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].

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].