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 habituĂ© 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.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Women's Struggles and Sacrifices

It's a little after 3:30 PM here and I'm sipping the last quarter of my comfort mug of breakfast coffee. I finally succeeded, after three attempts, in actually arising and staying out of bed at 1:10 PM. The laundry still sits next to me in the over-sized bag I use to take it into the basement where the on-site laundry is located. It's been patiently waiting since it was organized on Saturday morning.

Yesterday I finally understood the symptoms. Sometime between one of my risings and about an hour ago, I started putting these dynamics together like rails on a picket fence. Parallels of women in history who strove against the odds and how they felt about their circumstances, the prices they were paying -- and still are. Some of those heroines were recorded and acknowledged for their efforts, some not. The totality of them are now my sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins in time and women's issues and feminism. They are my predecessors and I am the predecessor of the ones who come after me who have not yet learned the lessons of the extra effort to be a notable woman for your value and efforts and how to be recognized and acknowledged, even by some small audience, for having allowed your cup to spill over.

Right now I understand the difference between the glass half full and the glass half empty. It is half full because it is constantly being replenished. Therefore, it is never depleted and is always in some state of being full. The glass half empty started as full (maybe even more than full) but is constantly being depleted. There's nothing or only drops that attempt to refill but it is insufficient.

Recollection of the story of Mary Wollstonecraft comes to mind, especially her last year, in light of the radical political philosophies she promulgated. She struggled and strove to get her manuscripts not only published but also be paid for her efforts so that she could survive as well as care for her child. One sacrifice after another she made. First, sending the child to another family so that she would not have to endure the starknesses, the want, and the deprivation of existence that loomed for her mother. Unfortunately, the child (Mary Bysshe Shelley) and especially her older sister did not understand the sacrifices and thought herself a monster who had been rejected. But even in her state of depression, she gave birth to such rich literary classics.

Recollection of those two also calls to mind the unrecorded and timeless histories of mistresses throughout the ages of slave masters. These women obediently gave their bodies to endless days of labor in the house only to find themselves gratefully giving their bodies throughout the night. They were grateful that those were the payments for not being thrown into the streets to fend for themselves with no means of support or else killed for failure to submit. At any rate, they were spared their lives at the cost of their souls.

Some remembered how to sing and did. Some remembered the beauty of their surroundings and sucked them in at every opportunity. Little things gave a bonus to watching the sun rise each morning and offer an Amen as it set at night. On occasions, the one of her heart held her close and poured his life into her loins; she had the joy of remembering that there really was Life and tenderness and grace and meaning to the constant struggle.

What would have happened and where would we be had those women said "No" to the oppression, "No" to the repression, "No" to the cruelty, "No" to the ridiculous, and "No" to the insidious? I dare say it would be like the night skies without the multitude of stars because we would have none of the heroines, sung and unsung, as our guide stones.
Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life
As daughter, sister, mother, friend, and wife;
But harder still, thy fate in death we own,
Thus mourn'd by Godwin with a heart of stone.
(from "Wollstonecraft and Fuseli" by British poet Robert Browning and that by William Roscoe)

Yvonne LaRose, CAC

An Anglo Saxon Riddle

he people of Anglo Saxon England loved riddles. The telling and solving of these early interactive poems was a major source of entertainment for young and old around the campfire or fire pit, and luckily for us many such riddles were recorded in The Exeter Book. Here is just one of 91 such which you can find in Old English and Modern English at

Riddle 37

Writings reveal this creature's plain
Presence on middle-earth, marked by man
For many years. Its magic, shaping power
Passes knowing. It seeks the living
One by one, winds an exile's road,
Wanders homeless without blame, never there
Another night. It has no hands or feet
To touch the ground, no mouth to speak
With men or mind to know the books
Which claim it is the least of creatures
Shaped by nature. It has no soul, no life,
Yet it moves everywhere in the wide world.
It has no blood or bone, yet carries comfort
To the children of men on middle-earth.
It has never reached heaven and cannot reach
Hell--but must live long through the word
And will of the king of creation's glory.
It would take too long to tell its fate
Through the world's web: that would be
A wonder of speaking. Each man's way
Of catching the creature with words is true.
It has no limbs, yet it lives!
If you can solve a riddle quickly,
Say what this creature is called.

Riddle 71

I grew in the ground, nourished by earth
And cloud-until grim enemies came
To take me, rip my living from the land,
Strip my years-shear, split, shape me
So that I ride homeless in a slayers hand,
Bent to his will. A busy sting,
I serve my lord if strength and strife
On the field endure and his hold is good.
We gather glory together in the troop,
Striker and death-step, lord and dark lunge

My neck is slim, my sides are dun,
My head is bright when the battle-sun
Glints and my grim loving lord bears me
Bound for war. Bold soldiers know
That I break in like a brash marauder,
Burst the brain-house, plunder halls
Held whole before. From the bone-house
One breaks ready for the road home.
Now the warrior who feels the thrust
Of my meaning should say what I'm called.

Find the solutions at the very bottom of the right hand column on Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Weather and History

We've been slogging through an exceptionally wet spell, here in Idaho, and having noticed my mood has been going distinctly south more and more each day that there's no break in the rain, that got me to musing about the effect weather has on history. That's an exceptionally long introductory sentence, as I look it over, and it seems that the weather is having a draggy effect on my writing as well.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a recognized medical condition characterized by feelings of depression, malaise, and fatigue. It appears that lack of sunlight can cause a host of negative physical symptoms and the treatment is exposure to sunlight. Actually, there's a great deal more involved, but sunlight is key to regaining a sense of metabolical equilibrium.

However, too much sunlight can trigger another set of physical problems, ranging from sunburn to skin cancer. Again, it's finding the proper balance that seems to do the trick.

The Historical Connection

And now for the tie-in to history. What affects one individual also affects collections of individuals and when it's the weather that's the catalyst, people can get downright cranky. In fact, they can get rebellious.

July 4, 1776 - The signing of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the American Revolution.

July 14, 1789 - Storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.

These two examples of the long, hot summers of rebellion make me wonder if the heat took its toll on the populace and one more hot day was the proverbial straw.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

Aha! You say. But what about the Russian Revolution that began in February 1917, eh? No problem there. Have you ever been in Russia in the winter? Dark days, no sunlight, and unrelenting cold and snow and ice and sleet. People were getting antsy. They knew what was coming and had to do something to get rid of the angst that was building up inside. No better way toward catharsis than toppling the government.

Anyhow, just a few thoughts on how weather may have been a silent (or not so silent) partner in some major historical events. Anyone have any other events you can link to Mother Nature?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Historical Fiction Doesn't Have to be Good For You

Cross-posted from

The May issue of SOLANDER asks why historical fiction doesn't sell as well as teen vampire books; I think part of the answer is to be found within SOLANDER's pages. Here, as elsewhere in the historical fiction world, the tone many writers take is akin to that of a cranky adult scolding young children to eat their vegetables and forego cake.

I was particularly struck by the Letters section in which HNS Member Barry Webb takes to task the writers of historical mysteries set in Ancient Egypt & Rome for being set "into a culture where detective style investigations didn't take place" and then goes on to criticize best-selling author Wilbur Smith.

I cite this not to single out Mr. Webb or to dispute his right to like what he likes, but to use his comments as an example of two unfortunate attitudes I'd like to discourage in my fellow historical fiction authors. First, we should approach history with far more humility. Second, we should avoid destructive attitudes that undermine the commercialism of the genre.

With regard to Mr. Webb's first point: that detective investigations didn't take place in ancient Rome is not a foregone conclusion. While it is true that the Romans didn't even have the equivalent of a police force until the Augustan Age and that the Romans were untroubled by murders that would demand explanation in the modern world, the fact remains that our own criminal justice system derives, in part, from the Romans. They did have trials. They were interested in justice. And most importantly, the ancient Romans weren't another species.

We are often struck dumb by the differences between our culture and theirs, when we ought to be humbled at how much we are the same. To insist that no person in ancient Rome could have had an instinct to solve mysteries in detective-like fashion is a profoundly presumptuous point of view--one that probably alienates readers and adds nothing to our understanding of history.

To the second point, there are all sorts of styles of historical fiction, and we ought not marginalize the flavors we don't prefer. I believe it's inherently destructive to the commercial prospects of the genre to imply that the novels of Wilbur Smith are somehow less respectable than those of Colleen McCullough because the latter hews to an enumerative style and the former combines epochs to create epic stories. Both of these authors have seen commercial success and I've enjoyed each of them; their audiences overlap. McCullough may have penned the most scholarly fiction written about ancient Rome, but there isn't a single page of that series that could compete head-to-head with Wilbur Smith on an emotional level. Wilbur Smith's River God enchanted a generation of readers who might not otherwise have ever picked up a book about Ancient Egypt, and he's to be commended for it, not condemned.

As writers its our job to serve up a literary banquet. Some of our guests are going to like asparagus and some of them are going to like sweets, and some of them are going to want some of each. If we want to make the commercial market more viable for historical fiction, it seems to me that we ought to encourage the diversity, not rail against it.

Historical fiction doesn't have to be good for us. It doesn't have to be filled with fiber. It's sufficient that it rouses an interest in the time period. That it teaches a little bit and inspires the reader to learn more. It is fiction. It is meant to fill in all the sweet spaces that history leaves blank. This kind of confection can't rot your teeth, so let them eat cake!

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