Language & Historical Fiction: An Exploration of Style, Idiom & Anachronism

by Philip Gooden

The Ely TestamentGetting the facts right is one of the principal jobs of the writer of historical fiction. When did men start wearing cravats? What was the weather like during the midsummer of 1602 in Wiltshire? Which train company ran the London to Cambridge service in the middle of the Victorian era? Accuracy about such details matters in a way that it used not to matter. Those in the know smile indulgently at Shakespeare’s errors, such as the anachronistic mingling of togas and doublets or the sound of a striking clock in Julius Caesar, or the Queen of Egypt’s command to play billiards in Antony and Cleopatra, but no one holds the playwright to account in the way that a contemporary writer would be held to account if he had Mark Antony glancing at his wristwatch.

This change of attitude isn’t simply because Shakespeare was a genius. It’s also because in the last three hundred years or so we have developed a historical perspective. We know things ain’t what they used to be. Or, if we want to express it in a more literary manner, we recall L.P. Hartley’s dictum: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ There are expectations that both the broad sweep and the factual details in historical fiction will be correct. And there is less excuse for making mistakes. It doesn’t take long to discover that cravats first appeared during the 17th century. That the weather in England wasn’t too hot in the early 1600s (the effect of a volcanic eruption in Peru). That the Great Eastern Company would convey you from London to Cambridge in Victoria’s time. We’ve got reference books. We have Google.

But something which is, arguably, even more important than the information gained through research and reading is the requirement to pick the right words. Not just the ones which keep the story flowing, but the ones which fit the period, the setting and the characters we’ve chosen. To an extent, this is a skill or accomplishment which is only shown up when it fails. I can’t be alone in wincing when I hear an out-of-place expression in a period drama. In fact, I know I am not alone. The language of Downton Abbey is pored over as carefully as if it were holy writ, not only in the UK but in the United States. Online sites like Word Routes ( will tell you how unlikely it is that Lord Grantham would say ‘Step on it’ as early as 1917. A recent repeat of one of the excellent Poirot whodunnits on ITV had Inspector Japp referring to something as being ‘bog standard’. Really? In the 1930s? All that care devoted to costumes and art-deco fittings and moustache trimmers but still the bubble of belief can be pricked with a single word.

Surprisingly, this kind of minor verbal slip matters more when one is dealing with the fairly recent past as opposed to the real olden days. This is because there will always be those who remember how things were done when they were a lot younger, remember which expressions were current, which ones were waiting to be born. Of course, one person’s recent past may be another’s ancient history. One of the qualifications for the Ellis Peters Historical Award is that any book submitted must be set at least 35 years before the current year. In other words, you could write a mystery novel about skulduggery involving Mrs Thatcher’s rise to power and submit it for a historical prize commemorating a woman who wrote principally about a medieval monk. And, if you wrote a Thatcher thriller, there would most likely be a number of readers who would pick holes in your history, your politics and even the way you made your characters think and talk.

But no one alive has first-hand knowledge of styles of speech during the relief of Mafeking, let alone the battle of Hastings, and this can have a liberating effect on the writer. Research is still important, naturally. You can go quite a long way back by relying on the written record, on contemporary novels and plays and poetry, on newspapers and pamphlets, even manuscripts (although they will not be much help when it comes to the spoken word). But the sources shrink the further back you travel, until all that remains may be inscriptions carved in stone or graffiti scrawled on walls, items of limited use. So, paradoxically, a piece of fiction set in the distant past may give writers more freedom because there is less to contradict them, fewer written resources and absolutely no living and breathing ones.

Provided one avoids gross anachronisms in writing about events more than, say, three hundred years ago – ‘Permit me bring you up to speed, sire’ – then it is possible to employ language which is fairly contemporary. In fact, it is necessary to do so because the attempt to write like the Normans or even the Elizabethans would make a book unreadable or, more accurately, unread. The historical writer still needs to be careful over language but then that consideration applies – should apply – to any writer.

There are always going to be interesting little questions, though. Should you put the word ‘sadist’ into a bit of dialogue if the speaker is speaking before the time of the Marquis de Sade or even some time after him (the word wasn’t used in English until the late 19th century)? The practice of sadism is as old as humanity, or inhumanity, but what to call it if you don’t use the term itself? My feeling is that it is all right in a descriptive, non-dialogue passage, as author’s ‘commentary’, but that an alternative expression should probably be found if the subject is being spoken about. Or take this fictitious sentence: ‘Mesmerised, he watched Swein riding towards the Normans, wielding his axe with huge swinging strokes.’ It would take an alert, perhaps pernickety, reader to register the fact that Mesmer wasn’t around during the Norman conquest, but even so a scrupulous writer might avoid putting down: ‘”I was mesmerised,” said Swein.’

There are two other courses for the writer of historical fiction, both of which avoid the slightly nervous approach to the past that employs largely contemporary language but is forever watchful of linguistic booby-traps and minefields. One is to abandon caution altogether and use current expressions on the grounds that this is the kind of thing the Romans would have said, in fact the kind of thing they did say after their own fashion, but which is now being given the 21st-century treatment: ‘”Bloody hell, Brutus,” said Caesar, observing his old friend’s strange manner, “What’s your problem?”’ This gets rid of the speech anachronism problem by flaunting it.

The other solution is to write a pastiche or caricature of the style of your chosen period. Arthur Conan Doyle tried this in the dialogue of his medieval romances, such as The White Company (1891). This means that a character is permitted remarks like: “You came in as the knight does in the jongleur’s romances, between dragon and damsel, with small time for the asking of questions.” This is as artificial and lurid as Technicolor and it’s not surprising that Doyle’s histories are almost forgotten now.

But imitation becomes more feasible the closer the approach to the 21st century. Confirming this, there has been a long vogue for Victorian pastiche. Charles Palliser’s monumental The Quincunx (1989) has a social range, a cast of characters and something of the style of Dickens. Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) again echoes the novelistic style of the period but is elegantly explicit about sex in a way that would have been impossible for any novelist publishing in the Victorian era and for many decades afterwards. Other writers, such as Sarah Waters (Fingersmith), A.S.Byatt (Possession) and D.J.Taylor (Kept), have immersed themselves in 19th-century England and mined its potential for mystery and the grotesque.

It’s worth pointing out that each of these novelists brings a modern sensibility to their material. Apart from all the material on brothels and the sex business in The Crimson Petal, Faber provides a thoroughly contemporary and unresolved ending to his book, an ending which I thought was exactly right – the narrative seems to float away from us – but which irritated some readers. And perhaps the father of these latter-day Victorian novelists is John Fowles who, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), not only provides a choice of endings in post-modern fashion but actually appears briefly as a god-like character in the story. In novels like these, the language conforms fairly closely to the style of the period, but there is often an ironic tinge to it, particularly when the narrative deals with subjects that would never have been openly discussed in print at the time.

How far back can the imitators go? Thackeray produced an imitation 18th-century novel in Henry Esmond (1852), a period which stood in the same relation to him as the early Victorians do to us. While I got through Esmond, I never finished reading John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor (1961), a pastiche of an even earlier time, the late 17th century. Perhaps that era marks the limit since the attempt to reproduce even earlier linguistic styles will run up against problems of readability, at least for a general audience. In the end, though, the linguistic style of most (all?) historical novelists is bound to reflect the age – not the age they are writing about, but the age they are writing in. A historical fiction written in the early 21st century, pastiche or otherwise, cannot avoid echoing contemporary concerns and reflecting the pattern of the writer’s own times.

About the contributor: PHILIP GOODEN writes nonfiction and fiction. Among his books on language are The Story of English, Idiomantics, and the award-winning Faux Pas. He blogs occasionally on language at The author of the Nick Revill mysteries, set in Shakespeare’s London, and a Victorian series (most recently The Ely Testament), he is also a member of the writing collective, the Medieval Murderers.


Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 63, February 2013

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