March 6, 2012

Unhand me, thou churlish varlet!


As a fiction writer I sometimes find it refreshing to remind myself of the artificiality of what I do, to remind myself that I have as much in common with the conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat as with the farmer digging a potato out of the ground. (http://www.wussu.com/poems/shdigg.htm). ; I thought of this the other day when my friend and fellow writer Marthe Jocelyn (www.marthejocelyn.com) alerted me to a piece by David Mitchell (Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) on historical fiction.  In this piece he tackles the question of language in books set in the past.  This is a sticky issue, particularly in writing for the young.  On the one hand, we fear falling into anachronism.  On the other hand, we risk being obscure.  I’ve heard various theories on this challenge:  “Just write very plainly and clearly.” “Give a sense, through the cadence, of another time.”  Such theories are often expressed in hushed and respectful tones.  Have they been useful to me?  Not so much.  Mitchell cuts through it all.  He shows how an actual replication of the language of mid-eighteenth century Scotland, for example, “Eat on the nonce, My Boy, lest no later opportunity presents itself,” would be unreadable over the long run of a novel, and would seem phony.  (Or, as he puts it, “It smacks of Blackadder.”)  However, a phrase that sticks out as too modern (“not so much”) kicks the reader out of the narrative.  His solution?  Make it up!  He even has a name for this literary conjuring trick.  Bygone-ese.  It is inaccurate but plausible.  “Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a new pine dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.”  Phew.  It’s a magic trick and like all feats of conjuring it takes skill, practice, dexterity, confidence and charm, but at least we can admit what we’re doing.  




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3 responses to “Untitled

  1. maryquattlebaum

    Sarah, many thanks for sharing news of Bygone-ese … a toothsome language if there ever was one, lass. And it’s so much fun to see/hear kids revel in such language and toss around Shakespearian insults. There’s so much verve and energy to a phrase like “churlish varlet”!

    I be hoping yer writing pen be sailing smoothly over a calm sea of paper. 🙂

  2. ledas

    IGreat post, Sarah. I am completely in love with David Mitchell’s books, by the way. Here’s a corrected link to that article.

  3. Sarah Ellis

    Thanks Leda.  I’ll pop into the post later and correct the link and the typo’s.  (I think it is Freudian.  My true heart is not in blogging.) cheerio, Sarah

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