Thursday, June 24, 2010

Can the language of historical fiction ever be ‘authentic’?

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.

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 when such terms, surprisingly, were also associated with transport. 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.

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.


Anne Gilbert said...

Yes, there is a very vocal group of people(I I wouldn't say "minority" though), who tend to assume that there readers of historical novels actually like "period" language, and will go to any lengths to find out what it means if they're unfamiliar with the word. But it's not just a matter of "giving a toss" or not, whether a writer uses this kind of authenticity-making or not. And even to dare to assume that readers(or writers), who don't use this kind of authenticity-making, even by implication, are not "erudite", is doing a disfavor to both writers and readers. I do care; I'm a writer of a hybrid of "romantic" science fiction and historical novel, myself. And I have made a very deliberate choice not to engage in this particular kind of "authenticity-making" There are better ways to do this. Besides, it distracts from the flow of the story.
Anne G

Nan Hawthorne, Shield-wall Books said...

I don't see a problem with giving the dialogue in a novel some flavor, but it is possible.. quite possible... to overdo it.

What bugged the heck out of me is when someone emails you to say that such and such word did not exist in a set time. Well, first of all, you don't know that. Just because it shows up in print on this year or that, it doesn't mean that the word was not in use. Further, the two words I got jumped on for were tavern and pitcher. Yes, for Anglo Saxon England tavern is not really the word.. alehouse is. But pitcher? I know from archeological evidence they had jugs with handles.. What did they call those? Jugs with handles? I also know none of them spoke the Modern Englaish I am writing in. The whole dang book is a translation!! I don't know what they called jugs with handles, but whatever it was.. I am translating into Modern English as "pitcher". So there.

Nan Hawthorne

Dr John Yeoman said...

Nan, for jugs with handles, you could try: gallipot, pottle, puncheon (large pitcher), blackjack (drinking pot), skeil (pail) or rundlet (small cask). These terms were certainly in use in the 15th/16th centuries, but I can't answer for the eras before that.

A tavern, in the 16th century, was an up-market alehouse. It usually meant a place where wine was served. An inn was a hostelry where folk could sleep. One alternative to alehouse was mughouse.

Yes, I agree that dictionary dates are unreliable. The OED is full of errors. For example, it dates the term fapdoodle to the 1640s but Middleton used it in 1607. It sets mosstropper as M17 but Camden wrote it in Britannia in the 1590s. And it still hasn't corrected its dating of suicide (M17) although the term is clearly used in Religio Medici, written around 1634.

If anyone queries you on the first dating of a word, ask them to prove it!

Dr John Yeoman said...

An afterthought: the OED notes 'pitcher' as a Middle English term. So you're safe to use it in any period from around the year 1100 :)

Stephanie Dray said...

I don't think the division is between erudite and non-erudite readers. The division is in what an author and her readers expect historical fiction to.

If my aim was to reproduce the most authentic piece of writing to my time period, I'd write it in Latin. Or, better yet, in Greek. But a piece of writing is not the same as a reproduction of a sword or a set of armor. It's a different kind of craft.

What I want to accomplish is to give my readers a sense of the time period, a passing understanding of the politics, and to engage them deeply in the emotions of a story that is about the modern world in which we live. Historical fiction and particularly historical fantasy, are a vehicles of expressing something about the modern condition by glancing back at the past. I don't personally think it should ever be just a photographic snapshot of history.

To that end, I try to use language that's easily understood. I'm vigilant against anachronisms and go to great lengths to justify every word I write. I don't doubt that I've made errors for which I may have to apologize, but by and large I've made a conscious choice to make my work accessible. I think that's a valid choice that many authors make.

Stephanie Dray said...

Please excuse the typo above. It should read: What an author and her readers expect historical fiction to do.

Dr John Yeoman said...

Thanks, Stephanie. That's a very clear and persuasive argument. But.. you make one statement as if it is a given and which I would contest: 'to engage [readers] deeply in the emotions of a story that is about the modern world in which we live'.

Is that we do in historical fiction? If so, why bother to write historical fiction at all? Any tale set in a realistic modern environment would suffice.

Surely the unique power of historical fiction (if very well done) is to transport the reader to a place that is utterly unlike the modern environment? And that has no moral or other echoes of the 'modern' condition?

Alterity, the presence of 'otherness', can itself induce an aesthetic affect. You can sometimes find it in (good) science fiction. By definition, that affect should have nothing whatever to do with 'the modern world in which we live'.

Stephanie Dray said...

John, what a fascinating discussion you've started here.

I just want to point out that I said it was my goal to use historical fiction as a vehicle for exploring modern day issues. It's a common choice authors make, and I don't personally think that historical fiction should be a photographic snapshot in time. However, I would never insist on constraining other artists by the confines of my choices and preferences. There are plenty of historical fiction writers who don't do things the way I'd like them to, but who are, nonetheless, brilliant writers.

Writing period pieces for the simple joy of reproducing an otherworldly landscape is certainly a valid artistic choice. My point was simply that it's not the only valid choice with regards to historical fiction.

I come at this from the speculative fiction world and I feel that historical fiction and fantasy fiction have a great deal in common. It's for that reason, I approach them with the same careful attention to world-building, but also with a clear idea that I'm trying to express something that using a modern setting would not adequately express.

For example, when writers try to write about a the modern condition, they often end up sounding very preachy. Not only that, but it's hard to get a reader to open his or her mind to other possibilities when they are weighed down with the baggage of the present day. Writing in a fantasy world or historical setting transplants issues into a new setting and that is often freeing for the writer and for the reader!

Does that make sense?

Dr John Yeoman said...

That's a fascinating thought! By choosing a genre known to unsettle the reader's presumptions, we can explore as authors a mindset wholly alien to the modern environment (in so far as our own mindset allows :))

For example, the tingling eeriness of a Jack Vance sci-fi story has much in common with the mind-worlds of Ackroyd's historical novel The Clerkenwell Tales or Eco's Name of the Rose, where outrageous events are accepted as commonplaces. If these tales have any 'moral' value, it is surely that of challenging the reader to wonder: which of our own accepted 'commonplaces' will one day be regarded as bizarre?

Grace Burrowes said...

I'm more or less in Stepanie's camp. I write commercial fiction, my promise is to entertain a genre audience for a modest price. I am not being paid to educate anybody, to bring history to life, or to proselytize for the language according to OED. My rule of thumb is that ANYTHING that throws the reader out of the story, whether it's an historically accurate, "Odds bodykins!" or an historically incorrect use of the dratted word cufflink, is a bad call on my part.
My approach is imperfect: What throws one reader out of the story (the linguistically correct "sleeve buttons" instead of the fairly recent cufflinks) is another reader's delight. The best I can do is figure which term will do the least harm for the least number of readers. I write for my readers, and if they ever do rise up en masse and demand that I exalt linguistic accuracy over more traditional story telling, I'll probably start writing contemporaries.

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