class accent.
By November 1914 he was back in Bordeaux and boasting to his younger brother Colin that his friendship group now comprised ‘one French and two Peruvians’ and an Italian-Egyptian: together at a restaurant table the five friends could ‘make a babel almost as uncouth as makes one German when he is ratty’ (Owen, 297). No doubt the wine helped. Wilfred identifies his friends as medical students; and perhaps they were. By this point, however, he was living close to the theatre run by M. Léger: it’s possible then that non-French theatre artists, and French artists excused from fighting, may also have featured within his friendship group (Wilfred knew well of his mother’s disapproval of live theatre, and was increasingly keeping such matters private).
By teaching others to speak with an upper-class accent, then socialising with new friends, Wilfred was sounding more upper-class himself. Being in France made things easier: separated from family and peers, there was no-one around to tease him, or to shame him as an imposter. As a result, his new voice – sounding upper-class in French, too, probably, as well as in English – stuck, opening doors to higher-status French families. This feels fortunate: there’s a big difference between upper-class spoken English, and lower-class spoken northern English; and the difference is greater still when the latter is filtered through the guttural Liverpool ‘Scouse’ accent that had surrounded Wilfred during nine childhood years in Birkenhead.
Practice, as they say, makes perfect. By late 1914 Wilfred was speaking a lot outside class, practicing his new accent. Conversation, he told his mother, could ‘equal, and supplant even, Novel-Reading’ (Owen, 294). Wilfred was even dismissive of English universities and their trappings – claiming that ‘I don’t think I could bear to live in Cambridge except in one capacity alone’ (Ibid). While he doesn’t explain this, he may simply have meant that Cambridge living would immerse him more deeply in the accent of England’s privileged classes.
Did Wilfred ever succeed in entirely shedding his northern English accent? Not according to his former friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon, who remembered Wilfred’s voice as ‘perceptibly provincial’ (Sassoon, 58). In 1979 writer Stephen Spender reported that Sassoon had dubbed Wilfred’s speaking voice ‘embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent’ (Spender, 1979). Grammar schools typically had, and retain, a lower status in England than the historic Public Schools: despite his best efforts, Wilfred stood out, still, as slightly lower-class.
The pressure to lose a regional accent, in order to fit in within elitist circles, has long been widespread in England. There’s a recent example of this on the British Library website (Linfoot, 1999). Here, a younger northerner – in this case, from Scotland – has modified his speech in order to adopt the RP accent. The speaker had moved south to become a pupil at Harrow School, and sounds, in the recording, typically ‘upper-class English’. The brief written discussion that follows the recording notes, however, that towards the end of the recording the speaker reverts back to northern pronunciation of words such as ‘asking’ and ‘after’ (this can be heard right at the end of the recording, when ‘after’ occurs as the seventh-from-last word).
Small clues to a person’s origins can then sometimes be heard in speakers who have adopted a RP accent. Wilfred worked hard in France to create a ‘difference in my vowel values’ (Owen, 258); but he may have missed one or two of the subtler features of his adopted accent. To offer one example: Abercrombie notes how RP often features ‘creaky voice’ (Abercrombie, 101) – known more often today as ‘vocal fry’ – when the speaker’s pitch ‘falls below a certain point’. The difference, Abercrombie notes, has to ‘be demonstrated to be appreciated’. It feels possible then that Wilfred’s relative lack of exposure in France to native RP speakers, may have left him sounding less ‘creaky-voiced’ – therefore less convincing as a ‘native’ RP speaker.
Staying on in France: a chance for assimilation
In June 1914 Wilfred had written home from Bordeaux with exciting news of the offer from the Légers for him to become their live-in tutor. Wilfred records a meeting between M. Léger and M. Aumont – proprietor of the Berlitz School – in which Aumont declined to guarantee Wilfred his job back, once his stint with the Légers was over (Owen, 261). Just six months later, a shocked Wilfred suddenly re-encountered M. Aumont – a person whose ‘very eyes one wants to avoid’ – on a busy street: but Wilfred was already, he told his mother, ‘so much changed since the day of my emancipation’ that Aumont ‘didn’t recognise me’ (Owen, 295). Incidentally, Wilfred does not state that he was forced into conversation with Aumont: it’s possible that the latter may simply have failed to recognise Wilfred, as a result of changes to his physicality. As any actor will know, such non-verbal changes are a common side-effect of adoption of an accent, including a higher-status accent.
Three weeks after the encounter, and still working daily on his accent, Wilfred sent Susan a postcard declaring that he would not be going home to England for Christmas. He blamed the German risk to cross-channel shipping (Owen, 298). This was surely true; however, maintaining distance from his family would continue to protect him, he knew, from mockery of his new, more upper-class-sounding voice. Besides which, back in France Wilfred had just been offered another golden opportunity to further hone both his accent, and his social mores. As war raged on in the north, he had been invited, he told Susan, to tutor two ‘elder boys’, Johnny and Bobbie de la Touche, once again from a high-status Bordeaux family (Owen, 298). Doors were now opening for him – including, he reported, to ‘the finest Chateau I ever beheld’ (Owen, 301), where he even received an open invitation to play tennis on the private courts. In Letter 302 he describes the spoken English of two potential pupils as ‘not only sound but elegant: (lahst, get off the grahss, silly ahss! etc.)’ (Owen, 301). While the boys had been born in China, they were, Wilfred declared, ‘as English as English could be’ (Ibid) – and needed, he had been told, ‘an Englishman to take them in hand’. Interestingly, in this letter Wilfred was now using both ‘Auntie’ (typically rhymed with ‘shanty’ in the northern English pronunciation) and ‘Aunt’ (rhymed with ‘can’t’ in the southern pronunciation) – further evidence, perhaps, that his accent was still in transition.
So it was then that France, with its tolerance of – and perhaps indifference to –Wilfred’s speech self-therapy, proved to be a great place for reinvention. There he assumed a modest level of power and status that no-one back in England (aside, perhaps, from his parents) had expected him to claim. Through working hard, and by convincingly acting more upper-class, he had made himself desirable. If you had money – and, ideally, private quarters – Wilfred Owen could help your children both to look and sound like him (the new him), and indeed learn how to deal with the likes of him.
The Final Step: immersion
Glimpsed in France at the end of 1914, Wilfred seems content. Only two things were spoiling his happiness. The first, as ever, was ‘Poverty’: his annual income was ninety pounds, while his expenditure, he half-joked to Susan, was just a farthing less –although ‘If my board & lodging were paid for this expenditure would be reduced’ (Owen, 303).
The second problem was a growing sense of guilt. In early November he shared with Susan that he had heard that ageing poet Laurent Tailhade – an impressive new contact, and something of an artistic mentor – was now ‘shouldering a rifle’ (Owen, 295) along with novelist Anatole France, already aged seventy. ‘Now I may be led into enlisting when I get home’, he confessed. A month later he admitted to ‘a good deal of shame’ (Owen, 300) at his failure to enlist to fight.
Just under a year later, in London in October 1915, Wilfred joined the 2nd Artists’ Rifles Officer Training Corps. The Corps would go on to deliver months-long officer training, before Wilfred eventually accepted a commission into the British Army’s Manchester Regiment. Now in the uniform of an Army officer, Owen – the new, reinvented, ‘posher’ Wilfred Owen, albeit still working on his regional accent – began writing the war poetry for which he would one day, and posthumously, become famous.
Abercrombie, David. Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1967.
Cauldwell, Richard. “What does your accent say about you?” (9 June 2014). British Council website: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/what-does-your-accent-say-about-you
Cuthbertson, Guy. Wilfred Owen. New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015.
Hibberd, Dominic, The Last Year. London, Constable, 1992.
Linfoot, Matthew. “Public School Received Pronunciation”, BBC interview with Sholto Morgan (19 January 1999). British Library Website: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/public-school-received-pronunciation-sholto-harrow
Owen, Wilfred. Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters , Harold Owen & John Bell (eds.), London, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Robinson, Jonnie. “Received Pronunciation” (24 April 2019). British Library Website: https://www.bl.uk/british-accents-and-dialects/articles/received-pronunciation
Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey. London, Faber & Faber, 1945.
Spender, Stephen. Drop Me a Name – 25.5.79 article in The Observer, (1979).
Stallworthy, John. Wilfred Owen, a Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Vachell, Horace Annesley. The Hill. A Romance of Friendship. Ebook, 2007 [London, John Murray, 1905]. Project Gutenberg Website: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/20280/pg20280-images.html
Paul Elsam is an independent researcher with wide teaching and leadership experience within English universities, including Hull, Teesside and Coventry. His research focuses mainly on aspects of live performance. His PhD was adapted and published by Bloomsbury in 2013 under the title ‘Stephen Joseph – Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur’. His 2011 handbook ‘Acting Characters’(Bloomsbury) was widely adopted as a guide for drama training, and is available in Russian translation. Other published work includes articles focused on playwrights Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn. He is currently working on a biography of Wilfred Owen.