Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

On Language In Historical Novels

historical image
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book than the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century – and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed – this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:
- Persuasion by Jane Austen

Who would dare write an opening paragraph like that these days, even for a novel set in the early nineteenth century?

Look at the risks Austen has taken. Although we now know that her early editors radically changed her punctuation, which was heavily dependent on dashes, we must believe that she intended this paragraph to consist of one long sentence. If you read it quickly, to get on with the story, you will miss so much. Look at the wonderful way the word ‘there’ is placed in each new clause. Better still, read it aloud. You will hear how the sentence grows, swelling in rhetorical self-importance, until it culminates in the heading of the paragraph he has chosen. Soon we learn he has ‘improved’ the printed paragraph by inserting details of his daughter’s marriage and by ‘inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife’.

Sir Walter has been skewered, I’d say.

Now read a little further, with the prose taking on its own life as the very words Sir Walter might have used, except when it changes to reflect his daughter Elizabeth’s complacency: the omniscient narration has somehow become a viewpoint character’s. We learn that Elizabeth has been disappointed, if not in love, then at least in marriage to the heir presumptive: ‘the very William Walter Elliot, Esq, whose rights had been so generously supported by her father, had disappointed her.’

How dare he do that, when he had been ‘forced into the introduction’?

‘Sir Walter resented it.’

All that eloquent, balanced prose, sailing stately as a galleon, founders on the rocks of that one brutal sentence. Here is the first genuine emotion. And what a petty one it is; as petty as the measure Sir Walter takes to save money: ‘taking no present down to Anne, as had been the usual yearly custom’.

Much as I would like to advocate that every writer planning to set a novel in the period Jane Austen made peculiarly her own should construct his or her prose like this, I know it can’t be done. How many of us would carry our readers beyond the first page? This is prose to relish, not to plunge us into the plot and keep the reader turning the page; even I, who love Austen’s work and have made a study of it over the last half century and more, find it requires all my concentration to appreciate. But somehow, at the risk of writing a pastiche, we surely have to find some way of reflecting the pace of that era. Even if our sentences aren’t as beautifully balanced as hers, we mustn’t rush them. They should rise and fall, in tune with a reader’s voice. I love short, punchy sentences for my modern fiction (ungrammatical phrases and clauses, to be honest). I hope, however, I manage to eschew them when I write about past eras. After all, if most of my sentences are as formal and well-constructed as they probably ought to be, a short punchy one comes as a genuine shock. As you can see, after the comparative wordiness of Sir Walter’s ruminations, the four word sentence comes not as a slap in the face, for Sir Walter is far too genteel, but at least a sharp tap on the wrist.

Am I asking too much of a writer? I don’t think so. Andrew Taylor achieved wonderful sense of period in his prize-winning mystery An American Boy by writing pellucid and reflective prose that I am sure Jane Austen would have admired. Do as he did: read letters and diaries of the period, not just the novels. But ignore Jane Austen’s oeuvre at your peril!