Authentic language in historical fiction

Any list of contenders for a major literary prize makes me pause to think about what makes some books exceptionally convincing. If the list includes fiction set partly or wholly in the past, it piques my particular interest in the means by which successful historical novels produce an impression of linguistic authenticity.

Here I’ll comment on three examples: Amanda Curtin’s Elemental (shortlisted for the forthcoming WA Premier’s Literary Award), Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (on the Booker’s current long list), and Jim Crace’s Harvest (shortlisted last year for the Booker, unlucky not to win it).

There’s usually a good deal of historical research behind any novel set in bygone times. Some of this may involve painstaking work on various circumstantial matters, though the writer should beware of clogging the story with intrusive references to ‘a surfeit of period detail’. That phrase is from an essay by Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books, which goes on to say that readers don’t want to be ‘distracted by expository passages that emit the dusty aura of the research library as we encounter an accumulation of costumes and customs.’

In any case, preparatory research undertaken by the best writers of historical fiction goes well beyond any checking of facts and fossicking for bits of local colour. Especially important is the challenge of creating a language that achieves verisimilitude – the semblance of reality. It’s no easy matter to persuade your readers that your narrative medium is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in your chosen period and place. The writing must seem to embody their characteristic turns of phrase, their conversational habits, the structure of their sentences – not only to avoid anachronism but also to gain an insight into the way they thought and felt, which would sometimes have been different from what we’re used to today. So meticulous attention to language isn’t pedantic in novels of this kind – it’s vital for credibility. But it needs to be done in a manner that avoids weighing down the story and slowing down the reader. 

Elemental_cover_bf19043a-46da-48fe-aa31-e0bd8a12c601_largeIn a previous blog post on highlights of my reading from last year, I commented that Amanda Curtin’s Elemental gains much of its enduring power from the skilful way in which it uses language to bring patterns of history and geography alive, especially ‘from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch.’ This novel follows the ups and downs of Meggie’s life from her childhood years in the early 20th century, when she learns to work as a ‘gutting girl’ in small harsh communities of fisherfolk, first in northern Scotland and then in the Shetlands. This setting poses technical problems for the novelist because the idiom of those communities was full of words unfamiliar to most modern readers, but Amanda Curtin’s achievement is to carry the reader along without needing to depend unduly on the dialect glossary at the end of the book. She does this partly through clever use of contextual clues, judicious repetition and a knack of incorporating nuances of meaning into the sentence rhythms themselves.

wake cover_illustrationI haven’t yet read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake except for a brief excerpt available online as part of the extensive publicity engendered by this innovative novel. You can look at the sample and the author’s accompanying comments here. If you do so, it’s immediately obvious that what Kingsnorth does is to devise a modified form of Anglo-Saxon speech as a vehicle for his narrator – an invented idiom that sits somewhere between our own modern English and the actual language of eleventh-century England. ‘The result’, he says, ‘is a book which is written in a tongue that no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar.’

It’s an admirably bold experiment, though it carries two risks. Some readers may reject its homemade language as too opaque to be worth the effort of deciphering, while others (especially purist Anglo-Saxon scholars) may regard it as just a travesty of genuine Old English.

Jim-Crace-HarvestIn Harvest Jim Crace has devised something different from historical fiction of the usual kind. Factual precision is plainly not his purpose; rather, the authenticity lies in a truthful adherence to timeless human feelings. Nowhere does the novel specify the period or location in which its action occurs. Some features suggest the midlands in the Elizabethan (Shakespearean) era, but one could imagine it taking place any time during the centuries-long process of enclosing the English countryside, when peasants were forced to relinquish their traditional crop fields and small-scale village life so that sheep farmers could acquire expanses of profitable pasture land. In one sense the historical aspects of the story are as applicable to our own time as to any era, because ‘small farmers all over the world are still being forced from their lands’, as Crace remarks in an interview.

In another sense his story reaches towards elegiac myth, evoking the values of a lost community. It creates an almost hypnotic effect of nostalgia by selectively embedding archaic turns of phrase within highly stylised language that often develops a strong metrical beat. Occasionally this gives passages the regular rhythm of iambic pentameter (te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum). In fact Crace’s prose can typically sound like the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth. Here are a few examples, mainly of sentence-length ‘lines’:

‘The village is aflame, but not with fire.’  ‘We’re drinking ale from last year’s barley crop.’  ‘We ought to be content. The harvest’s in.’  ‘Tonight there is no moon in view, of course.’  ‘As yet, there’s not the slightest trace of wind / to take the rain away and irrigate / our distant neighbours’ lands instead of ours.’  ‘Already it is bright and hot enough / for us to shelter under rye-straw hats. / We all feel harvest-worn to some degree…’  ‘The village has been freckled by the chaff.’

To my mind the patterning of this novel’s language suggests metaphorically the slow, steady pulse of peasant life – its diurnal and seasonal rhythms, the ploughing of even furrows, the regular recurrence of seeding and harvesting.

I’m particularly conscious of the challenges of creating seemingly authentic language in historical fiction because my own next novel, scheduled for release next year, tries to incorporate into its passages of dialogue and interior monologue a credible impression of mid-19th century phrasing. In its early chapters, before the action moves to Australia, it also draws on some regional English dialects, inflected by working-class usage. Doing this in a way that avoids a heavy-handed display of linguistic markers takes a fair bit of care, so I hope the outcome will carry conviction for readers.


6 thoughts on “Authentic language in historical fiction

  1. Hi there Ian.

    Firstly, I thought Elemental was a beautifully realised novel. I enjoyed it much more than certain other ‘local’ novels of recent times, some of which have gone on to be very popular and highly decorated.

    “…clever use of contextual clues, judicious repetition and a knack of incorporating nuances of meaning into the sentence rhythms themselves. ” It’s a long time since I read “A Clockwork Orange”, but Burgess’ ability to make his own argot not merely comprehensible but vibrant surely owes a lot to these same techniques. The Kubrick film was a terrible let-down for me after the novel, and it has remained so ever since.

    Your mentioning of mid-19th century Australian vernacular is also interesting. It reminds me of a radio interview of Jack Thompson I heard a few years ago, which he gave just after he’d recorded an audio version of C.J. Dennis’ “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.” The time period is more turn-of-the-century, of course, but even then there were all sorts of meanings and allusions in everyday speech which are now all but forgotten. One I remember in particular was Thompson’s explanation of the term ‘tart’, used to describe a female. Apparently in Dennis’ time it was intended as short for ‘sweetheart’, and was used as a term of esteem and affection, as opposed to the pejorative associations that it later acquired.

    There must have been all sorts of local and familial variations in speech at the time your novel is set in, particularly given how cosmopolitan the goldfields were during the various Rushes. For instance, Carey’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” would surely have sounded different if it had been related by someone who wasn’t from the Irish peasantry. Has your research indicated a lot of variation and, if so, does this make it difficult to keep things authentic?

  2. Thought-provoking comments, as usual – thanks Glen.
    Regarding the Burgess/Kubrick versions of A Clockwork Orange, aren’t films that have been adapted from serious novels disappointing on the whole, especially if the written text is linguistically inventive?
    As that C.J. Dennis example shows, colloquial Australian speech had certainly developed a rich array of distinctive words and shades of meaning by the early 20th c. You may know the Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms by G.A. Wilkes, to which I often refer. It quotes examples with dates, often taken from contemporary fiction.
    My novel extends from the 1830s to 1890 (with gaps), its Australian chapters being mostly set in Perth and Fremantle, and yes – there was plenty of linguistic variation, particularly because of the influx (50s and 60s) of convicts who brought their speech patterns from many parts of Britain.

  3. Speaking of disappointing cinema adaptations, it’s also been suggested to me that the really excellent adaptations come from novels that perhaps aren’t as well written as they might be. I can’t think of enough examples to really support this argument, but I always think of John Le Carre’s novels. I struggle with his prose style but I love the various mini-series the BBC did in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. The characters and settings within that world of cold-war espionage make fascinating viewing – only the language lets them down from making fabulous novels as well.

  4. Yes, Le Carré is an interesting case. Like you, I’m not drawn to his novels but the B&W movie of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, starring Richard Burton, still packs a powerful punch after half a century.

  5. Ian,

    As a reader (and rather small-scale and unpublished writer) I have a clear sense of the balance between authenticity and heavy handedness that you refer to.

    I have read, re-read and much enjoyed the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by the late Patrick O’Brian. Part of their particular charm for me was always the balance they struck between convincing period dialogue and readability. Actually, their whole appeal to me lies in balance in various senses. They combine drama, action, humour and deft characterisation all into one enjoyable whole.

    In another realm which I explore, that of typeface design, balance and subtlety are also important- the balance between a subtle design with period influences, and out and out heavy handedness. Not to say that indulging in the latter ow and then can’t be a bit of fun…

  6. Yes, O’Brian’s books exemplify some of the challenges of finding an appropriate language for stories set in the past – particularly, in that case, the need to achieve verisimilitude in depicting life at sea in the days of sail. In my next novel there are several characters who make their way from England to WA in the mid-19thc (some decades later than the Aubrey-Maturin period), and I had to do a fair bit of careful research into the nature of voyages at that time, including shipboard language.

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