Ancient or modern? Language in historical fiction

Last Thursday, I joined a panel of published writers at a Portsmouth Writers Hub event held at the University of Portsmouth, before an audience of fellow writers and readers. The agenda was to discuss the dark themes in our writing, as well as our research and writing processes. One of the questions asked of me was how I dealt with language, given that my novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is set in the fourteenth century, a time when people didn’t speak English as we know it, but spoke either Middle English, a form of French, or Latin, depending on their social status and education.

It’s a question that has exercised me – and many other writers of historical fiction – a good deal. The question I have asked myself has been, basically, whether I should attempt to give my characters “authentic” sounding voices, or put modern language in their mouths. I knew what I wanted to do but, in my PhD, I actually gave a little thought to the matter, to weigh up the alternatives and assess the pros and cons of each.

What follows is taken from that period of reflection…

tavern-gamesIf historical novelists choose to have their characters speak in modern English, might that give the impression that they also have modern mindsets? Conversely, if characters are given dialogue that purports, or even contrives, to sound like, say, fourteenth-century English, does that somehow give the impression that they also have authentic fourteenth-century mindsets? I do not believe that either case is necessarily true. From all my reading of historical novels, I have realised that by far the majority are written in straightforward modern English, though whether the mindsets that the words convey are authentic often depends on other factors.

When Henry James complained that historical novelists couldn’t imagine the inner lives of people who lived in earlier periods (see my earlier blog The problem with historical fiction I), it was “mindset” he was talking about – people’s ideas, values and beliefs. Of course there’s no such thing as “a” mindset for a period: people in past times didn’t hold a single set of values and beliefs, any more than they do now, but there is undoubtedly a generalised difference between the inner lives of fourteenth-century people and ours. It’s this difference that James considered impossible to bridge, but from my reading of historical fiction I’ve deduced that most writers in fact give the impression of bridging the gap pretty well.

Several years ago, in a blog for historical novelists, Clio’s Children, the writer raised this matter of language in historical fiction thus: ‘…to what degree can we legitimately – or even intelligibly – use language or literary forms authentic to a given period?’ [my italics].1 The writer, John Yeoman, said that readers expect writers to have done their historical homework, and if they believe the language used is wrong, their illusion will be shattered, regardless of whether their belief has any foundation. Perhaps the shattering of illusion applies particularly when the language is deemed too “modern”? Yet, said Yeoman, ‘how else can an historical writer communicate with a modern reader, except in a modern idiom?’, although this view is not universally held. (I think the blog is well worth a read, by the way.)

Of course, Yeoman is only one of many to have addressed this problem.

hilary-mantelHilary Mantel has said that ‘[historical novelists] don’t want to misrepresent our ancestors, but we don’t want to make the reader impatient.’ Too much period flavour, she said, slows the story and may even make readers laugh. When we have little idea how people actually spoke in the distant past – because we have no audio or even written records – we must simply imagine it. Mantel recommended ‘a plain style that you can adapt…not just to [your characters’] ages and personalities and intelligence level, but to their place in  life.’2

barry_unsworthThe late Barry Unsworth said much the same: ‘You can’t make your characters speak in the language and idiom of their own time if the language of the period would seem archaic. It would put too much strain on the understanding and would seem false in any case.’3  Unsworth, too, recommended using straightforward English, though he advised also ‘a certain kind of tactful formality’ and an avoidance of contracted forms (isn’t, don’t etc.), advice which I have to confess I don’t follow.4  I tend to use contracted forms, rightly or wrongly, to help distinguish between social classes. I feel it works for me…

None of these writers has advised the use of “authentic-sounding” period language, perhaps because it is difficult to make such language sound right, and also to keep readers engaged with what might be a difficult read. As I have already said, my reading has shown me that most writers do not attempt to present voices in anything other than more-or-less modern English, although there are certainly exceptions, which I will discuss in another blog post.

But I have concluded that, in most of the historical novels I’ve read that were set in the “Middle Ages”, the characters’ thought-worlds did seem acceptably mediaeval, what they spoke about reflected the social context of the time, and that held true regardless of the modernity or otherwise of the language used.

However, certain aspects of language can detract from the seeming authenticity of the characters’ words, and these include both archaic or “difficult” language, and anachronistic language or ideas, both of which, in their different ways, can throw the reader out of the illusion the novelist is trying to convey. The matter of anachronisms is central to John Yeoman’s blog post on “authentic” language referred to above, and I will illustrate my thoughts on it in my next blog post.


(Note: I discuss this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <>)


1. John Yeoman, ‘Can the language of historical fiction ever be “authentic”?’, Clio’s Children (24th June 2010) <> [accessed 19th March 2014].

2.  Quoted in Brayfield and Sprott, p.135. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s article ‘The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak’, Wall Street Journal, April 27th 2012.

3. Arlo Haskell, ‘Intensity of Illusion: a conversation with Barry Unsworth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Littoral (28th June 2008) <>, para.8 [accessed 25th March 2014].

4.  Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7th October 2009) <> [accessed 25th March 2014].

Topiarist elves and mediaeval gardens

For a change, I thought that this week’s blog post could be something a bit different, somewhat tangential to writing historical fiction, but by no means completely unrelated to my research interests. For, many months ago, when I first dipped my toe into Facebook’s scary waters (as they then seemed), I submitted a post about topiary, and I’m going to take a brief look at “shrub sculpture” once again.


You might not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather like it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, and balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads.

It seems almost magical, as if elves have done it!

The first time we saw them, very many years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this. Is he/she alone or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though some of the clippings have clearly been quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves.

But, actually, if anybody does know the answers to my questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened. For I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Anyway, seeing the mountain sculptures yet again this year set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times.

In Europe, apparently, the Romans practised the art of topiary. Both Pliny and Martial mentioned it, and Roman shrub sculpture included animals and obelisks, as well as more straightforward clipped hedges and cones.

It seems that topiary might then have died out, in Europe anyway, for several centuries. Disappointingly, I think it is probably true that there was no topiary in mediaeval gardens, or at least not in gardens of the fourteenth century, for I have not so far tracked down any helpful images of before 1400. (Although if anyone knows of some, I’d love to see them.) However, illustrations certainly do exist of clipped shrubs, in tubs and in garden beds, from later in the fifteenth century, although the topiary does generally seem to be quite simple, mostly clipped balls or pyramids and a characteristically medieval form called “estrade”, which was a sort of “layered cake” design – something like this…

Illustration taken from The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg. Source unspecified.

A much later picture, of the eighteenth century gardens of Powis Castle in Wales, shows similar “layered” clipped trees planted in the ground.

A view of Powis Castle with formal gardens, c.1780. Image in the public domain

In the sixteenth century, though, topiary was revived with much greater enthusiasm and expression, on a grand scale in the gardens of wealthy Europeans, but also in the more domestic setting of cottage gardens. Yet, despite the grand scale of their settings, some parterres in the gardens of castles and great houses were often again quite simple in their overall design, with low clipped hedges punctuated by the occasional pyramid, and trees in tubs, clipped generally into balls.

The glorious gardens at Château de Villandry in France illustrate how this relatively simple style might have looked, though of course on an astonishing scale.

Photograph by David Hughes

The fashion for more complicated “shrub sculpture” came from Holland, and spread to England in the late seventeenth century. However, it apparently fell out of fashion in the following century, among the gentry at least, when, as I understand it, some landscape gardeners must have gone a bit over the top with the complexity or, perhaps, sheer silliness of their designs and drew howls of ridicule.

But, in the nineteenth century, the art underwent yet another revival with, first, architectural topiary – essentially garden “rooms” enclosed by trimmed hedges – becoming popular, and, eventually, the more sculptural clipping returned as well.

Nowadays, it seems that topiary is more popular than ever, with the most wonderful examples of “grand designs”, such as those at Château de Villandry, and many other astonishing great gardens around the world, and a myriad different and sometimes extremely quirky designs of all shapes and sizes.

Beckley Park, Oxfordshire. Photograph by Vivian Garrido, via Wikimedia Commons

Rufford Old Hall, Lancashire (National Trust). Photograph by Mike Peel (

The extraordinary yew hedge, trimmed into abstract, cloud-like forms, planted at Powis Castle, Wales (National Trust) in the 18th century or earlier. Photograph by Sjwells53, via Wikimedia Commons


And so to return to the French mountain topiarists… I was amused to see this example of shrub sculpture at the National Trust house Kingston Lacy, in Dorset.

Photograph by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

And it so reminded me of one of those photographs I took on my holiday in France that I wondered if perhaps the Vercors elves had taken a holiday in Dorset before they set to with their shears…

The problem with historical fiction (III)

Over the years that I’ve been writing historical fiction, I’ve read a few opinions about it that might have convinced me to abandon the whole business! In this third and final blog post on the so-called “problems” of historical fiction, I consider the view that it often fails to portray the strangeness of the past.

What is this “strangeness”? It refers to the otherness of past times, those aspects of life, in particular mindsets and behaviours, that are unfamiliar or obscure to the modern reader. So it will include differences in attitudes and beliefs but also, for an historical novel set in the mediaeval period, such things as superstition, religious charms, dreams, magic and spells, monsters and mediaeval art (illuminations, misericords, church paintings), strange ideas and seemingly fantastical happenings that today could be readily explained or dismissed – all of which were normal to people of the time. In other periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own.

Strangeness is important in an historical novel, but must perhaps not overwhelm. As Jerome de Groot has said, by exploring the differences of the past compared to the present, historical fiction can make the past ‘authentically unfamiliar’, and yet still recognisable to modern readers.1

The people we encounter on the pages of historical novels are of course familiar to us in many ways: they are mothers and fathers, farmers and carpenters, soldiers and merchants, people with families and concerns and feelings much like our own. But their environment, their habits, their attitudes and beliefs are mostly very different, and it is this dissimilarity, as well as the familiarity, that an historical novelist seeks to portray. Sarah Johnson describes this as making ‘the unfamiliar seem familiar’, and the one must be as carefully managed as the other.2

However, it is perhaps true that not all historical novelists are entirely successful at achieving this. I imagine we have all read novels that we thought didn’t seem quite “right” for the period, in particular where characters seemed to have far too modern a mindset – overly liberated women, unbelievably “new” men…

In Clio’s Children, a blog for historical novelists, the writer John Yeoman proposes an interesting split between types of historical fiction. One kind, he says, ‘depicts modern people, sensibilities and conflicts but…cloaks them expediently with props from history’s wardrobe: ruffs and farthingales, gibbets and jousts; the other exposes the reader to a profound whiff of strangeness.’3 Yeoman cites a number of novels where, in his view, strangeness can be found, including Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and I would guess that most of us would agree that the world in Eco’s novel is decidedly “other”.


On the other hand, Yeoman says ‘we do not find it in Philippa Gregory’. He refers to The Other Boleyn Girl as ‘a sentimental blend of history and kitsch’, so one must assume that, for him, this novel falls into the “props” category.


However, I must say that Yeoman insists that he is not implying any value judgment in defining the two types, rather just illustrating the differences between them. And it is of course true that readers get a huge amount of pleasure from all types of  historical fiction, so is any lack of strangeness a “problem” at all?


So, to summarise this blog thread on potential “problems” with historical fiction…

I have seen it said: that we living in the present can never fully understand the inner lives of people living in the past and therefore may not be able to portray their thoughts and voices with any degree of authenticity; that historical fiction is in itself a contradiction, lies pretending to be the truth; and that some historical novels fail to reflect the strangeness of the past, dressing their characters in authentic-looking clothes but giving them modern sensibilities.

In general, I do not believe that historical fiction suffers from such “problems” any more than any other type of fiction. Indeed I feel that these problems might equally apply to many types of contemporary fiction. For example, in science fiction, thrillers, murder mysteries and fantasy, novelists attempt to portray all sorts of characters’ inner lives that neither they nor the reader could actually experience. All novels of whatever genre are essentially “untrue” – they are fiction! Even the need for strangeness is not confined to historical fiction, but is required in any novel portraying a world, in time or space, that is different from readers’ usual experience.

Having said all that, when I started writing, I did have some concerns about my own ability to produce an historical novel with sufficient authenticity and strangeness. For, although I was reasonably confident about describing the practicalities of the past, I remained nervous that I might fail to portray my characters’ inner lives truthfully, that they might seem to be modern rather than people of their time, and that the world I was attempting to evoke might not be sufficiently “other”.

Whether I have succeeded or failed is for others to say, but I would be interested to hear any thoughts from fellow historical fiction writers about their own experiences of portraying earlier times.


(Note: I discuss this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <>)

1.  Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p.3.

2.  Sarah L. Johnson, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (Westport: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005), p.5.

3.  John Yeoman, ‘How do we define ‘historical fiction’? A modest proposal’, Clio’s Children (25th April 2010) <>.

The problem with historical fiction (II)

Since I’ve been writing historical fiction, I’ve read a few opinions about it that might have made me think the whole enterprise was a complete waste of time!

In this second blog post on the so-called problems of historical fiction, I look at the idea that historical fiction is a lie…


In 2000, Richard Lee, president of the Historical Novel Society, gave a talk to an audience of writers entitled ‘History is but a fable agreed upon: the problem of truth in history and fiction’.[1] The title alluded to a comment attributed to Napoleon, which suggested that history is a form of fiction, for its “truth” depends on who is telling the story: the written history of war differs depending on whether its author comes from the camp of the conqueror or that of the conquered.


But it is also true that the “facts” of history are continually changing, as the latest research inevitably reveals previously unknown information and offers new interpretations of historical truths.

Lee quoted a literary critic who, in a Telegraph book review that year, had said the ‘historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.’[2]

Richard Lee considered that the critic, and others, misunderstood the nature of historical fiction, saying that, anyway, surely all fiction is a lie ‘somehow grounded in fact’. No one, he said, thinks that either Trainspotting or Bridget Jones’ Diary is true, but rather that ‘they were in some way drawn from life’. Historical fiction is no more a contradiction than any other form of art, all of which seeks ‘both accuracy and illusion’.[3]

All fiction is an illusion created by the writer’s imagination. Yet historical, no less than contemporary, fiction must be sustained by a foundation of fact, creating a sense of “authenticity”, in order for readers to accept the illusion as temporary reality. Even fantasy fiction, science fiction and some forms of thriller, despite being illusion writ large, must be founded, if not on fact, at least on sufficient rationality or logic to sustain the illusion.

I found myself almost apoplectic with indignation when I heard what that critic had written. He seemed to be implying that historical fiction was somehow “invalid” as a concept. Richard Lee’s comment rings true for me when he suggests that historical fiction, like all art, aims to achieve both accuracy, or perhaps authenticity, and illusion.

Illusion, not a lie.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts…



[1] Richard Lee, Historical Novel Society, Guides, Defining the Genre (2000)<;

[2] Lee, para 3.

[3] Lee, para 4.

The problem with historical fiction (I)

What “problem” with historical fiction, you might well ask…

Since I’ve been writing historical fiction, I’ve read a few opinions about it that might have made me consider the whole enterprise a complete waste of time! Such as: “historical fiction can never be authentic”, “historical fiction is a lie” and “historical fiction invariably fails to portray the strangeness of the past”.

But, surely, that can’t all be true? Otherwise no one would want to write it, let alone read it. For those of you who haven’t come across these negative opinions before, let me explain…

In this first blog post on the so-called problems of historical fiction, I look at the idea that historical fiction can never be authentic…


The nineteenth-century novelist Henry James famously disparaged historical fiction. It was not the practicalities of the past that James thought difficult to describe, but imagining with any degree of realism, or perhaps “naturalism”, the inner lives of those who lived in earlier times.


Yet imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience is surely exactly what historical novelists attempt to do.

So how does a writer make the characters of a novel set in the fourteenth century seem mediaeval? I want the readers of my novels to put them down feeling that they have been immersed in the mediaeval world, yet without really noticing its “mediaevalness”, as might happen, for example, if they found themselves wondering if this or that thing or image or phrase or thought was “authentic”. To achieve an appropriate degree of authenticity, artefacts and environments must be, or seem to be, of their time, and noticeable anachronisms of fact or notion must be avoided, to save throwing the reader out of the illusion. Mindsets (the characters’ thought-world) must be convincingly mediaeval, and language, in narrative and dialogue, must reflect that thought-world. (In later blogs, I will look at some of the ways in which I have tried to achieve authenticity in my work.)

Which all sounds fine in theory but how does it work in practice? James would presumably say it cannot ever work, that historical novelists and readers delude themselves in thinking the novels are in any way authentic. Yet writers do their very best to portray their characters and settings with authenticity. They undertake months or even years of research, in history books, in contemporary writings where they exist, and in art, and they use their intelligence and their imagination to transport, first, themselves, and then their readers into the inner lives of their historical characters.

Occasionally, an error of fact or understanding may slip through but, with the effort authors make, and with the eagerness of so many thousands of historical fiction devotees who happily allow themselves to suspend any disbelief in order to enjoy the story, the enterprise (of writing historical fiction) surely is not doomed, as James implied?

And I think what is true of historical fiction is true of any fiction.

Historical fiction may not be able to fully convey the experiences of the past, but it is difficult for any type of fiction to wholly convey the experience of a character’s life, especially if that character, for example, commits murder, or blasts off into space to save the planet from a rogue asteroid, or perpetrates any number of actions beyond the experience of the average reader.

Although this is, of course, exactly what all novelists, historical or otherwise, attempt to do.