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.
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.
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, separate from the period.
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.
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.
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.)
You can download my Little Lexicon of Jacobethan Words here without charge: The Lazy Professor. Of course, if you do, you will be at serious risk of having your next novel thrown at the wall. But for all the wrong reasons.