Historical fiction dilemma #2: Voice

How did pirates sound?
Nobody knows. But we can be pretty sure they didn’t all swagger around snarling, “Ahoy, me hearties! Walk the plank, you scabby sea-dog!”
Pirate crews were quite cosmopolitan, especially in the Mediterranean, where men (and they were almost entirely men, with a few notable exceptions) from ports right around the Middle Sea and beyond could find themselves lumped together on the same ship for years.
How did their families sound? We do know something of the pronunciation of some classes of people in Britain, at least, because until Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary set down standards of spelling, people often wrote words as they sounded. (There’s a fascinating glimpse of this in Liza Picard’s wonderful Restoration London.) But even those records, in letters and journals, only tell us how the literate classes sounded.
We have to imagine it. Historical novelists always have.
So here’s the thing: If you’re writing historical fiction, especially in the first person, should you aim to replicate the imagined voices of the time in which your story is set?
In an article in Solander, Belinda Copson posed the question more broadly: “Should characters think and behave in a manner authentic to the period, or are we happy for them to be modern teenagers in period costume?”
And if you try to create an “authentic” voice, would anybody read such a thing?
It can work – sometimes. Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is an example. But we’ve all seen it backfire badly into incomprehensible or laughable gibberish. You have to be very good to pull it off. Few of us are.
It’s an issue if you’re writing for younger readers, who won’t skip over boring bits but either give up altogether, or plod on under sufferance – particularly readers aged 9 to 12, such a vulnerable time in anybody’s reading career. A few impenetrable books and you’ll be turned off reading for life.
I remember having to force myself to plough through Kidnapped at that age, since I had no idea how a real Scots accent was supposed to sound, and couldn’t understand what anyone was saying for the first half of the book. It was the same with the broad Yorkshire voices in The Secret Garden – and yet Stevenson and Hodgson Burnett are amongst the best of their era. Kidnapped’s thrilling plot, and The Secret Garden’s gloomy atmosphere and brilliant characters, carried me through.
On the other hand, anachronism drives me insane. I’m one of those people who shouts out loud in the cinema if anyone in a period film set before about 1850 says, “OK”. Keira Knightley’s apparently 17th century character uttered it in Pirates of the Caribbean. I nearly had apoplexy.
I understand that it can happen unconsciously to one writer, and perhaps slip by an editor (it will happen to me one day, and you can quote this back to me), but not when there’s a team of writers, directors, actors and a million other people on a project. Did nobody wonder: “Gee, that sounds a bit modern”?
Even worse are the supposedly groovy updated versions of old stories (Hamlet in a leather jacket, that kind of thing). I’ve only seen it work a few times on stage: Julius Caesar set in a corporate boardroom, with the august Robyn Nevin as a female Mark Antony; or in opera, such as Don Giovanni set in 1930s Tangier. Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary succeed as reworkings of Jane Austen because they are utterly different in everything but plot. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Valley girl portrayal of Emma did not, because her body language was completely 20th century, even if her frock was Empire line.
So I’ve gone for the immediacy of a transparent (I hope) modern narrator’s voice, without any (I hope even more fervently) glaring anachronisms. Somewhere between Copson’s two extremes, but verging towards the modern.
Older characters may have a few little mannerisms (I have to admit that in my head they mostly sound like my great aunts and uncles), and people from other countries who are speaking English have a certain cadence that I hope has been conveyed.
It’s the solution mastered by Geoffrey Trease in the 1930s with Bows Against the Barons and the Carey series, and it’s certainly the style that most appealed to me as a young reader. I’ve been re-reading him lately and it’s reinforced my belief that young people ought not have to struggle to read historical fiction.
It should create a sense of wonder and engagement. Anything that takes attention away from that is affecting the reading process – and the reader’s enjoyment.

Historical fiction dilemma #1: Ethics

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