Posted by John Yeoman on Thursday, August 16, 2012 Under: A Writer's Confessions
One of the enduring debates among writers of historical fiction is: to what degree can we legitimately - or even intelligibly - use language or literary forms authentic to a given period?
Anyone who has struggled through Peter Ackroyd’s lusty archaisms in The Clerkenwell Tales (14thc) - or the crabbed typography of Hawksmoor (18thc) - might agree with Roland Barthes that fiction comes in just two genres: writerly and readerly.
What's the distinction?
The first is sipped slowly and savoured for its language tricks and droll conceits. The conjuror is visible everywhere behind his smoke and mirrors. The second is consumed at a gulp, then left behind on a deckchair as a tip for the beach attendant. If the former is published at all, it wins an obscure award from a little magazine and is remaindered within three months. The latter pays the rent.
Yet I firmly believe - although I cannot prove it - that a silent minority of erudite readers is now on the march. No longer will they suffer linguistic howlers, such as Anya Seton immortalised half a century ago in Katherine (1954). The novel has been rightly acclaimed for its attention to historical detail yet in a random sample of some 5000 words (pp. 41-53), I noted ‘scrawny’ M19, ‘coquetry’ M17, ‘chunky’ M18, ‘tawdry’ L17, ‘apoplectic’ E17, and ‘fiddlefaddle’ L16. In other words, gross anachronisms.
Granted, only a pedant would challenge such trivia.
How else can an historical writer communicate with a modern reader, except in a modern idiom? (How otherwise could we write a novel set in ancient Rome? Or Ming dynasty China? Or the paleolithic era?) The reader tacitly accepts that the author must write from an atemporal perspective, distant from the period.
But reported speech is another matter, when a story is set in a relatively recent period of English history. I would contend that Seton’s use of the mid-19th century idiom ‘such a mollycoddle’ (p. 372) in 14th century dialogue - when the currency then of both ‘molly’ E18, and ‘coddle’ E19 is implausible - is a howler. This is just one of several examples.
If Katherine was a pantomime like The Other Boleyn Girl, it wouldn't matter. But Seton's work is, in all other respects, brilliantly researched. So the howlers show.
Is this mere hair-splitting?
Does the reader really care if, for example, we put the term ‘mob’ (L17) into the mouth of a Shakespearian poet? Yes, I think that - increasingly - s/he does. An habitué of historical fiction often becomes an expert in a given period. Howlers throw readers out of our story - and result in our books being thrown at the wall.
Of course, the ‘expert’ reader may be wrong. Dictionaries are fallible. They cannot attempt to record every word that was ever spoken or written so they can only guess at the date of its first use. For example, the OED credits Lewis Carroll with the coinage of the term ‘chortle’ (chuckle+snort) (L19). Yet a similar word ‘snortle’ (snort+chuckle) was in common use in the late 16th century. So, almost certainly, was the term ‘chortle’.
The few records that have come down to us, and their words, are the unrepresentative survivors of a massive shipwreck.
Yet... the author is not exonerated from the test of plausibility.
If the reader detects a linguistic howler in our work (although the reader may be wrong), the illusion is shattered. When I had a character in my last Elizabethan novel abandon his ‘go cart’ to ‘jet’ about Europe, arrive in England by ‘bus’, take his ‘train’ to Slough, then leave his ‘car’ at Ivinghoe, some critics chided me for my anachronisms.
Nonsense! I was simply being faithful to the everyday language of the 1590s. Those terms, surprisingly, were associated with transport in the period. The truly erudite reader, I felt, would have understood (and chortled). But s/he didn't. In the reader's view, I had committed five howlers.
Do novelists give a toss?
Needless to say, most historical novelists don’t give a toss for this debate. If the story entertains, the supermarket book shopper - who wouldn’t know a solecism from a bogof - is satisfied. And novelists can pay their rent.
Alas, I do give a toss. In a silly quest for fidelity in period language, I once compiled a thesaurus. I took 799 modern headwords - eg. ‘fool’ - and linked them to some 6000 equivalent words and phrases from the 16th and 17th centuries. (You never know when you might need the term ‘noodle-pate’, if only for purposes of self-description.)
If anyone is interested in downloading my Little Lexicon of Jacobethan Words as an ebook, please email me off-site!
A version of this article appeared on 24 June 2010 in the historical fiction writers' site Clio's Children, with warm acknowledgements.
Tags: "historical fiction"
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