Authenticity in historical fiction (VI)

In this, my final blog post on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, I am completing my previous post looking at how to introduce a sense of “otherness” into an historical novel.

Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories.

midsummer bonfireThe traditions and rituals of the Midsummer Eve celebrations are important in both Fortune’s Wheel and in the second “Meonbridge Chronicle” that I am currently writing. When bonfires (“bonefires”) were lit across a village, they provided a focus for the merrymaking but also had a superstitious purpose.

Yesterday evening the customary Midsummer bonfires were set around the village, for the flames to ward off evil spirits and the smoke to purify the air. Fortune’s Wheel, p 19

Superstition often seems to be an extension of religious belief. So if a man was so sinful that he’d  be assumed to be bound for Hell, as a criminal – an outlaw – he’d also be buried beyond the village boundaries, and at a cross-roads, where his ghost would be prevented from returning to haunt his accusers by the confusion of knowing which road to take.

‘I’m glad he died without being shriven, so he’ll be forever in mortal sin and go straight to Hell.’ … …

Some hours later Sir Richard sent the sexton and a couple of manor servants to the cross-roads outside Meonbridge, where they buried [his] body. None but those three witnessed the burial and Sir Richard gave instructions that no sign was to be left to mark the spot. Fortune’s Wheel, p238

Carsten Tolkmit, Keil, Germany        [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Suicides too were buried at cross-roads where, seeming to be considered dangerous – something like the “undead” perhaps? – they’d also be confused and unable to return.

Suicide was a sin: she knew those who took their own lives couldn’t be buried in the churchyard; and she’d heard in some places their sinful bodies were mutilated before they were buried, to ward away the Devil. Fortune’s Wheel, p 173

In The Nature of Things, one woman’s understanding of the nature of lovemaking and another’s fears about the results of her sinful sexual relationships as a prostitute show different perspectives on the same superstition.

I’ve always thought a woman must enjoy the act of love as much as her husband if she’s to conceive a child, but now I know that’s just something people say. For though in truth I shrink from Richard’s nightly ploughing, and have to grit my teeth to bear it, yet a child’s growing inside me, conceived, I think, not long after our wedding night. Already, it’s kicking against my belly. The Nature of Things, p.102

… as I lie each night next to my beloved husband, worry stops me sleeping: we’ve been married months and still there’s no baby in my belly. And now I wonder why, since that first time with Gilbert, I’ve never got with child, despite all those men I’ve been with. … …

‘Everyone knows,’ [she] used to say, ‘unless a woman enjoys it as much as the man, she’ll not get a child. So you just make sure it’s them getting the comfort, dear, and not yourself, and you’ll be safe enough.’

I believed her, because I always hated what those men did to me and certainly got no pleasure from it. But, now, I love what Tom and me do together. So why isn’t there a child growing in my belly? The Nature of Things, p.391

1_3_2_mansel-smlBut how far beyond superstition is a belief in the power of magic charms? Perhaps not very much… In Fortune’s Wheel, a young pregnant wife, fearing that her growing belly is encouraging her husband’s eyes to wander, turns to a wise woman for a love potion to prevent him straying.

‘Foolish Isabella,’ said Margaret, raising her eyes to the heavens. ‘Oh, she was a stupid girl, Alice. She told her maid that she thought Philip’s eyes were straying because her belly had become so distorted with her growing baby. The maid, a simple wretch of a girl I should never have allowed to be a manor servant, told her that Mistress Kemp could give her a love potion, which she could slip into Philip’s wine. Isabella of course believed her. And she chose to ignore Richard’s rule that no-one was to leave the manor and go into the village. She slipped out without anyone noticing, and soon after she returned she fell ill and died within a few days.’ Fortune’s Wheel, p.88

In The Nature of Things, a man casts what he considers a magic spell, following the example of his mother – presumably a wise woman or witch. But his purpose is much darker than that of the unhappy young wife above.

His old Ma knew how to hurt people. When he was a lad, he watched her from his hiding place, listening to her mutterings. She filled a jar with pins and something her victim owned: a trinket or a scrap of clothing. Then she pissed into the jar, stoppered it and hid it beneath the hearth. What happened then? He is not quite sure, but thinks that, when the fire was lit and heated up the jar, the victim’s skin would prick all over, his guts burn with searing pain. The Nature of Things, p.27

It is worth noting that many modern depictions of “the Middle Ages”, particularly in film, draw as much on fantasy as on history, and conversely much fantasy fiction (The Game of Thrones among many, many others), and many films and computer games, draw on what is perceived as “mediaeval” as the apparently natural setting for fantasy worlds.

However, in some ways, this tendency seems more than simply natural, for the mediaeval world was full of “fantasy”: the fantastical images in, for example, the thirteenth-century mappa mundi housed in Hereford Cathedral, or the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter, or the writings of, for example, “Sir John Mandeville” about his travels to supposedly real countries. And then there are the terrifying paintings on church walls – fantastical certainly to our eyes –put there to chasten the congregation’s wicked hearts.

In The Nature of Things, a priest, fleeing from a catastrophic fire broken out in a decrepit ale-house, recognises in the inferno the images of Hell he’s seen in church murals.

As I near the door, I turn my head once more to look on what is truly a vision of Hell. I have seen demonic visions such as this in church wall paintings, put there to terrify and teach. And I am no less susceptible to their lesson than is the smallest child. The Nature of Things, p.10

church wall painting
12th c. wall painting in Church of St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon, Surrey (

A woman, knowing that her greedy husband has died unshriven, and fearful for his soul, recalls another church mural that exacerbates her fear.

At her prie-dieu, Alys began to shiver as well as weep. An image slipped into her mind, from the painting on the wall in Saint Nicholas’s church, a painting that had alarmed her as a child and still made her tremble: a naked man, fat moneybags suspended from his neck and coins pouring from his gaping mouth, was squatting over fiery flames, while horned devils prodded at him with their forks. The Nature of Things, p.16

The priest mentioned above (who in fact escaped the fire), more educated than the average village clergyman, has seen a map – perhaps something like Hereford’s mappa mundi – and was struck by the marginalia depicting strange creatures. Readers might question whether such a man would believe such creatures really existed, but perhaps he simply doesn’t know.

Sir Philip is not a noble man – or at least not in his bearing…Yet it is Philip’s face that detracts most from his lordly mien, for it is very long, his nose uncommonly sharp, his dark eyes prominent and widely spaced, his mottled beard poorly clipped and straggling over the neck of his crimson velvet hood. When I look at Philip, I am reminded of drawings I once saw upon a map, of men called cynocephali, dog-headed men, who some say live at the far edges of the Earth. The Nature of Things, p.19

By Hartmann Schedule (1440-1514) (Beloit College) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
A boy has heard about monsters living in the seas and at the edges of the world, as has his patron, a much older, well-travelled merchant. Do either of them believe in the existence of these creatures? The boy is young and naïve enough perhaps to imagine that they could exist. But the older man, like the priest, doesn’t know the truth, but perhaps he shares the mediaeval delight in the fantastical and wants the monsters to be there.

‘But now I know the sea doesn’t end, but just goes on and on, further than you can ever see.’ I pause for a moment. ‘How far d’you think it does go, Master Godfrey? The edge of the world? And what happens then?’

Master Godfrey laughs and shakes his head. ‘Some say monsters lurk at the edges of the world.’

I nod. ‘When I was little, my Ma told us a story about sea monsters, great fearsome beasts with scales and claws.’

He laughs. ‘Ah, yes, but these monsters are not dragons, but men with their faces in their chests, and men with one foot so large they can use it to shield their heads from the sun.’

My skin tingles at the thought of meeting such strange creatures. ‘Are they dangerous?’ The Nature of Things, pp.202-203

However, some novels are both historically accurate and suitably religious and full of superstition and yet, without really including anything particularly fantastical or supernatural, move beyond superstition into something somehow a little stranger. I’d like to mention two such novels, both of which I admire greatly for achieving a strong sense of otherness. (I have in fact mentioned them both before in earlier blogs!)

cover-of-hoddAt the very beginning of Hodd, by Adam Thorpe, it is hard to be sure what the narrator is thinking, but it is certainly strange. I do not know where Thorpe found the idea of birds as flying fish, perhaps from bestiary lore, or perhaps it alludes to the belief that swallows hibernated under water?

The seas are folded over us, above our heads, the lower sea becoming the upper sea and yet still blue when not girt with sea mist, which is grey and melancholy. Some men when they look up see birds, but I see only a kind of fish… These fish are beaked and feathered, as we all know, and return to dry land to nest in trees… Hodd, p.1

morality-playIn this passage from Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth, despite appearances, there is no beast; the narrator has mistaken what he thinks he has seen because his mindset tells him to expect the supernatural. But the image, and the fear it engenders, are strikingly “other”:

The snow made a mist…dark shapes in it…a great black beast…[with] red eyes and above its head there moved a shape of red, dark red in the white of snow, and I knew this for the flame of the Beast’s breath and I knew what Beast it was…and I crossed myself and groaned aloud in my fear, seeing that the Beast had come and my soul was unprepared. Morality Play, p.58

I feel that both these writers found their “otherness” by absorbing what Unsworth once referred to as “the spirit of the age”1 and interpreting it in a way that produces, for me, novels with a deep sense of mystery and mediaevalness.

As I have been attempting to show in this series of blog posts, the historical novelist has many ways to try and achieve a sense of authenticity: narrative form and recorded history, social context and physical details, the historical thought-world, including religion and superstition, and a sense of otherness. In respect of most of those ways, I feel that Fortune’s Wheel does achieve a fair sense of authenticity (although of course my readers will pass their own judgement on that), but it does not, perhaps, have a very strong sense of otherness. The Nature of Things incorporates a little more of the “other”, though not, I hope, so much that it has lost its naturalistic tone.

My readers cannot of course yet judge The Nature of Things, but I might ask those who have read Fortune’s Wheel, does its relative lack of “otherness” mean that it presents a less “authentic” mediaeval picture than it could or should?

I’d welcome views from other authors – how essential is otherness to the authenticity of an historical novel?

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

Authenticity in historical fiction (V)

Continuing from my previous blog posts on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at the matter of “alterity”, “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past “a foreign country” and which, in a novel, can bring the reader that delightful frisson of unfamiliarity and strangeness…

(Because I have rather a lot to say on this topic, I’m going to split it into two, so the next post (22nd March) will be the final one in this sequence of posts about authenticity.)

In a previous post (16th November 2016, The problem with historical fiction (III)) I referred to one of the so-called “problems” of historical fiction, that it often fails to portray the strangeness of the past. This strangeness – I like the term “otherness” – refers to those aspects of life in the past, 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 and relics, 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 seemed normal to people of the time. In other historical periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own.

Yet, when I embarked upon writing Fortune’s Wheel, and then later, The Nature of Things, because my declared intention was to write “naturalistic” novels, novels that portrayed what I thought of as everyday life, strange and fantastical elements did not seem to have a place. I felt that such elements might somehow detract from the naturalism I wanted to achieve. For, although “magic and monsters” may have been part of the mediaeval person’s ordinary experience or belief, they are the opposite for us – we tend to consider them fanciful or fantastical, not commonplace. When writing an historical novel, one must be conscious of how certain aspects of the past might be perceived by a modern reader. A potential danger of introducing “magical” elements – however authentic they might be to the mediaeval mind – would be that the novel might appear less naturalistic historical fiction than fantasy.

A balance must be drawn between the authentic past and the sceptical present.

Fortune’s Wheel does not, however, eschew otherness entirely – the religious thinking of the time, often strange to us, and superstition are there. For The Nature of Things, however, I pushed the boundary of otherness a little further, while still trying to maintain a naturalistic tone. The characters in my novels are normal, everyday kind of fourteenth century people, who would be likely to hold at least some strange (to us) views of the world. Alongside their belief in God and the teachings of the Church, some people, maybe most, would have embraced a variety of superstitions, and believed in or feared monsters, and might consider potions and charms (if not actual witchcraft) a natural way of curing ailments or influencing behaviour. I do not want the supernatural to be a major influence in my novels, but I cannot deny that bringing a sense of otherness to them might well contribute to their authenticity.

I would like to explore these aspects of “otherness” a little further, by illustrating where I have found it in other historical novels, and where and how I have included it in my own work.

First, two examples of novels that I do feel embrace otherness…

company of liarsI greatly enjoy reading the novels of Karen Maitland, an expert at writing novels redolent with “mediaeval” atmosphere, dark and suffused with weirdness. In Company of Liars, set against the spread of the Black Death, the principal characters are mostly rather uncommon people, including a magician, a one-armed storyteller and a child witch, and the story has elements of the fantastic and the supernatural. For example, the storyteller, who has a swan’s wing where his missing arm should be, describes his childhood:

‘One day my mother found me in a corner of the byre, beating my little stump with a stick and sobbing. It was then that she…explained that my little buds would soon sprout feathers and grow into a beautiful white wing just like a swan’s.’ Company of Liars, p.158

It is by no means unrelievedly fantastical, but, while the otherness of Company of Liars certainly lends it a real sense of the “mediaeval”, the novel does not evoke (for me) the naturalistic everyday atmosphere that I wanted for my own novels.

the-lepers-companioins-coverThe Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn seems largely fantastical. It has the strange premise of a modern woman suddenly, and inexplicably, transported back to the fifteenth century to live as an unseen ghost among the villagers. Initially, the picture of mediaeval life painted by Blackburn appears normal enough, yet superstition and strange ideas soon pervade the novel to a degree that makes it appear more fantastical than naturalistic. It is perhaps difficult to draw the line between the simple otherness of the time and the introduction of magical elements into an otherwise normal setting.

On the following morning a cow died for no good reason and the shoemaker’s wife gave birth to a baby with the head of a monstrous fish. The Leper’s Companions, p.13

She ate the map entirely…it made her feel she now contained the knowledge of distant lands growing inside her like a new baby. The Leper’s Companions, p.62

Whatever Blackburn’s intention, it is disconcertingly strange and detracts sufficiently from the naturalistic to be a form that, again, I did not want to emulate.

By contrast, there are many novels with settings in the Middle Ages that do not seem to include much of what I might consider fantastical, but have, for example, no lack of the commonplace superstitions of the time.

scarlet-lionElizabeth Chadwick’s novels about real mediaeval historical figures seem essentially naturalistic; all her novels are noted for their historical accuracy and sense of period. If any of them have more fantastical elements (I have not read them all), I imagine that these elements would be incidental, rather than fundamental, to the story. Superstition, however, was perhaps too normal for the time to be overlooked. Here, the ship’s master’s reference to a superstition is not derided by the well-born lady, Isabelle – it is presumably as normal an idea to her as it is to him.

[The ship’s master] nodded with grim approval at their prayers, shouted something about being fortunate if you were born in the caul and returned to his crew.

‘What’s “born in the caul”?’ Richard wanted to know.

‘It means that you were born inside the bag that held you in the womb,’ Isabelle told him, ‘and that you’ll never drown.’ The Scarlet Lion, p.73

vein of deceitSusanna Gregory’s mediaeval mystery novels manage to achieve what seems like a very naturalistic portrayal of fourteenth-century life: all the characters seem perfectly of the time, with superstition, as well as religion, prominent in their everyday thinking. In A Vein of Deceit, there is nothing especially other, and yet mediaevalness is somehow on every page, making the slightly other seem utterly normal.

‘Tell him, sir,’ Risleye cried, outraged. ‘Tell Valence that garden mint should not be given to teething children, because it is a herb of Venus, and so stirs up bodily desires. That is bad for babies.’ A Vein of Deceit, p.32

The_Clerkenwell_TalesThe same could be said of The Clerkenwell Tales. Here, Peter Ackroyd’s leech – a doctor – has some quite strange ideas. They are essentially superstitious rather than fantastical, but really do lend a tone of otherness.

‘Comb your hair each morning with an ivory comb, since nothing recreates the memory more. Walnuts are hurtful to the memory. And so are onions. Avoid them. Do not stay in the house of a red-haired or red-faced person.’ The Clerkenwell Tales, p.10

The balance of naturalism and otherness achieved in these three novels is closer to what I also wanted to achieve in my own writing. Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories, and I will illustrate some of them in my next and final blog post on authenticity in historical fiction.

(Note: I have discussed 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 <>)

Authenticity in historical fiction (IV)

Continuing from my previous blog, looking at ways in which an historical novelist can try and achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at depicting the historical thought-world, including such aspects as religion and superstition.


As I showed in an earlier blog post (The problem with historical fiction (I), 2nd November 2016), Henry James distrusted historical novelists’ ability to imagine the gaps between their own inner lives and those of people who lived in earlier times, whose experience of the world was so much more limited than ours. It was this that he thought made historical fiction impossible to write with any degree of authenticity. But this is surely the very essence of historical fiction – to portray what Barry Unsworth once called the “spirit of the age”. He thought that authenticity could be found in the way a novel sensed the past, the way readers experienced what it was like to be alive at that time.

I have found that portraying the intangible aspects of my characters’ thought-worlds, such as sexuality and gender, religion, superstition, belief in magic and monsters, peoples’ sensibilities and mindsets in general, is more difficult than getting right either the social context or the physical details. Although there is no shortage of academic writing about these subjects, the difficulty lies in transporting oneself as a writer into a very different thought-world. Fourteenth-century people must have been like us in many ways, yet also unlike us in many others, and tapping into these dissimilarities is both a challenge and, perhaps, one of the principal points – and indeed pleasures – of writing historical fiction.

In this blog, I am illustrating my ideas with extracts from my as yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things.

Sexuality and gender

My novels tend to focus on the lives of relatively ordinary people, although I do want all my characters, both male and female, to be quite strong, more ambitious perhaps than many of their real counterparts would have been. I think that is partly what makes them engaging as characters. Female characters are at the heart of their narratives and, although most of them are “strong”, and perhaps thoughtful and even argumentative, they are not “feminist”, and I have striven to portray them as more or less conforming to the norms of the day in terms of they think and do. It is important for the sake of authenticity that all the characters, and their behaviours, are not anachronistic.

1_3_2_mansel-smlFourteenth-century sexual relationships were undoubtedly different from the norms of modern day Britain. Sex outside marriage and adultery were sins in the eyes of the Church. Even sex inside marriage was a sin if it was not knowingly for the procreation of children. However, I feel sure that women experienced the same desires and passions as modern women, even if they knew they were “sinful”. Despite their undoubted fears, my female characters are generally as eager for love and enthralled by sexual passion as any modern woman. And, like women throughout time until the contraceptive pill brought them unprecedented sexual freedom, some of them engage in “illicit” sex despite the risk of pregnancy and therefore discovery, and despite their fears about sin.

Despite the risks, mediaeval literature and court records make it clear that adultery was common enough, if by no means socially acceptable. But, unsurprisingly, in the following extract, the woman’s behaviour gets her into trouble, and she realises it is the result of her hunger for a different sort of life.

Later, when he’s gone, I’m in an agony of conflict. I’m racked with terror at my sin but unable to confess it for the shame of seeing Master Anselm’s shocked and disappointed eyes. Yet I’m quite powerless to tell Tom not to come to me again. For the truth is my hunger for the pleasure Tom brings me is far stronger than my fear.
The Nature of Things, pp.111-112

She has dreams, but they are not – indeed, cannot be – fulfilled: in the end ordinary life gets in the way and her role as wife, and especially mother, prevents her from leaving. Instead, her desire for a different life turns into a hunger for love, love that proves perilous as well as sinful. I see her as like any modern woman who longs for something “more” in life, although, in this case, her “more” is limited to what was likely in the fourteenth century, constrained as she is by social mores as well as circumstance.

adulteryA priest’s illicit relationship could be equally risky, when he is consciously flouting the Church’s rules on the celibacy of the priesthood. However, as I understand it, mediaeval priests often had mistresses, and even wives and children. Yet neither my priest nor his mistress is truly comfortable with their decision to become lovers – they are not modern people. It is perhaps surprising that they – indeed mediaeval people generally – would commit these “sins” at all whilst apparently so fearing punishment in the next life but, perhaps, as Sarah Johnson says, “human nature doesn’t change”.2

The bond is sealed, but the nature of it remains unsettled. I feel yet unable to make a public denial of the rules of clergy by taking Alys as my wife, and yet I cannot shake off the conviction that I am sinning – and forcing her to sin – when we share my bed without the sanctity of marriage. Alys, for her part, is patiently risking her mortal soul for the sake of our nights of joyful – and guilty – pleasure.
The Nature of Things, p.41

Another female character in The Nature of Things is coquettish, high-spirited and a little rebellious – both against tradition and against her mother. Her mother thinks her recklessly headstrong when she refuses her father’s advice and, as a consequence, loses two of her sons to the plague.

‘Your father told you what you should do,’ she says, her eyes narrowed and steely, ‘but you ignored his advice. You think you are so modern and independent, and do not need the advice of your elders.’

I shake my head, weeping still. ‘That is not true, Mama,’ I whisper. ‘I just thought—’

She flies at me. ‘You just thought you could defy God’s will – you arrogant, irresponsible girl.’
The Nature of Things, p.234

Despite appalling setbacks, she maintains her defiance and ultimately absorbs ideas about society that were undoubtedly unusual for women of her time, about equality, the power and wealth of the Church, and the freedom of women to manage their own lives. Yet, in truth, she barely acts on them – perhaps, in the end, tied by the constraints of that society.

Religious views

Corhampton church, Hampshire’s Meon Valley. Photo:

The central role of religion in the lives of fourteenth-century people is perhaps difficult for many – but not of course all – people living in twenty-first century, science-focussed, largely secular Britain to fully appreciate. Yet I am sure that my anticipated readership would be surprised if mediaeval religious sensibilities did not permeate my characters’ thought-worlds.

In the fourteenth century, God was central to daily life: in prayers and oaths, in how people thought of their position in the world and of life after death, in the way they behaved. The Church directed how people ran their lives, to an extent that we would undoubtedly consider deeply interfering. As Eamon Duffy says, ‘The Christian calendar determined the pattern of work and rest, fasting and feasting, and influenced even the privacies of the bedchamber, deciding…when husbands and wives might sleep together or must abstain. Everyone, in principle [my italics] at least, subscribed to the Christian creed.’3 However, Duffy’s “in principle” makes me think that perhaps strong faith was not quite as universal as we might suppose. I imagine that most people believed in God, and in Heaven and Hell, and may have feared the consequences of committing too many sins, yet many probably had the most simplistic understanding of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. But I imagine too that most were happy enough to engage in the main events of the Church year – the many Christian feast days and the annual confession at Lent or Easter – and to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and marriage, and I suppose most went to church on Sundays.

However, if most people believed something, at least a few must surely have eschewed religion altogether, although they might well have kept their scepticism to themselves. In The Nature of Things, I have drawn a character who has lost his faith, principally because God continues to ignore his (indeed everyone’s) prayers for help in the midst of devastating famine. His apostasy frightens his wife and family, who fear God may punish him, and also that those in authority on the manor may regard him as subversive.

Ma says we must believe our suffering is God’s will. But I don’t understand at all why He’s making our life so hard, for I don’t think me, or Ma, or Pa, or my brothers, or anyone in Broadham, has been so wicked we can possibly deserve such punishment.

Ma tries to comfort me. ‘Think of it as part of God’s great plan. He’s testing us—’

‘But why, Ma?’ I cry. ‘Why do we need to be so tested?’

She shrugs. ‘Master Anselm says God wants us to understand we’re weak and must trust in Him alone.’ She wrings her apron for a few moments. ‘Which is why I worry so about your Pa,’ she says, in a whisper. ‘He thinks he’s no need of God at all – can manage by himself.’

‘But he can’t, can he?’ I say, thinking of how thin and frail Pa’s become. ‘So will God think badly of Pa?’

Ma shakes her head. ‘I don’t know, Agnes,’ she says, wiping her face with the edge of her apron. ‘He’s a loving and merciful God, Master Anselm says, but all the same I’m fearful for Pa’s soul.’
The Nature of Things, p.84

The fourteenth century was a world where what we now consider natural (or perhaps man-made) disasters, such as ruinous weather, famine, plague, were presumed to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. This would, I think, have been what priests taught their congregations. In the following passage, the character “knows” that God has sent their suffering – in this case, death of a whole family from plague – without understanding why.

The loss of my brother and his family is hard too for me to bear, despite Will and me not always seeing eye-to-eye. I think of what Isabel said – what cause did God have to punish them? Will was a good man, hard working, honest, a loving husband and father. Isabel was vexing but hardly a sinner. And the children’d had no time to sin! No one, not even Master Nicholas, understood why God must be so cruel.
The Nature of Things, p.185


In my final blog of this series, I will look beyond the relative strangeness of medieval thought-worlds to the matter of “alterity” or “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past even more of a “foreign country”.

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

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

3  Eamon Duffy, ‘Religious belief’, in A Social History of England 1200 – 1500, ed. by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.293.

Authenticity in historical fiction (III)

Continuing from my previous blog, looking at ways in which an historical novelist can try and achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at portraying the social context of the time, and describing physical details, such as clothes and food.

Social context

What was it like to live in the fourteenth century? The popular modern view might well be “nasty, brutish and short”, which, while bearing some measure of truth, suggests an unrelenting grimness that I feel unreasonably excludes everyday humanity and emotion.

It is true that life expectancy at birth was short, children being in constant peril from accidents, untreatable illnesses, the effects of poverty, and natural disasters. But if an individual survived childhood and reached the age of around twenty or so, he or she might then hope to live until at least middle, if not old, age.

Perhaps most people did live in environments that, to us, would seem horribly dirty, foul-smelling and dark – the image of a gloomy, dank and stinking hovel comes to mind. Sometimes historical novels or films are criticised for presenting too clean a picture, and it is also true that, in my novels, I don’t dwell at length on the nastiness of people’s living conditions, but I also don’t shy away from it when appropriate. It is undoubtedly correct that peasant houses were generally dark from a lack of windows, and smoky from the central hearth, and even great houses would be cold and draughty, but there seems to be no reason to imagine that people of every station in life did not make every effort to ensure their homes were as comfortable as possible.

In my descriptions of peasants’ homes, I think I show clearly enough that they are cramped, dhaus2ark and smoky, and, in bad weather, cold and damp. But my readers might think I have some sort of obsession with the problems of “laundry”… For, aware that peasants would be unlikely to have more than a couple of sets of clothes, and imagining what it must have been like to be outside in the rain and then coming home all wet, with just a small fire in the hearth (no radiators or tumble dryer…), I concluded that drying clothes must have been a nightmare! No history book I have read so far has told me how they handled it, so I deduced that they would have made some attempt at drying their clothes around the fire, on some sort of rack, perhaps, and that they possibly slept in their clothes, sometimes at least, to help them dry out a bit. It seems a pretty ghastly prospect! Yet what else might they have done? (If anyone does have some information, I would love to read it.)

If we time-travelled into a mediaeval town or village, we would undoubtedly find the whole environment pretty unpleasant. However, in my novels, the narrative is seen through the eyes of the characters, so, even if their homes and general environment were smelly and uncomfortable by our standards, they surely would not recognise it as worthy of remark, unless it was in some way unusual. So, any lack of reference to unpleasant environments is deliberate, as we are looking at life through the characters’ eyes – eyes that surely would not notice what was commonplace.

Many of my characters in all my novels do refer to the commonplace difficulty of walking out of doors, because of course medieval roads were generally not well-maintained, particularly in rural areas, and one can only begin to imagine the devastation to roads and pathways wrought by winter weather and constant rain.

It might be summer, and dry today, but it had been raining on and off for weeks and the gulleys at the sides of the road still ran fast with rainwater. The road itself was muddy and tricky to negotiate, and she picked her way carefully to avoid slipping into the deep ditches. It was not far, but by the time she reached the manor gate, Alice’s boots were soaked through to the inside.
Fortune’s Wheel p.37

It was not, presumably, always quite so bad, although it must be true that, without paved roads, travel in the Middle Ages, especially in wet weather, would often be an arduous, uncomfortable affair, and I have always borne this in mind.

Indeed, weather plays a strong role throughout my novels, for it must have affected the daily lives of medieval people far more than it does us (here in England, at any rate). In some cases, especially in parts of my as yet unpublished novel The Nature of Things, it is fundamental to events. A very useful book for understanding historical weather is John Kington’s Climate and Weather, which contains detailed descriptions of weather from the first century BC to 2000 AD, and has a summary for each year of the fourteenth century.1 It is perhaps unlikely that many readers would know what the weather was like in, say, 1305, but being able to draw on a “factual” description of it does, I feel, bring a sense of authenticity.

The warm, dry summers of recent years continued the run of good harvests. But, this year, the sun’s heat is not warm but oppressive, the hay crop has failed and beasts are dying in the fields from a lack of fodder. Tempers are fraying and, despite my efforts with the village youths, the very heat seems to spur them on to even more ill-tempered brawling.
The Nature of Things p.48

Trying to imagine myself into my characters’ shoes, into the minutiae of the context of their daily lives, is part of what I find so fascinating about writing about the past, and is what I hope brings a sense of authenticity to the story.

Physical details

Describing accurately what we know or can deduce about how people lived, their homes, clothes, food, tools, working practices, is perhaps not too hard to achieve. If writers read enough history, visit museums and, where appropriate, study contemporary documents, they stand a fair chance of getting the physical picture of a period right, although even the most careful researcher might slip up, or choose one version of the “historical truth” over another, which some readers might question. That is true of any fiction, of any period.

So what happens if a writer gets a detail wrong?

Noticeable anachronisms – events not yet happened, artefacts not yet invented, ideas not likely to have entered anybody’s mind – must be avoided. However, I would guess that many readers do not always recognise anachronisms. Some evidence for this can be found in book reviews, where 5* reviewers may say nothing negative about a book, while 1* critics of the same book appear to exult in pointing out every historical failing. The fact is that, for readers who do notice problems, the writer’s credibility as a portrayer of authenticity may be immediately compromised.

As an example, I was surprised to find mention of potatoes in Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions, a novel (shortlisted for the Orange Prize) set in England in the year 1410. This may seem cavilling, but potatoes did not arrive in Europe until the mid-sixteenth century. Blackburn also refers to a ‘shift…with the lace around the sleeves and neck’, apparently belonging to a peasant woman, which seems unlikely for the time. Yet, it seems, if a reader likes a story enough, these details may not matter, even if they are recognised. On the back cover of The Leper’s Companions, an anonymous critic described it as ‘profoundly researched as all [her] work’; and an Amazon reviewer said ‘It is exquisitely written in lean & learned detail…’2 Indeed I found myself happy enough to overlook apparent glitches in research because of the other qualities of Blackburn’s book. It is an intriguing story, and the strangeness of the world she created is fascinating, if not very naturalistic, thus showing that the balance of acceptability is different for different readers.

However, my novels are intended to be naturalistic, and I wanted to show the physical details of “everyday life”, with food and clothing just two aspects of the physical that can help lend an air of naturalism and authenticity.

For example, here, the narrator describes a meagre meal taken during the privations of the famine.

Ma ladles pottage into a large serving bowl, and puts it down in front of him. ‘There’s a scrap of that good bacon in there,’ she says, ‘so eat up, husband.’

He turns to look at her and smiles. ‘A little,’ he says, picking up his spoon. He dips it into the pottage and, filling it with the gravy, raises it slowly to his mouth and tips it in. ‘It’s good,’ he says and smiles again.

‘But you took none of the bacon,’ says Ma, standing over him like she used to when we were children. ‘Nor any of the turnip.’

‘Let the children have some first,’ says Pa, signalling to us to dip our spoons and take our share. […]

When the bowl is almost empty, Ma fetches a small hunk of the coarse bread she’s made from barley mixed with ground up peas and beans, and cuts it into five pieces, three larger and two smaller, and, handing one to each of us, bids us wipe the big bowl clean.
The Nature of Things pp.85-86

There are many references throughout my novels to clothing: kirtles, cloaks and headdresses, cotehardies and surcoats, boots and wooden pattens, fleece hoods and workmen’s coifs. Most items of clothing are mentioned more or less in passing, but one or two are described in a little more detail.

shepherdsFor example, when I discovered a suggestion that peasants might have used hoods made of fleece to keep off the rain, I realised it might not be “true”, but it seemed likely enough and had an authentic ring.


Then I pull on one of the sheepskin hoods Ma’s laboured to make us all. It made her fingers bleed stitching through the skins, and Pa complained at the waste of fleeces. […]

It’s true the fleece hood keeps my head dry, though I hate the sheepy smell and scratchy itch of the unwashed, oily wool so near my face.
The Nature of Things p.75

However, although physical details are hugely important, it is not usually factual (in)authenticity that is the main concern of historical fiction’s detractors. As I will show in my next blog, it is the depiction of historical thought-worlds that can be trickier to write.

(Note: I have discussed 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 Kington, Climate and Weather (London: Harper Collins, 2010), pp.221-232.

2  Reviewer “A Customer” (2002), Amazon Customer Reviews, The Leper’s Companions <; [accessed 25th June 2014].

Authenticity in historical fiction (II)

In writing my historical novels, my objective has always been simply to bring the past to life with a sense of “naturalism” and a high degree of “authenticity”. For readers who enjoy learning about history through fiction, I think a sense of historical truth is important, although those who simply enjoy reading stories set in the past may not mind quite so much if a novel tends more towards the imaginative than the true. Book reviews of any number of historical novels show how widely readers’ needs and sensibilities can differ. For some, historical accuracy is vital, whereas, for others, a sense of authenticity may be enough, provided the story is sufficiently engaging.

In 2013, the writer Mary Tod carried out a survey of historical fiction readers asking, among other things, why people read historical fiction.1 The answers accorded with my own reasons for reading, and indeed writing, it; principally, to appreciate how people lived and coped then and to understand the experience of those marginalised by history. Respondents cited the feeling of immersion in time and place, authenticity and learning, as aspects of historical fiction that were most important to them.

cover-of-historical-fiction-iiIn her monumental book on historical fiction, Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre, Sarah Johnson says that readers ‘want to be seduced into believing that the historical world an author creates is real’.2

For those readers, and for me, authenticity is important, and there are many ways for the historical novelist to try and achieve it. Over the next few blogs, I am going to look at a few of them. Today, I consider choosing a particular narrative form for the novel, and using aspects of recorded history. Later I will look at portraying the social context of the time and describing physical details, such as clothes and food. Then I will consider the tricky matter of depicting the historical thought-world, including such aspects as religion and superstition. And finally there is “alterity” or “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past “a foreign country” and, in a novel, can bring to the reader that delightful frisson of unfamiliarity and strangeness…

Narrative form

In How Novels Work, John Mullan says: ‘Some stories account for their existence. The framing device is…the fictional explanation of how a narrative has been discovered or recorded…the frame (or explanation) surrounds the rest of the narrative.’3

In some historical novels, the very structure, the narrative form, can purport to bring authenticity to the story. Examples include Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Adam Thorpe’s novel, Hodd. As Jerome de Groot says, The Name of the Rose uses ‘the framing narrative of the lost manuscript’.4 The book purports to be a manuscript written by a fourteenth-century monk, discovered by a seventeenth-century scholar, translated into French by a nineteenth-century monk, and finally finding its way into Eco’s hands, who translated it into Italian before “losing” it. Eco tells us that he could find no evidence of a real manuscript and suspected it might all have been a hoax, but decided to publish his Italian version anyway. We should, I presume, read the “hoax” as Eco’s.

cover-of-hoddIn Hodd, Adam Thorpe uses a similar premise, a ‘translation from a soiled Latin manuscript’.5  In this case, the narrator of the story is the fourteenth-century writer of the manuscript; the narration is the manuscript. But to avoid having to write the novel in Middle English, Thorpe introduces, in a preface, the translator of the manuscript, allegedly a soldier-scholar who discovered it during the First World War. Thorpe mentions his use of footnotes in Hodd: ‘They remind you that the story is a document, soiled and transposed.’6

‘If I had happened not to have met with the outlaw called Robert Hod, so many years ago that none are still living from that time but myself, I would be less tormented in my spirit, for…it was Hodde who put strange ideas and questionings into my head.’ (pp.5-6)

(All the different spellings of Hodd are by the way deliberate!) This paragraph is annotated with a footnote noting that ‘this manuscript’ never uses the modern spelling of the name ‘Hood or Hoode’. Footnotes are part of the “device”.

Even though such devices deliberately set out to beguile the reader into believing something is true that is not, they can undoubtedly bring a sense of authenticity to the novel.

This is all very interesting, although it is not something I have (yet) considered for my own novels.

Recorded history

My novels are not about the history of the politics and events of the period, but neither is history merely an ornamental backdrop – it does underpin the storylines and provide the contexts in which the characters’ stories are played out.

In Fortune’s Wheel, the story is underpinned by the history of what we call the Black Death of 1348-9. The story is centred around what happened after the plague had moved on, having devastated England, and indeed the best part of Asia and Europe. It left between a third and a half of all populations dead.

It is very hard to imagine how absolutely terrifying it must have beendanse_macabre_by_michael_wolgemut to live through. For the plague was said to be God’s punishment for man’s appalling sin, although people might have wondered if they really were so very sinful that God needed to punish them so harshly. Then when they saw how randomly the plague appeared to strike, rich and poor, young and old, innocents as well as sinners, imagine the terror of thinking – is it me next? They were used to random death, but I think this must have been a step beyond. Indeed some people thought it was the end of the world, and you can imagine why…

But it turned out not to be the end. So what happened in the aftermath of such calamity?

Considerable turmoil must have ensued, not only in society as a whole, but at a personal level. Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves.

But there was change too at the level of society. Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated the change. Workers realised that they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their so-called sinful lives.

It is an interesting period of social history. And, for me, it provided the backdrop for a story of how ordinary people lived within the context of that history. Despite all the turmoil, normal life must have continued. Fields were ploughed and sown, crops were harvested, animals nurtured. People still fell in and out of love. Babies were born and children were cherished.

In my as yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, the social backdrop for the portrayal of ordinary people’s lives is much wider, for the novel covers the entire fourteenth century. So, for example, we have the poverty and famine of the early 1300s and Chroniques de France et d`Angleterre, Book II - caption: 'The Peasants' Revolt'King Edward I’s concerns about public disorder, which led to the introduction of his “trailbaston” commissions in 1305. Then there are the appalling, seemingly endless, years of wet weather that led to the most devastating of famines (1315-17). The plague of 1348-9 pops up again, this time not the aftermath but the event itself, and, somewhat later in the novel, the story is centred on the what we call the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

All of these devastating events provide the context for the stories of the many and varied characters of The Nature of Things, and the tagline that I use for Fortune’s Wheel – “Love, conflict, betrayal and death – everyday life in the fourteenth century” in a sense applies equally well to both novels.

For all of this “history”, I have of course read widely, gleaning information from the works, inevitably not always entirely consistent, of many, many historians, and using what I have discovered as the stage for my players. In the interests of “authenticity”, and because I had no reason to do otherwise, I have not changed any events that appear to be commonly agreed. In my novels, ensuring the history is “accurate” is not much of a problem. I do not need to tweak it to fit my storyline, but can make the story fit what is “commonly agreed”. Because, as I have said, the history is the backdrop, the context in which my everyday stories of country folk are set, rather than the story itself.

(Note: I have discussed 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 M.K. Tod, ‘2013 Historical Fiction Survey’, A Writer of History, Inside Historical Fiction <> [accessed March 17th 2014].

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

3 John Mullan, How Novels Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p.31.

4 Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon:Routledge, 2010)p.127.

5 and 6 Adam Thorpe, author’s website, Fiction, Hodd <> [accessed 18th March 2014].

Authenticity in historical fiction (I)

This is my first blog post for 2017, and my current plan is to post about twice a month, mostly about my thoughts on writing historical fiction, and my own “writing journey”.

In my post on November 2nd (The problem with historical fiction (I)), I looked briefly at the concept of “authenticity”, one of the so-called problems of historical fiction. In this and the next four posts, I am going to discuss this matter of authenticity a little further.

imagesI don’t think that anything I am going to say is new or surprising. But my thoughts form part of my own “writing journey’ – the processes that I have been engaged in as I have been, and am still, learning how to write an historical novel. I felt my thoughts might just be worth sharing – with readers who would like to know how I got here, and with other historical novelists who might possibly be grappling with much the same “processes”…

You will know, I am sure, that I have recently published my historical novel, Fortune’s Wheel, set in the fourteenth century. It is my first publication. However, you may not know that I have also written a second historical novel, as yet unpublished, The Nature of Things, which is also set in the fourteenth century, and which I wrote for my PhD. I am currently writing the first of at least two, and maybe three or more, sequels to Fortune’s Wheel.

These are all “historical novels”, and they are all, or will be, the same kind of historical novel. And what is that? Because there are many kinds of historical fiction. What my novels are not are: medieval mystery, crime, romance or adventure (although mystery, crime, romance and adventure all do occur); they are not alternative history or alternative biography; nor fantasy, nor time-slip. I enjoy reading all of these types (well, nearly all), but my novels are in truth not much like any of these sub-genres of historical fiction, although they do of course share similarities with many individual historical novels.

What has this got to with my topic of “authenticity”? Bear with me, because it is relevant, even if I might take another paragraph or two to get there…

It was what drove me to write my novels in the first place that determined what kind of historical novels they would be. For, they are essentially about people rather than events: the characters (almost entirely fictional characters, in fictional settings) are the novel’s main driver rather than the plot. They are, perhaps, “relationship” novels, but set in the fourteenth century.

unnamedMaybe they are vaguely akin to the “social realism” novels of the nineteenth century (although of course many of those novels were not really historical at all, because their pasts were hardly much removed from their authors’ own times), but really only in the sense that my novels’ plots are based on social history – not high-level politics, or wars, or the antics of royals and the nobility, but more the “everyday lives of country folk”. And, in the fourteenth century (if indeed ever), everyday life for the average peasant was not exactly a bed of roses.

But wouldn’t it, I thought, when I first embarked upon this particular writing journey, be fascinating to find out more about what it was really like then and try to bring it to life?


In writing my novels, my greatest pleasure is the challenge of trying to recreate a past world for readers to immerse themselves in. My aim is to make the world I create feel natural, for it to accord readily with readers’ expectations of what life of the period might have actually been like.

Some writers and critics of historical fiction have said, and will continue to say, I’m sure, that such an objective is a hopeless one, that it is impossible to portray the past with any real degree of authenticity. But I am determined to continue trying…

For a novel set in the fourteenth century to seem “natural”, it requires both authenticity and a degree of strangeness (“alterity”). Authenticity aims for an accurate representation of the artefacts, mindsets and behaviours according to what we know from records concerning what was used, thought and done in the fourteenth century. Alterity focuses on the otherness of the past, those aspects of life, in particular mindsets and behaviours, that are unfamiliar to the modern reader.

As I was writing Fortune’s Wheel, and The Nature of Things, I asked myself many times what was it that contributed to the seeming authenticity of an historical novel? I wanted to know how other writers had done it. I decided to explore… Simply continuing to research and write is part of that exploration. But I also spent bit of time looking, with a more or less critical eye, at other novels set in the broadly mediaeval period, to try to assess their sense of authenticity, to see how other authors have addressed the concerns I had.1

I will write about the results of my exploration into aspects of authenticity, and alterity, in future posts.

(Note: I have discussed 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  The results of my critical review are documented in my PhD thesis.

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 <>)


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 <> [accessed 13th December 2016].

4. Paul Kingsnorth, ‘The Wake’, Unbound (2014) <> [accessed 13th December 2016].