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 add 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 their 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.
An 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
As 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?
However, 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/>)
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].
One thought on “Archaic or strange language in historical fiction”
I took one look at Wake and decided I didn’t have the energy but would be happy to listen to it as an audio book much like Will Self’s Umbrella (400 pages of unpunctuated stream of consciousness) which was brilliant as an audio book.
I am also a Dunnett fan and have read the full cycle twice. I do agree that the writing in Game of Kings is challenging but I found her later books far easier to read. I didn’t get into the series until the third book (Francis Crawford was quite hard to warm to in the second book, Queen’s Play). I think people persevere through these challenges because the story is so compelling. With Game of Kings I skimmed the hard bits in much the same way I do extended battle scenes.
Perhaps the most difficult book I have read was Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C Wrede which set the traditional tale in Elizabethan England complete with ‘Elizabethan’ dialogue which was formal and stilted and made the book very heavy going.
My guide with period writing is Josephine Tey who said in the Historical Note to The Privateer.
‘If the characters in the story did not sound quaint to each other, then they have no right to sound quaint to us. What a young man may actually have said to his patron may be: “I am vastly gratified by your condescension, sir, and very sensible of my obligation to you,” but that is not how the words sounded to his benefactor. What his benefactor understood him to say was: “Thank you very much, sir. That is very kind of you.”’