Archaic or strange language in historical fiction

In my final post on the “problem” of language in historical fiction, I am going to consider the possible effects of using archaic or strange language in an historical novel.

This is my last blog post for 2016, but I plan to be back in the new year with more thoughts on writing historical fiction.

Most of the historical novels I read are written in standard modern English, but are also sprinkled with a few unusual or archaic words, to give a sense of the period. Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales is full of examples, including close-stool, five wits (senses), queynte, thunder-light, and prick-song books (music written down in dots). Adam Thorpe’s Hodd includes descried (noticed), swink, dorter and leech. And Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Scarlet Lion has mesnie, lackwit and justiciar. These words all help to adscarlet-liond mediaeval flavour to what is otherwise broadly recognisably modern English, yet without (perhaps) distracting the reader.

However, some historical novelists go further than just using a few strange words. Some actively try to distance their language from modern English. A few use language that is very distinctly archaic, where characters are given what might appear to be “historical” dialogue, but which can seem (to me, at any rate) a little strained and, importantly, may be difficult to grasp or, at the very least, be annoying to readers.

To give an example, in The King’s Mistress, Emma Campion puts (to my eyes and ears) some rather strange dialogue in her characters’ mouths. Fourteen-year-old Alice Salisbury says: ‘I have been cast out from my parents’ home, am no longer privy to the-kings-mistresstheir comings and goings…’ (p.64). This seems awkward language for an adult, more so for a child.

Teenaged Geoffrey Chaucer replies: ‘I did wonder why you are suddenly abiding here…’ (p.64). This is strange phrasing, not modern but perhaps not really “mediaeval” either.

Of the reviews I’ve read on The King’s Mistress, there’s a fair balance between positive and negative comments overall, but there is almost no criticism of Campion’s language, and so I must deduce that most readers are perfectly happy with her writing style. However, for me, some of her language doesn’t work, because I find that its oddness draws attention to itself in a way that is distracting. So, as I also said last week in relation to modern language, perhaps whether or not “old style” language works is, at least partly, a matter of taste.

Hilary Mantel says that her use of modern English (in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) is slightly askew, with a sprinkling of unusual words to give ‘a suggestion of otherness’.1 There is a need, she says, to ‘broker a compromise between then and now’.

Historical novelist Elizabeth Cook says that ‘…one cannot write in the exact language or idiom of a very distant…period and still remain comprehensible, but [one must] find a way in which to honour the alterity of that distant world. A sense of strangeness should be present.’2

Both of these writers prefer a degree of “strangeness” in the language, not the more comprehensive peculiarity that (for me at least) detracts from enjoyment of the story.

game-of-kingsAn historical novelist that I find particularly difficult to read is Dorothy Dunnett. Her Scottish novels, set in the 16th century, have a strong reader following, so obviously not everyone finds her writing overly challenging, but much of the language, and particularly that of the main protagonist, is decidedly ornate:

‘One hand on the standpost, he turned… “Watch carefully. In forty formidable bosoms we are about to create a climacteric of emotion…we shall have a little drama; just, awful and poetic, spread with uncials and full, as the poet said, of fruit and seriosity.’ (The Game of Kings, p.22)

There’s much that is almost incomprehensible, together with, elsewhere, snatches of untranslated French, Spanish, German and Latin, and obscure classical references. Yet some readers clearly love it: indeed one reviewer complains that she cannot persuade her friends to read Dunnett:

‘They all whine it’s too hard to follow with the classical references, obscure poetry, and French quotes. I say the story stands on its own without the reader being as well-read as dear Dorothy. Or you could look it up and learn something. They groan. Lazy readers.’3

the-wakeAs an attempt to go even further and distance its language as far from modern English as possible, The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, long listed for the 2014 Man Booker prize, could be considered to have a lot more than just a “degree of strangeness’. Speaking of writing an historical novel, Kingsnorth says he couldn’t write in 21st century English because ‘the language that we speak is so utterly specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them.’ He needed to ‘imagine [him]self into the sheer strangeness of the past’ and that demanded constructing a language that was a middle ground between Old English and present day English.4

‘when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.’ (The Wake, p.1)

This is essentially simple language and close to phonetic spelling, so anyone who wants to could, actually, “hear” it well enough. Yet I suspect that, for most, it wouldn’t be an easy read. Undoubtedly some readers greatly enjoy it and feel the language lends authenticity to the story, but I imagine many people would not want to be so challenged.

Amazon reviews of the book illustrate contrasting opinions, one finding the language ‘absolutely necessary to put you inside Buccmaster’s mind’, another believing it has ‘neither the benefit of readability nor authenticity to recommend it’, and a third finding it ‘most distracting and to my mind detracted from whatever story was being told’.

So, is it just a matter of taste?

morality-playHowever, other novels manage to use language that is not archaic, but is nevertheless a little strange. Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play is a good example of a novel that uses quite straightforward English but in a somewhat strange way, yet not so overtly as to be off-putting. In the following passage, I wonder if “open-breeched…” is a genuine mediaeval expression or Unsworth’s invention. “As people say” suggests the former, but either way, it certainly has an appropriate “whiff of strangeness”:

‘I am only a poor scholar, open-breeched to the winds of heaven as people say…’ (p.1)

Throughout Unsworth’s novel, voices are slightly strange, not really archaic but just a little odd. In this example, the words lend a mystical, otherworldly impression to the narrative. The sentence beginning “What is accident…” has a proverb-like quality that makes it seem mysterious:

‘And it seemed to me that some errant light touched these [castle] roofs… There was a guidance in it… What is accident to the ignorant the wise see as design.’ (p.24)

To summarise, my experience of reading historical fiction indicates that few writers take either the somewhat “archaic” approach of Emma Campion, or provide the degree of strangeness of Unsworth, still less Kingsnorth. Most simply use standard English, with a few “mediaevalisms”, and rely on the story itself and the images it presents to provide the strangeness, and this is what I also attempt to do in my historical fiction.

 

(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 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>)

References

1. Quoted in Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p.135. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s article ‘The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak’, Wall Street Journal, April 27th 2012.

2. Elizabeth Cook, quoted in Brayfield and Sprott, p.122.

3. Reviewer “J” (2008), Goodreads, The Game of Kings <www.goodreads.com/book/show/112077.The_Game_of_Kings> [accessed 13th December 2016].

4. Paul Kingsnorth, ‘The Wake’, Unbound (2014) <unbound.co.uk/books/the-wake> [accessed 13th December 2016].

Modern language and the problem of anachronisms

Following on from last week’s blog post, introducing my thoughts on the “problem” of language in historical fiction, today I am going to consider the possible effects of using modern language in an historical novel.

world-without-end-coverKen Follett is one novelist who has been accused of using overly modern language in his mediaeval historical novels (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). For some of his readers (evidenced from book reviews), their impression of undue modernity in the novel’s language does matter:

‘Obviously, a novel set around the 12th [sic – should be 14th] century could never be written in contemporary prose… But some concession needed to be made in order to emphasise antiquity, or it might as well be set in the present. …I found myself jerked out of the spell by the kind of prose and dialogue that I can hear on the street every day. And because it was written in modern English, it inevitably portrayed 20th century thinking.’1

This writer does not quote examples but makes an interesting point: is it “inevitable” that modern language portrays modern thinking? Not, presumably, according to the majority of historical novelists who use it. And it is also true that the vast majority of Follett’s readers are evidently so engrossed in the story that the modernity or otherwise of the language is of little importance:

‘From the first page Follett conjures up the earthiness and superstition of those times. I can’t comment on how accurate it is as I wouldn’t know, but it certainly rings true and even if it wasn’t all completely correct, I don’t think it would really matter.’2

This reviewer does not mention language, but for them the authenticity comes in the small details of daily life. It “rings true” and, for them, that is what matters. For most of his readers, Follett’s language does not seem to detract from their enjoyment of his books, but if the language a writer uses does make readers stop and question the authenticity of the mindset that “thought” the words they have read, this will surely destroy the illusion the writer was trying to create.

I decided early on in writing Fortune’s Wheel that I would not attempt to mimic the speech patterns of the fourteenth century, because I felt that “pseudo-mediaeval” dialogue might inhibit modern readers’ enjoyment, rather than give the narrative any greater credibility. (I will say a little more about writers who choose to use “old style” language in my next blog.) I followed the advice of other writers, such as Hilary Mantel and Barry Unsworth, referred to in my previous blog. The language I put into my characters’ mouths is broadly modern English, with some slightly “old-fashioned” phrasing just to give a sense of the past. However, I did not follow closely Unsworth’s advice about formality and avoiding contractions.3 Rather, my choice was to use more formal, non-contracted, forms for higher status or educated characters, such as Lady Margaret de Bohun, and even Eleanor Titherige, a merchant’s daughter, who is not exactly of gentle birth but has received a little education, but to reflect the voices of the peasantry – Alice, Emma, Ralph and others – by using contractions (it’s, isn’t, shouldn’t). I accept that this is a relatively crude distinction and that, to some, the contractions may give the voices too modern a tone, but I am satisfied that it works – for me, at least – and helps to give some individuality to the different voices. I also used occasional “dialect” phrasing or words to suggest rural or working-class voices, such as when Ralph Ward says: ‘I know what he wants to say, sir. That if you wants us to work longer and harder than before, you has to pay us a fair wage.’ This is not intended to be a true reflection of the voice of a fourteenth century Hampshire peasant but rather to give a sense of it.

If you accept, as I have, that putting broadly modern language into the mouths of “historical” characters works fine, the question then might be how far it matters to the average reader if the language, and especially the dialogue, is littered (or even lightly sprinkled) with anachronistic words. (This is central to John Yeoman’s blog post on “authentic” language, referred to in my previous blog.)

It’s obviously important to ensure that anachronisms of fact are kept at bay, but linguistic anachronisms, where words had not yet come into use or, more importantly, where they imply ideas that had not yet entered anybody’s mind, are equally likely to throw a reader out of the illusion. Hilary Mantel has said ‘[characters] mustn’t express ideas they could not have had, and feelings they would not have had. They did not draw metaphors from a scientific worldview, but from a religious one. They weren’t democrats. They weren’t feminists… The reader should be braced by the shock of the old; or why write about the past at all?’
ill-made-knight-coverIn his book The Ill-Made Knight, Christian Cameron sometimes uses words and expressions that are neither twenty-first nor fourteenth-century. Both ‘…cooling my heels…’ (p.184) and ‘…swashbuckle…’ (p.32) are sixteenth-century.

In Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, occasional anachronistic expressions or metaphors creep in. For example, “giving gyp” was possibly nomistress-of-the-art-of-death-covert used first until the nineteenth century: ‘…it seems his guts – which are considerable – are giving him gyp.’ (p.11)

And, here, a different, and perhaps more overt, type of anachronism is used: ‘The deer ran, scattering among the trees, their white scuts like dominoes tumbling into the darkness.’ (p.16)

This is a nice image but dominoes had not arrived in Europe by the twelfth century, so the narrator (a twelfth-century person) would surely not think of using such a metaphor.

So these two novels, which by the way, have mostly modern, and therefore very accessible, language, do include some anachronistic words and expressions that might destroy a reader’s illusion of the mediaeval world. One might say that an expression like “cooling one’s heels” is not exactly anachronistic, but more a “translation” of what the character was thinking about being kept waiting. Similarly, “giving gyp” is an accessible rendition of the narrator’s thought about a character’s pain. However, looking at it another way, both “cooling my heels” and “giving gyp”, while not being mediaeval, are also not really current expressions either, and therefore somehow draw attention to themselves. I think this can often be a problem with anachronisms – one might slip through unnoticed, but if something sounds wrong, the critical reader will spot it and feel obliged to check up on it.

the-lepers-companioins-coverAnachronisms may be subtler. In Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions, set in 1410, references to “kitchen”, “bedroom” and a fire burning in the “grate” do not, I feel, ring true for the period, when such room designations had not yet reached peasant homes, and fires were generally still hearths in the middle of the floor. But this is perhaps to be too exacting.

One should ask, then, how far a degree of anachronism in a novel’s language, especially in the use of individual words, really matters? How far does it detract from a novel’s “authenticity”? Clearly, I have noticed these anachronisms, but many readers would not recognise them, or not care much if they did. However, of those readers who do notice such things, some may not trust anything else the writer says about the period, while, for others, at the very least their pleasure in the book might be diminished.

So one could say that, whereas anachronism does matter, perhaps the degree to which it matters is largely a matter of taste?

In writing Fortune’s Wheel, I tried hard to avoid anachronism in language as well as in fact. I made an effort not to use words and phrases that first came into use much later than the fourteenth century. I frequently used an etymological dictionary to help me select words more or less appropriate to the time and my characters. However, I was not overly exacting with myself: I often allowed myself to sense when a word was not right, and, if necessary, replace it with something more suitable, but I did not examine every word. I am sure I have used the occasional word that is anachronistic. Indeed, I know of at least one:  “hubbub” is a sixteenth-century word of Irish origin and therefore in principle unsuitable for a novel about fourteenth-century England, but I kept it because it seemed to have a mediaeval “feel” to it. Having allowed myself this latitude, perhaps I should not criticise others too harshly.

 

(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 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>)

1. Reviewer “Seatinthestalls” (31st March 2011), Amazon Customer Reviews, World without End <http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/033045692X/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0&gt; [accessed 4th December 2016] – one of 23 one-star reviews out of a total of 783 reviews.

2. Reviewer “BookWorm (UK)” (14th November 2007), Amazon Customer Reviews, World without End  <http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/033045692X/ref=cm_cr_dp_hist_five?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addFiveStar&showViewpoints=0&gt; [accessed 4th December 2016] – one of 577 five-star reviews out of a total of 783 reviews.

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

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

 

The Best Supporting Role is…

Starting on 6th December on Helen Hollick’s https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
Come and meet a host of wonderful supporting characters from the novels of twelve different authors (including me!). The characters you will be meeting will be one of those who might get Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, rather than Best Actor. Helen thought it was high time that some of these supporting cast characters had a chance to step out of the shadows of novels and have a turn in the limelight. What a great idea!

AND each author is also asked to invite six fictional characters (not their own!) to Christmas Dinner. I wonder who they’ll invite?

Here are the authors taking part. To find out who their Supporting Role Character will be, join us at https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com to find out!

6th    Inge H Borg
7th    Matthew Harffy
8th    Alison Morton
9th    Regina Jeffers
10th  Anna Belfrage
11th   Christoph Fischer
12th   Pauline Barclay
13th   Antoine Vanner
14th   Annie Whitehead
15th   Derek Birks
16th   Carolyn Hughes
17th   Helen Hollick

Twitter #SupportingRole