Monday 20 August 2012

'To Thee or Not to Thee: Writing Historical Voices' by A L Berridge

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.

Probably inappropriate
 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.


Jessica Knauss said...

Thanks for these thoughts. It's not easy to decide how to approach this, but consistency is key.

alberridge said...

Thanks, Jessica - I totally agree. There are also so many more factors there wasn't space to include here (eg the fact that contractions don't stay the same in every period) that it really can be a nightmare choosing which way to go for a particular book.

Sue Purkiss said...

This must be the definitive post on language in historical fiction - great stuff, by my troth!

Mary Hoffman said...

Fascinating, Louise! You could have that sentence in the Radio 4 medieval spoof series, The Castle, which plays with these ideas, sometimes very amusingly.

(I winced at "As if!" in Downton too!)

Katherine Langrish said...

Excellent post! I've always liked RLS's term for faux-historical speech: 'tushery'. As in 'Tush, tush, false knave!' He used it himself in 'The Black Arrow', but nowhere else.

And I totally agree about employing words like 'galvanised' out of their period.

alberridge said...

Sue - thank you so much. You'll notice, however, that I've been really cowardly and ducked the most difficult periods of 15th-17th century English history altogether...

And thank you, Mary. That's a really good point about the spoof element too, which I can remember way back from Monty Python and even the 'Carry-On' films. The very fact that it's funny ought to be enough to keep it out of serious fiction, but alas...

alberridge said...

Thanks, Kath - and ooh, I'd forgotten 'tushery'! A brilliant word for an ugly thing.

And 'galvanised' et al. An even worse horror of that kind is inappropriate imagery. I once had a copy editor suggest that my 17th century simile about a cog-wheel dropping into place might be more simply expressed by a comparison to 'clicking a switch'....

adele said...

I completely agree! With Downton Abbey, it's MAD to have anachronisms because they are unnecessary. We all understand Edwardian English perfectly well. "As if" made me cringe too. When something is really far back, ie classical Greece etc. I do have modern speech, but not obviously any refs to cars, machines, galvanizing etc. But teenage vandals have scrawled "Poseidon Rules" on the wall of a tavern. With Victorian etc I try to keep the language simple and yes, to differentiate between characters and make the characters individual. You can always tell when it's done badly but most historical novelists I've read seem to strike a good balance. Hilary Mantel is exemplary in this regard as in many others.

Ann Turnbull said...

"To thee or not to thee"... That's what I was faced with when planning No Shame, No Fear. I soon realised I had no choice. My Quaker characters would be obliged to "thee and thou" in order to differentiate them from everyone else. It's never easy finding the right compromise, as you make so clear, Louise. The important thing is to maintain the illusion of reality.

Beth said...

Great post. Anachronistic words along the 'galvanised' lines drive me mad - I was about ready to start gnawing the screen when I read a piece set in the Iron Age which described people being lit up as if under 'a spotlight'. But certainly there are some words and phrases that are so common and 'ordinary' nowadays we don't even question them. (Though spotlights evidently wouldn't be in that category for me.)

The cant in 'Into the Valley of Death' really does bring some extra colour to the period that would have been lacking if everyone had spoken in the same way. I liked the way the characters had their own distinctive 'idiom' in more than just their dialogue, as well.

'Tushery' - love it. Rosemary Sutcliff called it 'gadzookery', I believe, which I rather like too.

alberridge said...

Adele - yes, exactly. Hilary Mantel nails it exactly, I feel. To be honest, I think most writers handle it well, but there are a small minority out there who can really set one's teeth on edge. They also seem to be the ones most vocal on online Hist Fic fora...

Anne - I actually thought of your Quakers when I posted this, but failed completely to think of an alternative title. :(
But yes, in your case there'd be absolutely no choice about it - an example of when it's spot-on right.

Juliette said...

I totally agree that anything 18th century onwards should be in the 'correct' language - Jane Austen and Henry Fielding are both more readable than some modern authors!

Great post on a tricky subject. I find I can be put off by the oddest things if they sounds false - over use of 'babe' instead of 'baby' is one that drives me mad, and anything that implies Romans wore 'socks' (regardless of what woollen coverings they may or may not have put on their feet!)

Stroppy Author said...

I had the opposite problem with my vampires - put a 400-year-old and a 200-year-old in a room and see how they speak differently. Totally agree, and you do a wonderful job with it, Louise.

Catherine Butler said...

Excellent post, and I agree with pretty much all your observations! I think there's a point - somewhere round about 1600 - where the historical writer's problems change their nature. After that date it becomes possible to offer readers an approximation of authentic period speech. Go much earlier, and that would be incomprehensible - or at least too much effort - for the general reader, and some kind of substitute simply has to be developed.

It's a fascinating issue, anyway. (We devoted a large chunk of a chapter to it in this book, by the way, if I can be forgiven a plug.)

alberridge said...

Hi, Beth, and thanks so much for commenting. That spotlight image is just beyond imagination awful. And thank you SO MUCH for 'gadzookery'. I've been trying to remember that word all day...

And Juliette - yes, you nail it absolutely. Even if there are arguments for using a modern word, they should all go out of the window if it just feels or sounds wrong. 'Socks' on Romans conjures up a wonderfully ludicrous image!

alberridge said...

Hi, SA, and thanks so much for dropping by. A conversation between a 400 year-old and a 200 year-old?? Now THAT I would really love to read.

Cathering, thanks so much for commenting. I suspect you're right to put the bar at 1600 rather than 1700, and I rather ducked that in my post. 1600-1700 British history is probably the very hardest to do linguistically without serious danger of all the prithees etc we most dread. I don't think I'll ever be up to tackling it myself!

And thanks for the link to the book too - that looks fascinating.

Mark Burgess said...

Lovely post, Louise. On swearing, I believe that the English troops of the 1430s were called 'Goddams' by the French from their fondness for oaths.
And I thought your last comment very Blackadder!

Tom Bowling said...

What a great blog and a really interesting piece by Louise fetched me to it. I think plain declarative English
with a few period hints is ample to get us into the period. Most of it happens in our heads. And period is so precise... there's nothing worse than watching one of those Jane Austen adaptations on tv and hearing the actresses speak with a voice which comes from 1970s Camden Girls' School. Novelists have to avoid the same error.

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, Mark. 'Goddamns' - yes, absolutely. Religious cursing has been there forever, which is why I use 'bloody' so much - since 'by our lady' has been around so long it can hardly be anachronistic. What's a lot harder to work out is when sexual words began to be considered swearing, rather than 'ordinary' if 'vulgar' speech. I find court records really useful for this.

Hi, Tom, and great to see you here. Yes, basically I agree - and your 'Antigallican' is a great example of how easy and natural the approach can sound.
Thanks so much for commenting - and do come back! We need to hear more from the History Boys here.

Leslie Wilson said...

'Verily, Mistress Sharon' might be OK in Blackadder, though.. Great post, and of course an issue that we all have to deal with and struggle with. I do think Hilary M gets it right, though. When I was writing about young people in end of war Germany, I faced the issue of whether to make them speak like modern kids, or whether to try and replicate the speech patterns of the time, in dialogue which I often had to translate from German which I heard in my head. I went for the 'modern' option, but was criticised by a teenage pundit in the Independent for using 'scared shitless'. The German equivalent, which was certainly contemporaneous, was 'hat in die Hose gemacht,' ie, 'filled his pants.' I still feel that the modern equivalent gave the sense of the German. Mind, the young lad thought swearing took away from the sense of the desperate moments in which these things occurred. Had he read 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in the original, he might have changed his mind. People DID swear in the past, and they used contractions, too - they're in Jane Austen! Odd how people think language in the past was so formal. Mary Crawford scolds Fanny: 'Sad, sad girl!' Curiously, that slang has come back onto fashion, meaning more or less what Mary C meant.

Tom Bowling said...

The difference between Remarque and Leslie's critic is that Remarque had been on the Western front. For a complete guide to to just how sweary our immediate ancestors were in extremis (ie while being shot at) the unexpurgated version of Federick Manning's 'Her Privates We' can't be bettered. Very modern.
The use of 'sad' is interesting. Of course Jane Austen, Remarque and Manning are not historical novelists. We'd have to replace them with Edgeworth, Sebastian Faulks and ... oh you get the picture. It's like the difference between direct and indirect evidence. I find myself trawling through low culture and ephemera (Pierce Egan, for example) trying to pick up the voices. But sometimes of course even the naturalistic period stuff is too far and sounds false.

By the way I can't believe I quoted 'her privates we' on a female sponsored blogsite. Soldiers' jokes, eh?