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].

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 <>)

1. Reviewer “Seatinthestalls” (31st March 2011), Amazon Customer Reviews, World without End <; [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  <; [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) <> [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
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 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

Ancient or modern? Language in historical fiction

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

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

What follows is taken from that period of reflection…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Topiarist elves and mediaeval gardens

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


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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

Photograph by author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by David Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The problem with historical fiction (III)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The problem with historical fiction (II)

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Illusion, not a lie.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts…



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

[2] Lee, para 3.

[3] Lee, para 4.