Sunday 19 February 2012

As if! by Theresa Breslin

I was more amused than outraged when those words "As if!" were used as a complete sentence by one of the characters in Downton Abbey. For me it was just another of the many idiosyncrasies of a series which takes a look at a supposed aspect of life at the beginning of the previous century. But when I heard the same sentence uttered during Spielberg's version of War Horse I was startled. Did I mishear? And if not, am I wrong in thinking this to be an anachronism?

Historical novels are prone to anachronisms. I would hesitate to take anyone to task about this and not just because I'm sure a careful combing of my own books might reveal embarrassing glitches. I respect my fellow writers who work extremely hard and labour over their craft, also writers of historical fiction have the particular hurdle of 'Time Truth' However I'll make an exception and share my recent "find" in a School Book Fair of a story that has Queen Elizabeth the first cycling ( yes, on a bike!) between Hampton Court and the Palace of Westminster. There's also the children's TV series that has Mona Lisa, disguised as a boy, working as an apprentice painter in the same studio as a teenage Leonardo da Vinci, and hanging out with a streetwise kid named Mac ( that's Machiavelli to you and me). I know it was a deliberate decision to 'modernise' the action but I find this quite painful to watch. Does it raise valid questions? I mean, how do we know that Leonardo and Lisa didn't run around Florence in ( the equivalent of) trainers and high-five each other? Is it as out of place as having a character curtsey before the 16th Century when this form of obeisance evolved at the French Court? I do believe the rightly revered Rosemary Sutcliffe did.

However its the language more than anything that intrigues me. The thrill, the fascination, the power of word, the literal meaning coupled with emotional resonance, the freight that a phrase can carry. A writer can lift the language above the ordinary, can corral emotions, create the illuminating shaft of light to send into a dark corner of the mind.

As Solomon, the dyslexic boy in Whispers in the Graveyard thinks:

Words, words are different.
I heard someone reading poetry on the radio once. The phrases stayed inside me for weeks, exploding in my head, thrusting and twisting in my gut.

I'm very disappointed that Garrow's Law has been axed from television as I loved the dialogue and the diction. So caught up in the sweep of the story and the skill of the acting I was unaware of any inappropriate words.

Ah indeed! Choosing the words is the challenge.

I discovered 'chaffering' in a 15th Century journal so I knew it was fine to have that in The Medici Seal. But.... To maffick or not to maffick? That was the question. I can't recall where I found this nugget but I knew I had to have it. It's such a decisive sounding word and I thought to deploy it to inject a bit of spit into a variety of situations. A quick dictionary looksee revealed that maffick is derived from Mafeking, the South African town besieged during the Boer War of the 19th / 20th Century and so I felt I couldn't use it in a book set in the Middle Ages. At home I whined so much about having to take it out that my family began to incorporate it into anything said withing my earshot, as in,
"Don't maffick about. Hurry up and eat your dinner"
"Someone's mafficked my tennis racquet."

When they were young, my children, like many others, often made up words. A day could be 'bilby' or 'gilp' vis. dull / overcast. I believed that one of my offspring had invented 'splendiferous' until I came across it in a thesauarus. I'm still not sure about 'horipillation'. It's coming up red on the Spell Check, but then quite a few of the Scots words I use do too. like 'dreich' (misty, drizzling day) but, strangely, not 'fleer'. In the present work-in-progress I have resisted the temptation to write that Mary, Queen of Scots, is surrounded by a fanfaronade of niddering mulligrubs, although her fate might have been less tragic had she realised this. 'Chortle' was coined by Lewis Carroll in the late 19th century, meaning something between a laugh and a chuckle. Can you Chorltle with a Wortle? Sorry. Wortle is definitely one of the children's contributions - haven't worked out yet whether it's a noun, verb, or adjective. Obviously people were chortling prior to the late 19th but is it OK for me to use that word to describe what they were doing?

Do all writers of historical fiction check the etymology of every word they use?

As if!

Theresa Breslin's latest historical novel PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION won the teenage section of The Historical Association, Young Quills Award, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children's Book Award, and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards. WHISPERS IN THE GRAVEYARD won the Carnegie Medal.


michelle lovric said...

Are writers are more inclined be sensitive to perfect pitch than their readers? Anyway, it's a service we must offer. I love Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as a source. As it was published in 1785, all the contents are safe for early 19th century work. For turns of phrase - and also table manners - James Beresford's 1806 The Miseries of Human Life is also good value.

Mary Hoffman said...

Horripilation is a perfectly cromulent word (the Simpsons) meaning hair standing on end.

But Leonardo and Lisa Gherardini could not have been "teenagers" at the same time since he was 27 years older than her.

I'm inclined to shout "As if!"

Mark Burgess said...

I suppose it depends what sort of historical novelist you are. If you're trying to show how like today the past really was then anachronisms of language are all part of the mix, aren't they?

Personally I don't hold with any of this newfangled nonsense. ['Newfangled', for those interested, was used by Chaucer and Malory, and was in use as early as 1300!]

Theresa Breslin said...

I love the Vulgar Tongue Michelle - vulgar itself having evolved in meaning over the centuries. I do agree with you Mark and Rosemary S pulls this off a treat. I'd be prepared to go with it in the Leonardo TV series but as Mary points out the ages are wrong. By my reckoning Mac were just a nipper when Leo were a lad.

Katherine Langrish said...

"And she also to use newfangleness" - in the last verse of Thomas Wyatt's Wyatt's 'Whoso list to hunt'!

But Queen Elizabeth the First on a bicycle takes the biscuit.

Mind you, I've talked to children in schools who've supposed the Vikings might have had satellite dishes on their roofs. Adults forget how limited children's experience is and how easily they will believe something completely untrue.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I think we should start a HGs library. First in should be A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The problem is where we would we house it? I think maybe at Michelle's. I could happily work with that view over the river.

H.M. Castor said...

Great idea, Dianne! I've just looked up both those books you recommended, Michelle - thank you. And thank you, Theresa, for a very interesting & thought-provoking post. One habit at the Tudor court that gives me pause in terms of how to approach it is kissing as a greeting - it was done full on the lips, which was considered odd by foreigners, as I think it would seem to modern readers too... Am I right in remembering it was done by Soviet-era communist leaders, too?

Theresa Breslin said...

I've seen kissing on the lips done in Ireland as a greeting between family members and in Scotland Grandparents might kiss younger grandchildren on the lips when saying goodbye. I suppose the Vikings needed those satellite dishes and GPS to navigate... I did see a production of Macbeth where the Witches knew what was going on because they had a smart phone. The audience of school pupils loved it and so it worked for them in a weird sort of way.

H.M. Castor said...

Sorry, I didn't express myself very well... The thing about the Tudor court was that this was amongst people who didn't know each other - foreign delegations were scandalised that women of the English court (including, in a particular instance I've just read about, Princess Mary) offered their lips to be kissed when the foreigners were expecting to kiss a hand! I find it v interesting.

Leslie Wilson said...

According to Margaret Irwin, the problem the Spaniards had, when delivering Pce Philip to marry Queen Mary, was that few of her maids in waiting were worth kissing on the lips..dunno if this is historically accurate, though?
It depends what you're writing, doesn't it? You could be writing something humorous and deliberately including anachronisms - what difference would it have made to Romeo and Juliet if they'd had mobile phones? Very little, probably, as there was probably no reception in the vault.
personally, I'd rather have historical characters talking in our language, because what they said didn't sound old-fashioned to them, therefore pastiching distorts, if I'm making myself clear. On the other hand, I do take care that concepts aren't introduced that are foreign to the life of the times - like talking, in Tudor times, about a whistle-stop tour which I take it relates to trains.
However, and I may have said this before here, it is easy to suppose that our modern phraseology wasn't around in the past. I found a book, written in Edwardian times, where the housemaid said: 'That's a weird kid!' Also, in 1900, the use of 'le recordman' for the premier balloonist at the Great Paris Exhibition..these are things that self-styled purists might jump up and down about.

Anthony said...

A "revered Rosemary Sutcliffe". As if! True, Rosemary Sutcliff (sic) is revered

And she with a curtsey in the wrong era? Again, as if! She was revered in part for her meticulous research and reverence for accuracy. So you surprise me: in which book is the error you have in mind?