Saturday 31 August 2013

August Competition

We have five copies of Sam Angus's book A Horse Called Hero, to give away to the best answers to the following question:

"Tell us your favourite novel featuring an animal as a major character and why you like it."

Competitions open only to Commenters from the UK, we are afraid.

Closing date a bit late this month, because of holidays. You have till 10th September!

Friday 30 August 2013

Modern Takes on the Cabinet of Curiosities - Joan Lennon

Here at History Girls, we have an occasional series loosely based around Cabinets of Curiosities.  So far we've had Celia Rees' fascinating overview, Laurie Graham's succulent samovar, Paul Dowswell writing about Rudolph II's cabinet, Penny Dolan's beautiful coronation shell and Caroline Lawrence's report on the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge.

And today it's me with one of my favourite museums - The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - and its take on the theme.  The renovated Grand Gallery was re-opened in 2011 with one whole side of its beautiful white ironwork expanse given over to A Window on the World.  Which is basically a gigantic Cabinet of Curiosities - hard to photograph but stunning to look at!  And the fact that the glass elevators are placed the way they are make visitors who travel in them part of the Cabinet as well - such a neat idea!  

And in the Early People gallery, Eduardo Paolozzi, Scottish sculptor, made these statue-exhibit-cases.   

Modern meets ancient, sculpture wears artefacts, cabinet becomes curiosity!  If you get the chance, come and have a look for yourself - you won't regret it!

Joan's website.
Joan's blog.

(photos by Joan Lennon)

Thursday 29 August 2013

Dog Messengers in War by Sam Angus

Our guest for August is Sam Angus:

Sam Angus was born in Italy and grew up in France and in Spain, in the final years of General Franco’s dictatorship. She read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge and went on to study fashion at Central St Martin’s College of Art before setting up her own sportswear label, Sam de Teran.

After having her first child Sam returned to her first love, literature. She now writes full-time and lives between Exmoor and London with her large family, dogs and horses. Sam’s peripatetic childhood inspired a love of travelling and of history and she was once held hostage in the Guatemalan jungle by armed guerrilla fighters.

Soldier Dog, her debut novel about the Messenger Dog Service, was published in 2012 to great acclaim and won the North East Book Award. Soldier Dog has been selected as one of only 17 books for Booktrust’s Bookbuzz programme and will be distributed to every participating secondary school in the UK throughout Autumn 2013.

Welcome, Sam, and over to you:

As I write this post for the History Girls, I am taking a break from my research into an arcane area of World War II for my third historical adventure novel to be published next year. My second novel, A Horse Called Hero, set in World War II, is published this week but it’s my first novel, Soldier Dog,* about the Dog Messenger Service in World War 1 that I want to write about today.

I don’t consider myself a historian, I feel as though I was drawn into history and into writing rather accidentally. At a moment when I wasn’t either planning on writing a book or changing career, I heard a story on the radio. That story has completely changed the direction of my life. I was sitting in blistering heat, heavily pregnant in a traffic jam on Park Lane in London, but the story that I heard sent a shiver down my spine. The radio programme was about the animals who’d given their lives during the Great War and was broadcast around the time that the memorial to them was erected on Park Lane. Through my car window I could see that memorial as I listened.
Left to right we see War Dog 103 Nell, a Cross Setter; 102 Trick, a Collie; 101 Buller (sometimes referred to as Bullet), an Airedale. All three dogs were very efficient in message carrying and saw service with the 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, also with Divisions of the British 8th Corps (Imperial). 102 Trick was particularly efficient and was specially mentioned by his Signal Officer for good work at Rubimont, near Heilly.

I’ve always had a hopeless and helpless love of dogs and once even had to choose between my university career and my dog [when he was discovered living in my rooms at college] and I have always found stories of their love for their master deeply moving but I’d had no idea at all, and I believe most people in this country haven’t, that dogs had worked in battle as messenger dogs in the first world war.

This was the story that I heard.

An Airedale, named Jack, recruited by the British Army from the Battersea Dogs Home and trained at the War Dog School, was sent out to the Western Front. Jack’s battalion came under heavy fire. If the entire battalion was not to be wiped out, it needed reinforcements and ammunition. No human runner would survive the barrage of gunfire in order to get a message out. One Lt Hunter slipped a message into the Jack’s collar and said, “Goodbye. Jack. Go back boy. ”

Jack ran off, staying close to the ground, taking advantage of whatever cover there was, running through deep swamp for over half a mile. Under heavy bombardment he began to get hit. A piece of shrapnel smashed his jaw. The battalion watched Jack stagger on. A missile ripped open his black and tan coat from shoulder to thigh, but still he continued, using shell holes and trenches for cover. His forepaw was hit and he fell. Jack rose, dragged himself along the ground on three legs for the last few miles, persevering, inch by inch, until he reached his master and fell dead at his feet, his jaw broken, his leg splintered. Airedale Jack saved his battalion that day, and earned himself a posthumous VC.

Before the moment I heard these stories, I hadn’t known that there’d been seven thousand dogs killed in the Great War. I hadn’t known that they’d served as sentinels, scouts, sentries, ambulance and messenger dogs. I heard stories about other animals, sitting there in the traffic on Park Lane, but it was the idea of the messenger dog, of his intelligence, loyalty and of the sense of duty that could draw a dog through gunfire, back to his master, that brought tears to my eyes and eventually brought me to take pen to paper and write the book that became Soldier Dog.

As with many female historians and writers of historical fiction, it’s the human side of history that I am drawn to. The individual stories, the individual letters and diaries and memoirs, these are the things that keep drawing me in. If there are animals involved in these individual stories too, then they are so much more moving because the men's fondness for the animals that served with them allowed a softer side of their natures to show - there are no women or children in the trenches in WWI or WWII - so there was no outlet for tenderness other than with their animals.

Soldier Dog and A Horse Called Hero are published by Macmillan Children’s Books.

Checking a message


Wednesday 28 August 2013

The Final Possession? by biographer Clare Mulley

As a historical biographer, I aim to capture the spirit of people on paper. And yet my latest subject, Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, has taught me to respect her freedom too...

Slavers, dictators, murderers and biographers have all claimed ownership over the lives of others. It’s an unfortunate milieu, but not every biographer chooses to represent their books as the ‘definitive’ account of their subjects’ lives. Not only is it impossible to know that you have nailed down every fact, your selection of nails is equally subjective, as is the force and direction with which you choose hammer them home. Arguably the more ‘definitive’ a biography is hyped to be, the more ‘defined’ it probably is - by its author rather than its subject. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as it is understood. Biographies have long been considered as mirrors of their authors’ times and preoccupations as much as windows on to the lives of their subjects, and plenty of biographers since Lytton Strachey, with his Eminent Victorians, have made a virtue of their overt subjectivity. But then, perhaps this is as much an imposition as claiming to own the truth of another’s life. The real problem, perhaps, is how to balance the good biographer’s compulsive need to ‘possess’ their subject with the equally vital need to respect them.

I felt this dilemma particularly strongly when I started researching the life of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War. Christine was not a person to be owned, or even easily defined or contained. My biography is called The Spy Who Loved because she was a very passionate woman, loving life in its widest sense. She loved adrenalin and adventure. She loved men; she had two husbands and numerous lovers. But most of all she loved freedom and independence: freedom for her country and freedom for herself. 

It is ironic then, that I soon discovered a wealth of people, mostly men, who had laid a claim to her both in life, and to her story after her death. Christine was not only the first woman to volunteer for Britain as a special agent, she was also the longest serving, taking on mission after mission in three different theatres of the war. That she died young is perhaps unsurprising, but Christine was not killed in action – she was murdered by an obsessed stalker in the lobby of a London hotel in 1952. Reportedly, as he was led from the docks, Christine’s killer, Dennis Muldowney, claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession’. But Muldowney was wrong. He had never possessed Christine in life, however intimate they might have once been, and he failed to stake his claim through her murder. 

Christine and Andrzej Kowerski-Kennedy

Devastated by his ultimate failure to protect her in person, Christine’s long-term lover, soul-mate and colleague-in-arms, Andrew Kowerski-Kennedy, dedicated much of the rest of his life to defending her reputation. In effect this meant representing or re-writing her life-story. During Muldowney’s public trial, Andrew arranged for a statement to be read out asserting that there was ‘not one particle of truth’ in Muldowney’s claims of intimacy with Christine. Thereafter he convened an all-male group of her former colleagues and closest friends as the ‘Panel to Protect the Memory of Christine Granville’, essentially by preventing any unapproved books or articles about her from being published. They proved effective. An anticipated screenplay by Christine’s old friend Bill Stanley Moss, best known as the author of Ill Met By Moonlight, was quashed, preventing a production that might have starred Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter, as Christine. Twenty years later a lyrical memoir by another former lover, Count Wladimir Ledochowski, also failed to win approval, and remained unpublished (although not lost).

Much of the reason why Andrew was so protective was that Christine had led a very active life on all fronts. However much he adored her, Andrew seemed to feel that the polite world was not yet ready to embrace Christine in 1952. Another reason might have been that many of the members of his panel had not only been in love with Christine themselves, they were also married, meaning that in several cases there was more than one reputation at stake. Eventually, in 1975, Andrew agreed to support a biography of Christine by Madeleine Masson, essentially taking over the narrative drive himself through a series of personal interviews. Despite the pleading of some of the women who had known Christine, such as SOE’s Vera Atkins who told Masson not to ‘diminish her by white-washing her faults’, the book presented a thoroughly scrubbed and sanitised version of its subject.

Having pieced this back-story together it was a great relief to me when I started my research, that Christine’s remaining friends and colleagues, and the descendants of many more, were so supportive of the project, pulling out letters and photographs, medals and jewellery, and sharing memories and anecdotes over sandwiches or over the internet. Even the nephew of her murderer kindly shared what he knew. Clearly people were keen that Christine should be remembered and celebrated in what is hopefully a less judgmental age. And yet, even then, I faced aggressive phone calls and on-line postings from three male writers who laid claim to Christine’s story. Christine was still mesmerising admirers, and it seemed they still did not understand that she never willingly entered into an exclusive relationship. 

I used a glorious number and variety of sources to inform my book, including interviews; official papers – some retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act; wonderfully personal letters to and from Christine – most previously unpublished; school reports; beauty queen photos; press articles and film clips; artefacts including her commando knife; published and unpublished memoirs; histories; and even novels written by some of the people she knew. When the hardback came out, I was thrilled that several more people who, or whose parents, had known Christine, now also got in touch. Some even told me new stories or details, the most pertinent of which are included in the paperback. 

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, 1905-1952

And yet I know that my biography of Christine can never be definitive. No one ever possessed Christine. Not her parents. Not her two husbands, nor any of her lovers, and certainly not her biographers. If she was possessed by anything it was her drive to free her country, and to live a life of freedom herself. Christine’s defining passion was for liberty: in love, in politics, and in life in its widest sense. No self-respecting biographer could claim to capture her entirely; her spirit defies it. 

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Roman Princesses by Louisa Young

I am in Italy, dreaming, working, drinking, and watching the Palio on TV thanks to our glorious leader Mary Hoffman who sent me the link. As one of the great joys of being a writer is that you have to read a lot, and as one of the great joys of reading is matching your books to your locale, and as one of the great joys of rules and habits is breaking them, I am reading about Roman Princesses in complex turn-of-the-(19th/20th)-century marriages, while sitting up a hill in Tuscany.

So, here are two books:

                                       The Light in Between, by Marella Caraciolo Chia

and A Favourite of the Gods, by Sybille Bedford

In the first, Principessa Vittoria Colonna, brought up in one of the most glorious palazzos in Rome, knee-deep in great art and greater architecture, is married off to a studious and eccentric Prince whose family lives in one of the darkest and dingiest palazzos in Rome, where she droops like a flower under the disapproving eyes of his entire family. In the semi-detached way of these lives at that time, she sets up her personal Arcadia on a tiny island in Lake Maggiore, where she is visited by and falls in love with Umberto Boccioni, Futurist painter, handsome, wild, romantic, and a great tombeur de femmes. But it is 1916 - within months he is dead. But what a find - the author, a distant relative of the Princess, came across their letters! This is a tiny marvel, this book; a memoir of such a short time, such a brief romance, and one which could only have gone horribly wrong anyway, with all the context and historical and social backup to let the jewel shine.

In the second, an American heiress marries a Roman Prince, and moves into his family palazzo, again with his entire family, and all their opinions. She has a daughter, her daughter has a daughter, time passes and things change - well some do  . . .  This one is fiction, but the facts and attitudes and ways of these people at that time in those places is presented with such flair and accuracy it makes me, who has never been to 1910 except in my dreams and my books, start pining. Yes it's all rather Henry James - but this is about women; about freedom, about breaking out, and giving in, and not giving a damn. It brings us up to 1929.

I cannot believe my luck, that reading these books counts as work. So here they are - for your holiday pleasure, or your research needs, Roman Princesses of the early twentieth century.

I'll leave you with another research gift I was given yesterday over a late Ferragosto lunch. I didn't catch all the Italian as the singing was a little robust, and involved yodelling, but basically it goes like this:

'There was a nun in a closed order
One day she went into labour
She gave birth to seven cows,
seven cows and a tank
and a combine harvester
with the engine running'

The singer is one of these fellows, my neighbours, the Cardellini del Fontanino:
This is about a Spazzacamino - chimney sweep - and everybody (including the priest) keeps going up chimneys and in and out of windows and finding babies everywhere.
This is L'Uccellino che vien dal mare, the little bird who comes from sea:
He wants to make love, have babies etc.

It's all the same really. Love and money. Wishing you all plenty of both, and the time to enjoy them.

Monday 26 August 2013


Can you guess the owner of this bosom? Who knew better than the Tudors and Stuarts how to use visual effects, heightened by the play of light on textures and surfaces in movement, through day-lit and candle-lit spaces?

Lace, pearls, sumptuous velvets and tissued silk (a hugely time-consuming process of pulling through individual silk threads into raised loops to form a foamy pattern on the surface of the silk) were used to fine affect. The ruffs, standing collars, cuffs and sequined gauze displayed in Elizabethan and Jacobean courts could never have been worn by anyone who had to do anything practical like wash a dish, or serve a meal, or heaven forbid… rush through the rain. Rain was anathema to lace and silk.

Anne of Denmark adored jewellery and used her accessories to emphasis her own dynastic importance separate to that of her husband, James I. The diamond studded ‘S’ on her collar (dark stones in Elizabethan and Jacobean paintings are most likely diamonds not garnets, as the facets weren’t as many in those days and not as reflective) is a reference to her mother, Sophia. Her silk skirt is worn over a drum-shaped farthingale – which she insisted on wearing at court even though it had passed out of fashion – and must have given the impression of her hovering rather than walking. I suspect these are the pearls given her by Elizabeth I.

In the portrait of Henrietta Maria ( married to Charles I) van Dyck includes details like the spiky cuffs and the cuts in the bodice that produce a wavy effect in the lustrous silvery-blue silk, with the coloured ribbon adding warmth to the coolness. Her large teardrop pearl earrings (not shown) match the drop at her throat. The pearls in the earrings are known as the Mancini pearls and still survive today.

Simple ruching caught with pearls on the gold dress in Lely’s 1662 portrait of Frances Stewart, whom Charles II wanted as his mistress, show the sheen and lustre of the cloth. 

While the riding habit of Mary of Modena shows a coat densely embroidered with gold and silver and has a striking resemblance to the coat her husband, the Duke of York wore at their wedding two years earlier.

Glossy gold silk tassels add drama to the plum-coloured damask breeches above the softly creased leather of Charles I’s boots.
Three-tiered lace wrist cuffs perfectly starched and curled so that edges appear almost as leaves of acanthus, are set above finely crumpled doeskin gloves and contrast sharply with the sumptuous black velvet of the Queen of Bohemia’s (Elizabeth Stuart) dress.

 A detail of Lady Bowes (1630) bodice shows panes of fabric held together by contrasting ribbons. Spangles – sequins punched from sheets from precious metal – add highlights to the fabric.

Then there are the clothes of the masque. Mary, Princess of Orange wears a feathered cloak of the type worn by the Tupinambá people of the Amazon. The cloaks were being brought into Europe from Brazil at the time. The pearled shoes below this are those of an unknown lady at a masque who is supposedly dressed as a Persian.

And then there are the embroidered fabrics like this delightfully fresh gown with slips of flowers worn by this young girl. 

The three below show the Spanish gown worn by Margaret of Austria, embroidered with castles, lions and a double-headed eagle and is the one she wore at her wedding to Phillip II of Spain. Notice the wrist ruff with bracelet above.

The portrait of Agatha Bas painted by Rembrandt shows a black gown intensified by the lace-trimmed linen accessories of cuffs and kerchief, with a tightly tied bodice and a folding fan recently adopted from the East.

I’m ending with a drawing done by Holbein the Younger, in coloured chalks that I would have loved to take home with me. It depicts Cicely Heron, the youngest daughter of Thomas More with loosened bodice revealing her yellow kirtle beneath to accommodate her changing girth in pregnancy. Lovely and informal and natural. (try to ignore the reflections)

You’ve still time to see the exhibition, which runs until 6th October. If you visit IN FINE STYLE at the Queens Gallery at Buckingham Palace, spare a thought for the laundry maids who had to starch the lace, making sure the starch wasn’t too thick to clog the holes or cause the lace to crack and yet sufficient to create the perfect rolls around the ruff and the beautifully curled edges of the wrist cuffs. It’s a ravishing feast of texture and sheen and all the pretty things worn by ladies and gentlemen of leisure.

Sunday 25 August 2013

SO RIGHT, IT'S WRONG by Eleanor Updale

Historical drama on film and TV often gets a pasting, but there can be little doubt that the level of accuracy in the sets and styling has improved immensely over the years.  We no longer have 18th century heroines with bobby pins in their hair, or sixteenth-century swashbucklers fighting it out beneath nineteenth century portraits.  These days there are specialist advisors on everything from the look of the food to the species of flowers in the front garden.  I haven’t seen the latest film of Great Expectations (which I gather is less than wonderful) but I bet it has avoided the clanger dropped in the opening minutes of almost every other adaptation: making the gravestones of Pip’s parents look a century old at least.
But can design accuracy go too far?
I was prompted to think about this close to the northernmost point in mainland Britain (which isn’t John O’Groats .  You learn something every day). 
Near Dunnet Head in Caithness, I visited Mary Ann's Cottage.

It's a rare thing these days – something from the past that hasn’t been tarted up.  Mary Ann’s Cottage is a country croft, built in about 1850, and preserved exactly as it was when the last member of the family left it to enter a home in the 1990s.  At the last minute, and with the help if the Queen Mother (who lived at the nearby Castle of Mey) the cottage was rescued for the public despite the local council’s demand that it be sold to pay Mary-Ann’s care home fees.  

Mary Ann’s Cottage is nothing like those ghastly places where actors dress up and put on funny voices in an attempt to bring the past to life.  What's thrilling about the croft is that nothing has been done to achieve a ‘period’ feel.  There are plenty of ancient domestic and agricultural artifacts in the house and its outbuildings, but alongside them is a 1960s dial telephone, a budgie’s cage, the graduation photo of Mary-Ann’s son, magazines and newspapers recording events in our lifetimes, and spartan home comforts many of us would recognise.  The custodians have politely declined donations of period objects to make the croft seem more ‘authentic’.  As a result, we are given a convincing picture of what it was like to live there.  Above all, it’s a useful corrective to the view that crofting was always an unremittingly harsh existence, lived out by the victims of oppression.  It was the family’s choice to live in this way, and in a simple sense, they lived well. 

This is where the pigs lived

You can read more about Mary Ann’s Cottage at  Which is where the pictures in this post come from.

Mary-Ann’s Cottage is an example of how a home is an organic thing.  While retaining much of its 19th century character, the later layers are just as important in telling its story.  The same is true the other way round.  Our homes today are full of unnoticed reminders of the past, and the TV designers should bear this in mind for modern-day dramas, too.
Unless you happen to be a Russian billionaire or footballer’s wife decorating a new-build with the help of an interior designer, it is highly unlikely that your home is composed entirely of objects manufactured this century – let alone this decade.  Anyone filming a TV drama set in 2013 is likely to be tempted to show a fancy boiling water machine, a shelf full of Jamie and Nigella, and and ipad on an onyx worktop.  But they should have the courage to include the 1980s Laura Ashley wallpaper still in the loo, the threadbare carpet 1970s carpet on the stairs, and the ancient transistor radio beside the bath, too.
No doubt such ‘anachronisms’ would be likely to draw complaints from people who love looking out for ‘mistakes’, but a courageous designer will know that the only things that should be prohibited from the set are those that were uninvented, or unavailable, at the time of the plot. 
Those can really put the audience off.  I remember losing faith in Mad Men during the very first episode, when someone pulled on pantyhose more than a decade before they were on sale.  Any British drama set in the mid-sixties is likely to put every woman in a mini skirt and kinky boots. Though these were featured in magazines like Honey and Petticoat at the time, in most of the country (and even in most of London) they were nowhere to be seen.   
One of the most meticulously ‘accurate’ TV shows is the achingly art-deco Poirot.   Oh so very very right.  But somehow somewhat wrong. [For copyright reasons, I can’t show you a screenshot to illustrate what I mean, but you can always watch an episode to find out.]

So yes – please film period drama well away from the flight path, cover up the double yellow lines and remove the parking meters where necessary.  But don’t take away the horse-trough and water fountain just because they were placed there 100 years before your story is set. 
It will always be fun to watch out for a medieval extra wearing a wrist watch, but we should be more tolerant if a character in Pride and Prejudice sits down on a chair made, and bought, half a century before she was born.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Language to Suit: Some thoughts by Elizabeth Chadwick

This post was suggested to me by History Girl blog moderator Mary Hoffman after she visited my Facebook page where I post the opening and closing lines of my day's quota of rough draft on a daily basis.

 I'd happened to use the word 'blanket' in my sentence, and Mary wondered if it was appropriate as she suspected it was Shakespearian and I was writing a work set in the twelfth century.  As it happens, blanket has a good old Anglo Norman pedigree and I was on safe ground, but in discussion afterwards with Mary, it led me to wonder about the word choices I make when writing historical fiction and why - which is why I suspect Mary began the discussion!

It's obvious that even while 'blanket' was in the correct ball park for my period,  I am still constantly going to be using words of a later etymology in the course of my writing, or using them in a different way to their first intention.  Shakespeare's  reference to King Lear's daughter Regan as a 'naughty lady' would have a mildly amusing meaning today and would reference  someone who has committed a childish misdemeanour,  Four hundred years ago it meant evil and wicked.  So, the scenery has changed, and today with mass communication and world-wide cultural exchange, it alters faster than ever.  Words enter, words leave, words change their meaning and sentiment.

If I had the time and the energy, I could go through every single word choice and make sure that it was available in the period for which I'm writing, but while that might prove interesting, it's not an option given my career deadlines and I suspect it would go largely unnoticed by the readership.  There is obviously no way I am going to write in 12th century English, or Anglo Norman, so I tend to opt for good, plain English these days without frilly bits and cod medievalisms.  Heaven forbid that you'll find a 'forsooth' in any of my novels!  The odd bit of terminology perhaps and the occasional word to give a flavour, but always explained in context.  I do openly confess that when I first began writing I was terribly self indulgent and liked to put in the medieval words and terminology that I'd learned, and not always with a good context to explain what the item was, but then I was an enthusiastic newbie (see what I mean about the arrival of new words), no author is ever perfect and it's a constant learning curve.  Since those early days I've toned it down. Readers will now be able to suss from the context what a gambeson is, (padded undergarment worn under a mail shirt) or a palfrey. (all purpose riding horse of good quality).

When I first began writing fiction set in the Middle Ages, before I was published, one of the doyens of the industry was Ellis Peters, famous for her medieval mystery Cadfael novels, but also well known and respected as straight  historical novelist Edith Pargeter.  Her take on the matter of how to address the problem of writing about people from the long ago without catapulting the reader out of the story by either forsoothery or too many modern terms was to write in good, plain standard English.  That doesn't mean boring though. The poetry in the motion of the tools of the trade is down to the author's particular skill in using those words.  W.H. Auden said  "The test of good prose is that the reader does not notice it any more than a man looking through a window at a landscape notices the glass."  In one way I agree with him.  I don't want to be distracted by the language when I'm reading, but at the same time, I do admit that some glass in some windows can be very beautiful, even while it's lucid.  The work of the late Dorothy Dunnett comes to mind. Her way with words was stunning.

One of my favourite historical novels is one called Hanta yo, by Ruth Beebe Hill. The title in the language of the Lakotah Indians means 'Clear the Way' with the meaning 'In a spiritual way I come.'  The author took 30 years to write the book (which I am not advocating as a career move!) and it is clearly a labour of love. It tells the story of a group of Lakotah Indians on the eve of the coming of the White Man and details both their culture and the cataclysmic changes set in motion by the arrival of the Whites.

The author, in collaboration with a Dakotah Indian linguist, wrote the novel in English, translated it into the Lakotah language to obtain the correct rhythms and idioms, and then translated it back into English.  I think it would be a fascinating project to do the same with historical fiction set in the distant past.  I would love to turn one of mine into Anglo Norman and then back again -  given a couple of extra lifetimes.  I would be fascina a project I know I'd love.

While there are authors such as Ruth Beebe Hill who go to great lengths to preserve the rhythms of the original language, others prefer to use modern everyday phrases and slang in their historical fiction. The idea is to engage with readers who might find  archaic terms difficult to understand, or boring,  and to give freshness and immediacy to the writing.  Done well, it can work, but like 'forsoothery' it has its pitfalls. Some readers will love the technique, others will 'wall-bang', muttering that its not proper history, and no amount of the author saying that it's just the past translated into the language of today will placate the offended party.  It's a universal truth that writers cannot legislate for every reader who picks up one of their books.   The problem too with being overly modern in one's word use is that it dates very quickly and may not stand the test of time, whereas the plain English version will have a longer lifespan. There is also the argument that using modern idioms and slang distances the reader from the mindset of the period about which they are writing. 
Nevertheless, the deliberate modern word useage can work brilliantly in the medium of the historical novel; it just has to be done right.  As an example, I would send everyone to read Brian Wainwright's wonderful 'The Adventure of Alianore Audely', a near perfect display of how to use modern slang in a historical novel and make it a masterpiece.

There is also the thorny problem of cross-ocean exchange. I often hear comments from UK readers about 'Americanisms' in historical fiction from the USA, and I'm sure it works the other way too.  Woe betide any writer from the USA who dares to use 'gotten' in their historical fiction.  A USA friend of mine who writes Medieval fiction has several UK reviews on her latest novel bemoaning the use of this word - which hasn't caused a problem among American readers. We may not use it any more in Britain,  but as many responders pointed out in the discussion, it's only UK English that has fallen into disuse. We may no longer use it, but 'gotten' sailed to America, with the Pilgrim Fathers and flourished.  You could argue it has earned an honorary place.  Again, the writer can't legislate for what the readers are going to bring to their experience of reading the novel.
A writer of historical fiction creates a bridge for the reader between then and now, a bridge fashioned of words that build the experience.  If there is a lot of traffic over that bridge, as every writer hopes, then there are bound to be a mixture of responses.  Some readers will be delighted and use that bridge as their favourite.  Others may decide that it's not for them. It's all in the use of those basic building materials, and what appeals to the individual. I suspect that the good plain English bridges get used more than the 'forsoothery' bridges, but in the end, reader or writer, it's a matter of personal preference as to how and where one makes that crossing.

Elizabeth Chadwick
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