By My Halidome! The Use and Overuse of Period Language in Historical Novels

Gentle reader, prithee tarry thou a moment in mine company, for by my troth, a tale I would fain unfold for thee. List and learn…

And there you have it: gadzookery, the intemperate and/or unskillful use of archaic language. If you’re a reader of historical fiction, you’re no doubt familiar with the phenomenon. And if, like me, Octavian Nothingyou’re a writer of historical fiction, you know how tricky it is to give your work a period flavor without over-egging the pudding.

Some authors go all-out in reproducing the language of their period. One of them is M.T. Anderson, who has self-deprecatingly described his Octavian Nothing novels as having been written in “a kind of unintelligible 18th-century Johnsonian Augustan prose.” Unintelligible? Not really. Although admittedly the prose is challenging, it’s also consistent and convincing, and so smoothly rendered that it enhances the reading experience rather than getting in the way. Other authors, such as Hilary Mantel, use a more or less straightforward modern idiom – “more or less” because despite Mantel’s scrupulous avoidance of gadzookery, the diction in her brilliant Thomas Cromwell books leaves no doubt that they are set in a long-ago era. Mantel was the inaugural recipient of the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, an appropriate honor insofar as she is a master of the genre, which by all accounts was the invention of Sir Walter Scott, but also an ironic one in that Scott’s writing style, in both his poems and his novels, is the polar opposite of Mantel’s.

"How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water", illustration for Le Morte Darthur, J. M. Dent & Co., London (1893-1894), by Aubrey Beardsley. (wiki)

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water,” Aubrey Beardsley illustration (1894) for Malory’s 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur.

Scott fabricated a kind of medieval-speak to put in the mouths of his dauntless knights and fair ladies, one part oaths and exclamations (“Saints of Heaven!” “Forsooth!” “By my halidome!”), one part archaic words (haply, withal), and one part antiquated grammar and diction (thee/thou, doth/hast, “that will I do blithely”). His sources for this idiom – and more generally, for his conception of medieval chivalry—included the medieval French historians Froissart and Joinville, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, medieval French Arthurian romances, and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Thomas Malory.

Scott’s perspective on the days of yore was immensely popular with many Victorian readers, but not with all of them. It most certainly did not sit well with Mark Twain, who wrote in Life on the Mississippi that “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the [American Civil] war.” Contrasting Don Quixote with Ivanhoe, Twain went on to say that “the first swept the world’s admiration for the medieval chivalry-silliness out of existence; and the other restored it.”

Don Quixote driven mad by reading books of chivalry. Engraving by Gustave Doré (1868)

Don Quixote driven mad by reading books of chivalry. Engraving by Gustave Doré (1860s).

Twain took aim at Scott again in his satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The book’s narrator Hank Morgan, a “practical Connecticut man” from Twain’s own time, is transported back to Arthurian England to encounter its ignorant, superstitious, unwashed inhabitants. These sixth-century characters speak a lingo that out-forsooths Scott’s and contrasts pointedly with Morgan’s own voice,  in much the same way that Don Quixote’s over-elaborate, antiquated Old Castilian is at variance with Sancho Panza’s candid colloquial speech. In one episode of Twain’s book a knight-errant wearing a tabard advertising soap (one of narrator Morgan’s modernizing schemes) complains that the ad campaign has been a complete failure. After the knight has “made his moan” and “sorrowed passing sore,” Morgan suggests adding “Patronized by the elect” to the wording on the tabard. “Verily,” says the knight, “it is wonderly bethought!” “Well,” rejoins Morgan, “a body is bound to admit that for just a modest little one-line ad., it’s a corker.”

Twain’s abrupt transitions back and forth between faux medievalisms and nineteenth-century colloquial language are of course meant to be funny, but they also ensure that the reader won’t get too comfortably embedded in the Arthurian setting of the novel. Twain was capable of sustaining a believable period idiom when he chose to, though. The dialogue in The Prince and the Pauper, which is set in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, is a pitch-perfect evocation of the Early Modern English of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In this novel Twain uses period language and historical detail to create a plausible setting in which to set the historically documented barbarities of Tudor England against the Romantics’ sentimentalizing view of the past.

Poster for Alexander Korda's 1934 film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel

Poster for Alexander Korda’s 1934 film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel

Perhaps the most entertaining of all gadzookery-speakers is Sir Percy Blakeney in  The Scarlet Pimpernel. In order to hide his secret identity as a resourceful rescuer of French aristocrats during the Reign of Terror, Blakeney pretends to be a vapid, effete fop, using an over-the-top manner of speech as an essential part of the charade. Blakeney peppers his conversations with such expressions as “Zooks!” “Zounds!” and “Odd’s fish!” (My personal favorite, “Sink me!,” appears in the 1934 Leslie Howard movie but is not in the book.) Not only is his dialogue the finest thing author Emma Orczy ever wrote; it’s her only achievement in what is otherwise a mind-numbingly awful body of work. Some of the diction and several of the most entertaining expletives appear to have come from Sheridan’s The Rivals, which was written in the same period as the setting of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Others are a century or so older. “Odd’s fish,” for example, was reputedly Charles II’s favorite oath. Orczy uses this language so exuberantly that to my mind, she stands innocent of the charge of gadzookery. In the case of Sir Percy, excess is the whole point.

A Connecticut Yankee includes fantastical elements that clearly identify its world as a product of the author’s imagination. But all books set in the past, no matter how meticulously researched and rendered, are works of the imagination, and their language, no matter how authentic-seeming, is an invented idiom. In the end, the point is not how authentic the language is, but whether it serves the author’s purpose, and whether the author is able to keep it under control. The rest is mere bloviation.

Sidewalk plaque, Library Walk, New York City

Sidewalk plaque, Library Walk, New York City

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a preference for the type of language used in historical novels? If so, what type do you favor?



7 thoughts on “By My Halidome! The Use and Overuse of Period Language in Historical Novels

  1. This is not an answer to your question, but I must praise the use of language Amitav Ghosh uses in his Ibis Trilogy, set in the years before and during the Opium Wars between England and China, in particular the first novel The Sea of Poppies. The Ibis, sailing to the Mauritius Islands, is populated by a wild mixture of sailors (lascars), officers, passengers, and prisoners coming from a dozen different cultures and speaking a medley of languages. At first, it’s quite a challenge to read, but after a while, you either figure out what a word means from context, run to the dictionary (godown), or skip over it and keep moving in this rolling tide of plot. The language is not intemperate or unskillful. It contributes immensely to the sense of being there and makes this series one of the richest I have ever read.

  2. I heartily agree with this essay. In my historical novel, about Emilia Lanyer, I use touches of period language, but keep the dialogue moving.

  3. I have no preferences here. If it works, it works. (As you say of Orczy, exuberance counts.) I find myself bothered more in periods where I am not familiar with primary sources, or where the actual language would have been ME or OE: unconscious niggling questions of “how would they REALLY have said that” can be distracting. In periods I am more familiar with, I can dismiss things that are plain wrong and just go on, and I am always amused to spot direct quotations from, say, Jane Austen’s letters or Byron’s journals.

  4. Well written and interesting entry Kate. I also agree. I enjoy dialect and colloquialisms in novels, whether historical or current. The language does need to be tempered and well integrated so that it does not distract from the flow. When reading for pleasure I do not want to slow my reading or backtrack to understand obscure vocabulary.

  5. Gadzooks! This was an exhilarating read. I’ve recently read a fabulous new middle grade novel set in medieval Norway that was a thing of beauty. Brilliantly balanced language Title: Dogsled.

  6. Another favorite is the Newbery medal winner, The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman, set in medieval England. The first paragraph is so beautiful I once memorized it.

  7. Kate, I don’t know what I enjoyed more… your delightful article, or learning the word “bloviation”! This is such a fun word, and I have vowed to use it at least once in the upcoming week, though given today’s political arena, I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Very interesting article (as always)!

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