I admit it. I enjoy ‘Downton Abbey’ – but I’m also one of those killjoy pedants who cringes at its use of modern slang. I can live with ‘get knotted’, I squirm at ‘get shafted’, but when it comes to ‘As if!’ I experience a strange desire to kill.
But in this I'm a hypocrite, because my ‘Chevalier’ novels use modern idiomatic English for the spoken parts of the narrative – although the series is set in 17th century France. So how dare I criticize Downton Abbey?
To justify myself, I have to be brave and open up The Big Question. This is a notoriously dangerous topic to raise with historical writers, and the resultant spat is usually as polarizing and violent as anything in Hansard. The difference is that while one half of the combatants will be shouting ‘Hie thee hence, varlets!’ the others are yelling ‘Sod off.’
Language. We all know people ‘spoke differently’ in the past, but we don’t all agree on how to reflect that in our novels. If we write in the correct linguistic pattern for our period we’ll be incomprehensible, but if we ignore it altogether then we’re anachronistic. If characters speak ‘in period’ then readers struggle to identify with them, but if they don’t then we’re jarring the reader out of the very historical world we’re trying so hard to recreate. When George Bernard Shaw wrote that ‘it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him’ he might have been speaking for historical novelists.
|Historical Novelists debating language
So what do we do?
It’s ultimately a personal choice, but with 18th century or later I prefer to stick within period – as I’ve done in 'Into the Valley of Death'. The English is perfectly understandable, there are no 'thee's and 'thou's to worry about, and as long as we make our period slang clear in context then it’s hard to justify writing any other way.
My hero George Macdonald Fraser was the first to prove the Victorian period can produce fluid, natural, idiomatic, and even witty dialogue that’s both comprehensible and full of personality – as even one page of his Flashman series will illustrate. There is no NEED to resort to modern slang – so why do it?
The trouble starts with earlier history, because there is so much more latitude. No-one expects Roman History novelists to write in the language of their time, and I doubt they'd sell as well if they wrote in Latin. The same applies (in my opinion) to anything set in a non-English speaking country, or even in Britain prior to the 15th century. We are reading what is in effect a translation – which means the writer is free to be as modern as she likes.
But we still need readers to believe in it, and that’s where it gets difficult. One of the best solutions I’ve seen is the one used by Robert Graves in ‘I, Claudius’, where his style and syntax cunningly suggest to the reader that what they’re reading is a translation of a Latin original penned by Claudius himself.
|Derek Jacobi in the BBC's 'I, Claudius'
This sentence about the Sybils, for instance, which comes only a few pages from the start:
‘Others prophesy, indeed, but seem more inspired by Bacchus than by Apollo, the drunken nonsense they deliver; which has brought the oracle into discredit.’
It’s a hideous sentence to modern ears, but a perfect imitation of the truly ghastly prose produced by translating a ‘Latin Unseen’. I first read the novel at the age of 16, and still remember my reaction of ‘This is a real document. It’s all true.’ The book would be unreadable if Graves had written it all like that, but he didn’t need to. He had me right there.
We can’t all do that, nor would it always be appropriate. Mimicry of archaic language draws attention to how different these people were from ourselves, when (in my opinion) the main point of historical fiction is to make us feel closer. That’s why even scholarly editions of archaic work don’t offer literal translations, but aim instead for the closest modern equivalent.
That’s what I’ve attempted to do in my ‘Chevalier’ novels, which purport to be translations of original French documents. What would be the point of translating ‘Sacré Bleu!’ as ‘Holy Blue’? I could get closer to the meaning by making my character say ‘Good Heavens!’ – but I’d still be way off in terms of the tone, impact and emotional expression of the original. If I want a modern English reader to be as shocked as a 17th century French one would have been, I need to use something much stronger – and probably sexual rather than religious. To me, that’s being more true to the period rather than less.
But this is where the debate begins. I’d agree it’s inappropriate to substitute an idiom clearly identified with a very different period or location (such as an Americanism), but for some readers any liberty with the ‘translation’ can make such writing seem ‘unhistorical’.
I respect that opinion, but my characters didn’t speak ‘historical’ in their lifetime, so why should I make them do so now? I’m happy with either strictly period writing or strictly modern writing, but the one approach that drives me madder than Downton Abbey is the compromise that consciously aims to sound ‘historical’. This is the style that allows you to write modern English – but only the most formal, stilted version of it. Whether you’re writing Romans or French Revolutionaries, you must avoid slang, idioms, and contractions and your grammar must be perfect.
To which I say ‘Heavens forfend!’ (or even ‘Aargh, no!’). I can see the logic, in that the writing gives a historical ‘feel’ while remaining perfectly comprehensible, but the end result is too often a kind of bastardized Regency-speak which no-one EVER spoke at ANY time.
And verily they didn’t. It’s true we often have to deduce the speech of the past from formal written records, but why would anyone believe people didn’t use contractions in their everyday speech? What do we think the possessive apostrophe is? We write ‘John’s book’ because the speaker is contracting the original Old English genitive ending of ‘es’ and the apostrophe indicates the missing ‘e’. People have always slurred their speech, or how would the original ‘a norange’ have elided over time into ‘an orange’? The entire history of our language is one of orally-dictated change, so much of which has already happened by the 14th century that Chaucer’s language is regarded as ‘Modern English’.
But there’s something else vetoed in the 'Historical Bland' style, and that’s what forum-speak calls ‘teh swears’. I can understand this in books for young people or those aimed for the North American market, but I do object to the pretence that it’s done for historical accuracy. The ancient pedigree of the most infamous words is so well known they’re even referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – so are we really expected to believe we never actually used them, but merely put them in cold storage until a suitable climate appeared in the 20th century? Really? In sooth? Srsly?
It’s true they weren’t used as commonly as the virtual punctuation we can hear around us today. It’s also true they weren’t (generally) used in the drawing room or corridors of power – though a quick listen to the Watergate tapes shows the difference when a public figure speaks in private. It’s even more true that their use was frowned on in literature, but I rather doubt the ‘strange oaths’ Shakespeare attributes to the soldier had anything to do with Freemasonry.
It’s ludicrous even to have to say this, but people have always been imperfect, always slurred their speech, always hurt, always bled, and always sworn. Why should a novelist – of all people – ever pretend otherwise? If we think historical fiction is a place to hide from the unpleasant realities of the modern world, I would respectfully suggest we’d be better off reading fantasy.
But I have a greater problem with Historical Bland than mere accuracy. Slang, idioms and varying syntax are all part of what makes a character’s speech individual, and if we deny all these we end up with a book where everybody sounds exactly the same. The rules allow some variance for old-style social class, but even if we assumed a London chimney sweep spoke in exactly the same way as a Lancashire mill worker, what about the differences between a Lyons Corner House ‘nippy’ called Gladys and a Lyons Corner House ‘nippy’ called Anne? Are they really identical? When I read a novel I want to hear individual voices, to spend time with living men and women who speak like real people rather than a book.
It can be done, even when we write ‘in period’. There is no such thing as ‘Victorian speech’, any more than the mere word ‘Latin’ will give us ‘Roman speech’. In 'Into the Valley of Death' I have a Blue Coat school boy who speaks of ‘fellows being beastly’, but also a Londoner of dodgy antecedents who says things like ‘We had a rag carrier come flashing his gab about your getting the bump-up’ – which I promise is easily understandable in context. In my current Crimean novel I have several minor characters of the officer class, and have to keep a very precise dictionary of which slang is used by whom – right down to the different variants of ‘old boy’, ‘old chum’, ‘old son’, ‘old man’ and ‘old fellow’. I know many writers who do the same.
Because we care. Even if we use modern English, that doesn’t mean we’re not bothered about being ‘true’ to the period. I’d never use words like ‘galvanised’, ‘electrified’ or ‘obsessed’, for instance, because the concept behind the words is anachronistic. When I found myself tempted to use ‘hypnotised’ in ‘Honour and the Sword’ instead of the more religious ‘entranced’, I knew I’d come out of the proper historical ‘mind-set’ and it was time to take a break. The language is only a secondary thing – it’s the thinking behind it that matters.
Which is why I can’t come down on either side of this debate. Ultimately there IS no right way. We each have our own, and that’s part of what gives us our ‘voice’. Each of us must write what works for our period, our story, our style, and our characters. And hope nobody hates us for it.
As long as we’re consistent, of course. If you write a sentence like ‘Verily, Mistress Sharon, thou art hot stuff,’ then we’ll ALL hate you.
Abuse can be sent directly to A L Berridge's website.