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From Phyllida's Desk

To Anachronism in Heaven

For my last blog meditation of the year, I want to revisit a favorite topic: the use of language in fiction, especially historical fiction. Yes, I've written about this a lot, but the issue keeps sitting up and jumping off the slab each time I think my last autopsy has established a cause of death.

(To pun-haters: I apologize for the title of this post. It was all I could think of when searching for a title. "To Anacreon in Heaven" is the first line of the poem originally sung to the music used for our national anthem.)

As some of you know, I've been reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell. I wanted WH for my book club's year-end "long read" because it was praised by so many critics for the same reason: Mantel's (re)creation of an authentic-feeling past world without using the "forsoothly" faux-historical language supposedly used in other historical novels. That is, the book's language successfully walks that finest of lines between anachronism and Renaissance Faire. (I'm not convinced that many or any recent historical novels use this "forsoothly" language any more than most romance novels are "bodice-rippers," but this is what the critics said.)

Having worked my way through about a third of this 600-page, glacially-paced novel, I'm still unsure if I agree. Yes, the language feels "natural" and the style flows in a more-or-less modern prose rhythm. But Mantel's much-remarked-on use of "he" in the strange mix of first-person point of view narrated in the third person, so that it's not always clear who "he" is at any given moment, puts a layer of distance between writer and readers and means that we can never just relax and experience the story.

I'm reminded of Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, a mammoth historical trilogy set in 14th-century Norway, which won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature. Here's a snippet from the Wikipedia entry:

"Kristin Lavransdatter was originally translated into English by Charles Archer and J.S. Scott in the 1920s. The choice of archaic and stilted English phrasing ("thee", "I trow", "methinks" etc.), intended to reflect the 14th-century setting of the novel is considered by critics today to cloud Undset's clear prose, rendering it unnecessarily formal and clumsy. In some instances, Archer's choices are deliberate reflections on the original language (for example 'I trow' adopted from the Norwegian 'tror' meaning "to believe"). With this in mind, some may find the translation genuine, rather than needlessly archaic."

I read the entire trilogy, in the "stilted archaic" translation, when I was fifteen. For this most unsophisticated of readers, the language worked beautifully, and I was at the perfect age to be captivated by what started out as a story of a forbidden romance. Every "I trow" and "methinks" and reference to "fleshmeat" on the trestle table was another fine brushstroke in a picture of a devoutly Christian Norway still influenced by its Viking, pagan past, a world in which marriages arranged between families were the only sensible approach to life, and a sixteen-year-old middle-class girl was destined for disillusion at best in her illicit passion for a tall, dark and sexy aristocratic philandering swordsman. Sigh. I'm still a little in love with antihero Erlend Nikulaussøn, and in awe of Undset's talent in delineating the unhappy reality that followed a romance-novel beginning.

But the whole debate leads back to the same problem: how do writers find the right language to tell stories set in an earlier time, and make that past both accessible and believable to readers who may be unfamiliar with any language besides casual modern speech?

Here's another example from a very different kind of historical fiction: the cable-TV show Mad Men, set in the 1960s. I've been watching Netflix DVDs that come with commentary, much of it by Matt Weiner, the show's creator, who seems to think "me" is one of the seven words you can't say on television. Every time this amazingly gifted and talented writer/creator/director/producer emits a variation of "between he and I" I want to run out of the room screaming. I've always felt that good storytelling requires a mastery of language, but listening to Weiner has forced me to reconsider the relationship, if any, between a person's instinctive knowledge of English grammar and his or her ability to tell a great story.

I've wondered if this kind of mistake, which seems to smack us in the face every time we turn around these days, is less about "language skills" or their loss, and more an indicator of the way English, like all living languages, is changing, in this case moving away from highly inflected Anglo-Saxon, much like Latin, in which the words of a sentence can be rearranged in any permutation and the meaning remains the same, toward the other extreme, in which word order alone determines meaning.

Anyone who reads Shakespeare or Chaucer encounters "English" that has changed so much over the years that it’s like a foreign language. Most of us require a translation in order to get the meaning, and only then can we go back and appreciate the writing itself for its beauty and craftsmanship. Even in two hundred years the changes are substantial, less to do with the meaning of individual words than with prose style. After a staged reading of "Lady Susan," Jane Austen's unpublished novella-in-letters, the actors talked about how hard they had to work, even when reading from a printed script. Austen's 18th-century perorations are too lengthy, complex and intricate to come naturally to modern speakers, even professional actors who have performed Shakespeare.

Part of the reason we seem to care so much about the language of historical fiction is that it's one of the few ways we can get a sense of what life was like in the past. Clothing and customs can help, but in a novel, where a good writer rarely squanders her powers (or readers' patience) on descriptions of material culture, language--the way characters speak and narrator narrates--is the clearest window into the minds and outlook of that foreign country, the past.

Many of us who studied Latin in high school wondered if ordinary people actually followed all those complicated rules of speech, if they knew and used all those declensions and conjugations. One theory holds that of course they didn't, that people don't talk like that, and that the variations in the casual speech of the countries of the former Roman Empire eventually produced the Romance languages. But another more recent theory has it that of course they did. As scholars have studied many languages on the edge of extinction, they've seen that people can speak, fluently and comfortably, languages of extraordinary complexity. In the past, when the pace of life could be slower, and when the amount of daily "information" was a tiny fraction of today's constant deluge, why shouldn’t people have conversed in ways that seem cumbersome to our OMG WtF texting world? There's no way to know for sure; the surviving letters and documents may bear no more relation to the spoken language than our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds do to our best works of fiction.

A simple style of writing, very much of the moment, can feel as anachronistic when applied to a different time as "forsoothly" language loaded with "thee"s and "thou"s can feel false or contrived. Human nature may not change much over time, yet we can't help feeling that people spoke differently in the past, just as their lives were different in so many other ways. My guess is that, consciously or not, as Hilary Mantel worked out how to tell a story set five hundred years ago in a natural voice for modern readers, she rejected the derided "forsoothly" in favor of another kind of distancing mechanism, that mysterious comprehensive narrative "he."

My two Regency novels, set in 1812, required careful navigation between modern readers' sensibilities and the language of the books' time. I wanted to write fast-paced, humorous page-turners while also creating a suitable Regency mood, and I was delighted when some readers and critics praised my efforts. But with practice it's begun to feel less like an act of artistic imagination and more like a puzzle, an acrostic or a game of Scrabble, fun if you like that sort of thing (and I do), but not writing. So often the question of a word's acceptability hinges on its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, as if what appeared in print at a time when paper was prohibitively expensive and reading a pastime of the educated few has anything to do with the way people spoke.

Of course references to cell phones and automobiles are out of place in a story set hundreds of year ago (unless it's a time-travel adventure), but that's a question of technology, not language. That famous mention of a clock "chiming" in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," set in a time long before such mechanisms were invented, reminds us that our knowledge of the past has increased enormously, along with our awareness of the differences. Anachronisms bother us more now because we have more information.

These days I'm more interested in refining a simple "modern" writing style. I'm still surveying that treacherous unmarked territory between affectation and illiteracy, hoping to tell a good story in what Austen famously called the "best-chosen language," but according to my standards, which allow any blasphemy or vulgarity as required by the situation. And if one of my characters says "between he and I," watch out--he's up to no good.

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