Thursday, 20 December 2018

Ancient or modern: language in historical fiction by Carolyn Hughes

A couple of years ago, I joined a panel of published writers (a mix of historical novelists and crime/thriller writers) at an event held at the University of Portsmouth, before an audience of fellow writers and readers. One of the questions asked of me was how I dealt with language, given that my (then newly-published) novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is set in the 14th 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 was a question that had exercised me – and undoubtedly many other writers of historical fiction – a good deal, particularly in the early days of my career as an historical novelist, though I do still think about it now, a few books down the line.

When I began writing historical fiction, I asked myself whether I should attempt to give my 14th century characters “authentic”-sounding voices, or put modern language in their mouths. I made my choice, and have since been very happy with that choice.

However, in my PhD, completed at the same time that my first historical novel was published, and which addressed “authenticity” in historical fiction, I had given specific thought to this matter of language, weighing up the “ancient or modern” alternatives and assessing the pros and cons in terms of how I perceived they might affect “authenticity”.


When historical novelists (of any period) choose to have their characters speak in modern (20th/21st century) English, might that give the impression that the characters also have modern mindsets? Conversely, if characters are given dialogue that purports – or even contrives – to sound like, say, 14th century English, does that somehow give the impression that the characters also have authentic 14th century mindsets? I don’t believe that either case is necessarily true. But, from all my reading of historical novels, I have realised that by far the majority are in fact written in reasonably straightforward modern English – often with a touch of archaic phrasing or period terminology – and whether the mindsets that the words convey seem “authentic” often depends on other factors.


The 19th century novelist Henry James famously disparaged historical fiction. It was not the practicalities of the past that James thought difficult to describe, but imagining with any degree of realism, or perhaps “naturalism”, the inner lives of those who lived in earlier times. 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 14th century people and our own. It’s this difference that James apparently considered impossible to bridge, but from my reading of historical fiction I’ve deduced that most writers do in fact give the impression of bridging the gap pretty well. For imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience is surely exactly what historical novelists attempt to do.

Some years ago, in Clio’s Children, a blog for historical novelists, the writer John Yeoman 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). (‘Can the language of historical fiction ever be “authentic”?’, <clioschildren.blogspot.co.uk/2010_06_01_archive.html>)

Yeoman said that readers expected writers to have done their historical homework and, if they believed the language used was somehow wrong, their illusion would be shattered, regardless of whether their belief had 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.

Of course, Yeoman is only one of many to have addressed this problem.


Hilary Mantel once 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.’ (Quoted in Writing Historical Fiction, Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, p.135. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s article ‘The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak’, Wall Street Journal, 27/04/12.)


The 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.’ (Arlo Haskell, ‘Intensity of Illusion: a conversation with Barry Unsworth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Littoral (28/06/08) www.kwls.org/littoral/intensity_of_ilusiona_conversa/).

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). (Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7/10/09) www.kwls.org/podcasts/barry_unsworth_the_economy_of/) 

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 (if surprisingly few) exceptions.

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, at the very least, detract from the seeming authenticity of the characters’ words, and these include 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.


For example, Ken 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, 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.’ (An Amazon review from March 2011)
This reader doesn't quote any examples but does make 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’s also true that a significant 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.’ (An Amazon review from November 2007)
This reviewer doesn’t 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 doesnt 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.

For myself, I decided early on that I wouldn’t attempt to mimic the speech patterns of the 14th century, because I felt that “pseudo-mediaeval” dialogue might actually inhibit modern readers’ enjoyment, rather than give the narrative any greater credibility. I followed the advice of other writers, such as Hilary Mantel and Barry Unsworth, referred to earlier. 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 dont follow closely Unsworth’s advice about formality and avoiding contractions. Rather, my choice is to use more formal, non-contracted, forms for higher status or educated characters, but to reflect the voices of the peasantry 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’m satisfied that it works – for me, at least.

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 earlier.)

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. In the same article referred to earlier, Hilary Mantel 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?’


In Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, set in the 12th century – a favourite read of mine, by the way – occasional anachronistic expressions or metaphors creep in. For example, in ‘…it seems his guts...are giving him gyp’ (p.11), the expression “giving gyp” was possibly not used until the 19th century. And there is a perhaps more overt type of anachronism in: ‘The deer ran, scattering among the trees, their white scuts like dominoes tumbling into the darkness.’ (p.16). This is a really nice image but, as I understand it, dominoes had not arrived in Europe by the 12th century, so the story's narrator (a 12th century person) would presumably not think of using such a metaphor?

In his mediaeval novel The Ill-Made Knight, Christian Cameron occasionally uses words and expressions that are neither 21st nor 14th century. Both ‘...cooling my heels... (p.184) and ...swashbuckle... (p.32) are 16th century.

Both these novels, which use mostly modern and very accessible language, include a few 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 perhaps 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 suppose this can often be a problem with anachronisms – one might slip through unnoticed, yet if something sounds wrong, a critical reader will spot it and feel obliged to check up on it.


Anachronisms may be subtler. For example, in Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions, set in 1410, mentions of “kitchen”, “bedroom” and a fire burning in the “grate” dont quite ring true for the period, when such room designations hadnt yet reached peasant homes, and fires were generally still hearths in the middle of the floor. But is this perhaps to be too exacting?

One might ask, then, how far a degree of anachronism in a novel’s language, especially in the use of individual words, matters? How far does it detract from a novel’s “authenticity”? I have noticed these anachronisms, but many readers wouldn't, or not care much if they did. However, of those readers who do notice such things, some may not thereafter trust the writer's grip on 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 question of taste?

In my own writing, I do try to avoid anachronism in language as well as in fact. I make an effort not to use words and phrases that first came into use much later than the 14th century. However, I’m not overly exacting with myself: I allow myself to sense when a word is not right, and, if necessary, replace it with something more suitable, but I do not examine every word. And I know that I use the occasional word that is anachronistic. Indeed, one I can think of is “hubbub”, a 16th century word of Irish origin and therefore in principle quite unsuitable for a novel about 14th century England! But I kept it in because I thought it had a mediaeval “feel” to it and I suppose I hoped that few readers would notice my gaffe. So, having allowed myself this latitude, perhaps I should not criticise others too harshly!

6 comments:

Michelle Ann said...

This is very interesting. You are quite right that time-inappropriate language and behaviour can ruin a book for the reader.

In the last year I have read a good novel by an English novelist set in England the 1950s which was ruined for me by modern Americanisms - bathroom instead of toilet for example (although it would have been lavatory or ladies' room then). I also read another book set in the 1950s where a poor young mechanic rented a flat with a shower - with the post-war housing shortage he would probably have been a lodger, or had a bedsit at best. And showers didn't appear in ordinary houses until the 1970s. And I have read wartime books where people drink mugs of coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice!

Whilst unauthentic language from the middle ages or Regency period would probably pass most of us by, I think authors who are writing about the earlier years of the 20th century in particular should get an older person to check the book for language and social howlers before publication.

Sue Bursztynski said...

An interesting post on a subject that really interests me!

I think it depends on whether the words are used by a character or in a general description. For example, "He walked into a great hubbub and covered his ears" is one thing, but having a 14th century character say, "Stop all that hubbub!" is another. Although, really, I don't think too many ordinary readers would stop and look up "hubbub". I certainly wouldn't.

As a writer, I do take care; when writing a short story set in 19th century Australia, I sent a copy to a friend who knew more about the Australia of that era than I did. She only pounced on one word, explaining that it wouldn't have been used at that time. I fixed it and was able to submit the story without worrying anyone would be flung out of the story by a jarring anachronism.

Rosemary Sutcliff had her own "language" to imply her era, and in Frontier Wolf, set in Roman Britain, the Latin-speaking Romans talk in more-or-less modern English idiom, the British a slightly archaic language. When a Roman is speaking to a Briton in his/her own language, the Roman, too, speaks in the archaic style.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, Michelle, just noticed your comment! Yes indeed, I agree that there are quite a few jarring mistakes in books set in the 20th century. I read, but never finished, a mystery set during the eleven days when Agatha Christie disappeared. It's seen from the viewpoint of Christie's daughter's nanny. This would be fine except that the author was clearly American, using Americanisms which might have been all right if they were in general descriptions, but it was told in first person, by an Englishwoman. There were quite a few anachronisms I won't go into, except that the narrator mentions something that didn't happen until the 1990s and the real woman died in the 1970s. It lost me only a few chapters in and I only read that much because I liked the story idea and I was trying to suspend disbelief. I certainly wouldn't read anything else by this author.

Marcheline said...

This is, indeed, a very interesting topic. However, my experience is that no matter how "authentic" anyone tries to make anything (books, movies, etc.) there will ALWAYS be one person who says "That's not the way it was...". If you doubt me, just try to watch a movie about the military while sitting next to my husband (or any other veteran). HA!

Personally speaking, I like it when period or old-timey surroundings and situations are depicted and described, but when I'm reading I get very easily annoyed by written accents or over-done historical-ese speech. I have ditched books after less than the first chapter because the author wrote a character's speech with a "southern accent".

The author should always give the reader a little credit for being able to imagine that a character from England will have an English accent in their heads while reading, and not have to write "Reahhhhly, could you pahss me the potahtoes, dahling?" 8-)

abigail brieson said...

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

A timely article as I find more and more writing attempts to achieve a general feeling of the time and place, rather than establishing an accurate representation of that time and place. For me, inaccuracies immediately distance me from the characters and story, causing me to question why if any attempts at words correct to the era are not consistent, then why insert any of these words at all? I believe the general audience is most comfortable with an illusion, or reflection of their own beliefs; if an anachronistic word or statement appears, rather or not is is appropriate to the setting of the story, for many readers this is a fine use of language as, of course, it 'sounds right'. It takes less effort for the reader to maintain their beliefs than accept truths.

But perhaps I am judgmental.

Extensive use of anachronism is likely off-putting and more suited to an academic audience. However in all writing, to be respectful of the characters and narrative the words we place on paper should reflect the characters of whom we write. Many words common to our grandparents (and parents!) are now little recognized. In writing of those periods only recently past, should we therefore substitute 'audio converter' for 'gramophone' because it is easier, or 'sounds right'?

Carolyn Hughes said...

Thank you so much, everyone, for your interesting comments on my article. I do agree, Sue, that one can, to some extent at least, differentiate between narrative and dialogue. It really does feel wrong to put anachronistic words into characters’ mouths, whereas it doesn’t seem quite so bad using them in narrative passages - within reason, of course. I agree too, Michelle, that novels set in the more recent past can present an almost greater authenticity challenge, when there are still people around who remember what life and language then were really like! I think that, as a writer, one probably has to accept that it’s hard to get it 100% right... There will always be that one reader out there who’ll spot the anachronism you missed, or indeed didn’t know about... But it’s surely worth the effort to do one’s very best!