Sunday, December 1, 2013

How Not To Write Historical Fiction

I remember how piqued I was when a Publishers Weekly reviewer criticized my first novel, My Father Had a Daughter. She didn't like the book -- a fiction based on the life of Shakespeare's youngest child, Judith -- because it didn't end with the girl's death, like the sad fantasy about Shakespeare's sister spun by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own. Woolf's protagonist was also named Judith, and Woolf's Judith killed herself. The critic thought mine should have, too. Yet it wasn't this puzzling critique that sparked my ire. What got to me was this critic's disparagement of my novel's
dialogue. She said it didn't sound Elizabethan. She provided a sample of the words and phrases that had wounded her historically-attuned ear. These were:

post-play (that is, "post" used as part of a compound adjective)
scores (used to mean "achieves sexual conquest")
prick (to mean, you know, "prick")
What a piece of work! (said by one character to describe another's outrageousness)
snot (used to indicate snot)
Well (as in "Well. Let's go.")
Let's go (meaning just what it says)
Let me see (ditto)

Well. Let me see. This critic couldn't have chosen a better way to insult me. I'd been studying and teaching English Renaissance texts for, let us say, a fair amount of time when I decided to write fiction set during Shakespeare's time, and making the dialogue credible was my chief goal. Given the amount of time I'd spent reading books written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I figured I could do it pretty well. Of course I knew better than to try to recreate in modern fiction the exact same syntactical structures and diction found in early modern literature. For one thing, words we still use meant different things in 1595. "Owe" meant "own." "Silly" meant "innocent." The word "and" meant both "and" and "if," and "let" meant "stop." The list of such "false friends," as linguists call them, is nearly endless. So that's one thing. Another is that Elizabethan and Jacobean syntax was rather different from ours. The sentences were longer, clauses were ordered in ways unexpected by the modern reader, Latinate terms abounded, and even prose authors were obsessed with clever and, to our minds, obscurely poetic wordplay, so that four-hundred-year-old syntax, requiring as it doth an exceedingly close attention to the text in order that he or she reading may unite the latter part of a sentence to its former, not to mention a taxing effort on the part of a reader attempting to moor various floating pronouns to their original referents -- a task made harder by the author's frequent use of "his" to signify "its" -- might better be left to his, or its, original writers, now gladly dead.

See what I mean? There's no way you remembered how that sentence started by the time you got to the end of it. But that's how Sir Philip Sidney wrote. Not that I write as well as Sidney, the most brilliant poetic theorist of the sixteenth century, but, that's sort of how he wrote. And even though early modern English conversation was not as elaborate as most early modern English writing, it still presents problems for the modern reader. We can get a fair idea of the cadences and diction of a Renaissance English conversation from the "city comedies" of Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson, who prided himself on having his characters speak "language such as men do use." Here's a sample from Jonson's 1614 Bartholomew Fair:

Does't so, snotty nose? Good Lord! Are you sniveling? You were engender'd on a she-beggar, in a barn, when the bald thrasher, your sire, was scarce warm.

Pray thee, let's go.

No, faith; I'll stay the end of her, now: I know she cannot last long; I find by her similes she wanes apace.

Does she so? I'll set you gone. Gi' me my pig-pan hither a little. I'll scald you hence, and you will not go.

I could hardly refrain from laughing as I transcribed this portion of a Jacobean insult-contest, because I've seen it played on stage and it was so funny, I and everyone else in the audience were nearly falling out of our chairs in mirth. But without the assistance of brilliant speaking, gesturing actors who know what they're saying as they say it (one of whom is waving a frying pan), it's hard to figure out what's happening. Perhaps you noticed the familiar terms "snotty" and "let's go" among the stranger ones. (Take that, Publishers Weekly!) But what's a "bald-thrasher"? And not everyone knows that in 1610 "Pray thee" meant "please" and "apace" meant "quickly," or that "set" could mean "see that you are," or that "Give" was frequently abbreviated as "Gi'," or that, as I say above, "and" could mean "if."

I could go on, with  more excellent but confusing examples drawn from the works of other Renaissance city playwrights. But you get the idea. The good writer of historical fiction should carefully mine (as in mining for gold) the language of the writers of the chosen period, but not try to duplicate the speech forms exactly. The agent who shepherded my first novel to publication, the late, much-missed Carolyn French, coined the wise if skeptical phrase "Elizabethan lite" to describe what is looked for. You want the flavor of the time period, and you get it partly by accurately representing material details -- of dress, of food, of furniture, of transportation ("conveyance," to Shakespeare). But you get that flavor primarily by making your characters talk in a way readers can believe they talked.

Of course, all the words and phrases that disliked my Publishers Weekly critic (that's Elizabethan phrasing, doth it like ye?) can be found in the work of English Renaissance authors, all used in the ways my characters use them. The Duke in Othello tells his messenger to write to an ally "post-post-haste." All's Well that Ends Well's Parolles says of  the woman-chasing "play-a" Bertram, "After he scores, he never pays the score." As for "prick," if it didn't mean what we think it means, the end of Shakespeare's Sonnet 20 would make no sense. (I sense readers departing this blog to Google "Shakespeare Sonnet 20.") For "What a piece of work" -- oh, come on, PW! Hamlet says it. For "Well" as a conversational place-filler (one rapidly being replaced in our own time by "So"), consult Shylock in scene 3 of The Merchant of Venice. Jonson, as we see above, uses "snotty" and "let's go," and Mistress Page of The Merry Wives of Windsor is just one of many Renaissance characters who says "Let me see" when she means "I'm about to examine something closely." I knew these were Elizabethan terms when I included them in My Father Had a Daughter. But they sounded too modern to at least one reader looking for "historicity" in the dialogue.

Of course, because I'm a literary snob (or so my sister says), I think Publishers Weekly should have read more Elizabethan drama so as to find out how Elizabethans actually sounded. But perhaps the fault was mine, and I should have thrown out the old terms that sounded like newer ones. This is hard for me, because I read so much Renaissance prose I have trouble figuring out which ones those are. For example, when I hear someone say, "Well. Let me see," I think, "Hmm, why so Elizabethan?," while others are probably thinking, "Those phrases are appropriate and contemporary." This means, I guess, that historical authenticity doesn't always equal historical plausibility. And vice versa. Five-hundred-year-old English can sound strangely modern, and much (though not all!) contemporary English can be made to pass as old language. The truth is that good historical novelists use mostly modern prose that's well-doctored to seem antique. Though by "doctored," I don't mean spiced with old words. I mean doctored at a deeper level, as you will see.

At the top of my list of excellent historical fictionalists comes Patrick O'Brian, the author of sea adventure stories like Master and Commander. O'Brian not only gets his early-eighteenth-century nautical stuff right (as far as I can tell), but makes his characters converse in ways that sound like they lived back then. Here's an example.

"My name is Aubrey, sir: I am staying at the Crown."

"Mine, sir, is Maturin. I am to be found any morning at Joselito's coffee house. May I beg you to stand aside?"

For a moment Jack felt the strongest inclination to snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man with it, but he gave way with a tolerable show of civility -- he had no choice, unless he was to be run into.

Here are the formal courtesies of the Regency gentleman, the chilly "sir"s, the rejoinder's attentive responsiveness to the prior statement's form ("My name is . . . ." "Mine, sir, is . . . ."). Here as well, a recognizable location is mentioned, for coffee-houses were still much frequented by early-nineteenth-century Englishmen. But what I particularly admire is how O'Brian maintains the period idiom in his narration outside the dialogue, even though he's telling the story in the third person. He says "to be run into" instead of "to get shoved," and "tolerable show of civility" instead of something like "acceptable degree of politeness." He's good with verbal detail, which, in history fiction, is the most important kind.

Also good is Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two in an I-can't-wait-for-the-third-book trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, chancellor at the court of Henry VIII. It pains me to admit how good Mantel actually is, because I'm jealous of her literary success, and because I agree with reviewers who have noted that her characters' early-sixteenth-century English isn't really early-sixteenth-century English. In fact, it isn't even early-seventeenth-century English. Examples have I six. Instead of "Would you had been here this morning" (Renaissance style), one of Mantel's speakers says, "I wish you had been here this morning." Instead of "all in the courtyard," a character says "everybody in the courtyard." Instead of "the king was wroth," or something similar, another character offers this completely modern piece of slang: "the king was beside himself." Another says, "I'm surprised you don't have a note," even though "surprised" during the English Renaissance meant someone had jumped out at you from behind a door. "How's business?" Thomas Cromwell asks his wife. "Listen to you!," another character mocks. This kind of thing drives nit-picking pedants like me crazy. But. Overt modernisms like the last two are rare in Mantel's two huge novels, wherein older phrasings predominate, and wherein the subjects of conversation and the attitudes of speakers -- including their general adherence to the social decorums of a given situation -- are probable and realistic for the time period. An  example is this snatch of dialogue from Bring Up the Bodies, which recounts a conversation between two powerful players at the court of Henry VIII, Bishop Gardiner and Thomas Cromwell.

"Henry is not a tyrant," Gardiner says stiffly. "I rebut any notion that his regime is not lawfully grounded. If I were king, I would want my authority to be legitimate wholly, to be respected universally and, if questioned, stoutly defended. Would not you?"

"If I were king . . ."

He was going to say, if I were king I'd defenestrate you. Gardiner says, "Why are you looking out the window?"

Okay, the period usage was "Were I [king]," not "If I were [king]." Still, the passage is marked by appropriate Tudor formality and linguistic artfulness. It puts adverbs after verbs ("legitimate wholly"); it uses not too many or the wrong contractions, which is not as small a matter as it may seem. (Sixteenth-century Englishmen said "I'd." They didn't say "wouldn't.") Perhaps most importantly, the dialogue evokes the Tudor politician's concern to justify his ambitious purposes by invoking both divine and secular law. And, as boring as that all sounded, the passage isn't boring. It's funny and lively. We can picture two highly placed Renaissance courtiers saying it, or something like it.

This is generally the case in Mantel. Her characters do not, like Matthew McConaughey ("Matthew McCona-hot" to my niece), erupt in glee by punching the air and yelling "Yes!" when a hoped-for verdict is rendered in an 1841 American courtroom (see the film Amistad). They do not speak like modern teenagers whose dialogue is inexplicably sprinkled with the words "Belike" and "'Tis." Parents in Mantel's books do not, as a rule, tell their children to "Wipe that surly look off your face." (That line comes from a different book about Henry VIII, whose popular author shall remain nameless.) Nor do they cutely and metafictionally betray awareness of their future audiences, like Elinor of Aquitaine in James Goldman's horrible The Lion in Winter, who snaps, "We all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians!" ("Men of the middle ages, let us march forward into the Renaissance!," says a soldier in another old film, whose title is best forgotten.)

No. Mantel knows how Henrician Englishwomen and Englishmen spoke, and knows that matching their verbal patterns more closely than "close enough" wouldn't make good reading even for a historically literate twenty-first century audience. She knows what her characters talked about, and she knows how to invest their dialogue with just enough historical strangeness to draw us in and make us feel the world she's created is something other than our own world with a few swords and farthingales thrown in.

It goes without saying (or maybe doesn't, since I'm saying it) that authors writing in English but setting their stories in (say) Ancient Greece or Rome, Han Dynasty China, or England before about 1500 are granted by readers a greater amount of idiomatic leeway. (I've read a couple of brilliant student-authored tales in faux Middle English, written in response to an assignment, but that kind of writing calls for unusual discipline on the part of the reader, not to mention the author.) The fact is, when a writer must translate his characters' imaginary dialogue into a language they didn't speak, older modern-language forms don't always fit the fantasy. What would we think of a Cleopatra who said, instead of, "Faster, horse! Don't you know who's on your back?," this: "Do bravely, horse, for wot'st thou whom thou movest?" That was okay for Shakespeare. It was only faintly archaic for his audience in 1608. It's way weird for us.

Even so, we should know that our "license to translate" old foreign language is qualified. Fiction is more believable when some feeling of cultural difference is generated by the dialogue. This -- I think -- is why American performers staging Les Miserables speak in fake English accents, even though the characters they're portraying are French. Maybe. Actually, I have no idea why they do this. But I do know that Americans who speak Shakespeare in fake English accents are overdoing it, unless they can really do such an accent. Not to open the whole can of worms about  what Elizabethan accents actually were, I'll just say that Shakespeare's language is already strange enough.

And that's the key. Make the language "strange enough." Hilary Mantel achieves this. It helps that she, like Patrick O'Brian, can write way better than most people can. Her very prose creates an alternate world, as that of all good writers does. Shakespeare's own fine, precise writing is in fact what allowed him successfully to create worlds which seemed, to his audiences, medieval, even though their characters expressed themselves in early modern English. Yes, the folks in Henry IV and King Lear call each other churls and recreants (Shakespeare's sop to medieval diction), but in general, they speak in patterns their first audiences recognized from their own conversation. Shakespeare had a really good excuse for this. Had King Lear been real, he would have spoken Anglo-Saxon, and the aristocrats at the court of King John, and perhaps even Richard II's, would have chattered in French. Humorously, Shakespeare implicitly defends his modern dialogue towards the end of Richard II when his Duchess of York tells  King Henry IV to "speak . . . as 'tis current in our land," since French is something "we do not understand." But Shakespeare's best excuse is not the literal foreignness, to him and his audience, of elite medieval language, but his skill in his own (early-) modern tongue. He can fit what's said or thought to its speaker or thinker, and fit one word to the next. (An example? "Eternity was in our lips and eyes," Cleopatra tells Antony.) Shakespeare wrote his own English well enough to create new-old fictional worlds in which audiences could believe. "A world of enchanting fictional surfaces" is what NYRB critic John Bayley calls the world of Mantel's Cromwell trilogy. That kind of world is Shakespearean.

So, to those who are reading this blog looking for tips on writing historical fiction, here's what I recommend.

1. Read only excellent writing. It rubs off. Don't read crap, because that does, too. (I'm struggling not to name names. I will withhold them and be courteous, like Ben Jonson pretended he was.)

2. Immerse yourself in the writings of those who lived in your chosen historical period. This will help you avoid making (say) Renaissance characters sound like they stepped out of a Victorian novel.

3. Use no idiomatic expressions at all rather than modern ones.

4. Avoid silly metafiction or metahistory like that described above ("It's 1183 and we're barbarians!"). Both are annoying. I know Thomas Pynchon just got nominated for a National Book Award, but -- excellent writer though he is -- he's guilty of this. (Oops, I named a name.)

5. If you're trying to write sixteenth- or seventeenth-century dialogue and Word isn't giving you a fair number of red "ungrammatical" or "misspelling" warning marks, you're doing something wrong. Word doesn't understand Elizabethan oaths, but if your Elizabethans aren't swearing, they're not talking.

6. Buy yourself the Oxford English Dictionary for Christmas. If you don't celebrate  Christmas, buy it anyway.

On the other hand, if you're as funny as Key and Peele, you can let it all go to hell and opt for sheer comedy in your mixed-up historical dialogue, as those two do here: And whatever you do or whatever you read, have a merry . . . thing that you have. If you have a thing. To celebrate.

That's it til next year.

1 comment:

  1. If I had more time, I would reply at length. But the bawdy hand of the dial is on the prick of 2AM.