Every day that I sit down to write a historical novel set in Anglo-Saxon times, I’m acutely aware of being a fraud. After all, I cannot reproduce speech patterns of the epoch and if I were that clever, very few readers would understand the Old English language. My novels also have more than their fairsprinkling of Vikings, so I’d have to write in Old Norse, too.
What is the historical novelist supposed to do? What can he draw upon? Any half-decent one will aim for Authenticity, but if I write in modern English, I’m not technically accurate. On the other hand, I need to engage my readers in a meaningful way. You see, authenticity cannot be created. The best I can manage is to create a mirage by detailed references to objects of daily life or customs of the time. I have to try not to spoil the effect. Have you ridden backwards in the Jorvik Museum in York? They provide you with artificial smells and sounds that take you back in time, but it’s a mirage that you gladly accept. You don’t have to understand the Viking shouts, but you do have to fight off the thought that it’s a sunny day in twenty-first century Coppergate, outside the museum.
Current historical novelists are lucky to have notable forerunners like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease—these stalwarts of the genre have created the expectation of a voice of historical fiction that is not genuinely authentic but that will be familiar to us from the tradition.
That is why I must eschew terms like gadzooks, mayhap, forsooth and so on (in any case, not appropriate to Anglo-Saxon times) but I will sprinkle in the occasional hence, thence and whence for a bit of flavouring.
In the preface to Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1820: ‘I neither can, nor do pretend, to the observation of complete accuracy, even in matters of outward costume, much less in the more important points of language and manners ... It is necessary, for exciting interest of any kind, that the subject assumed should be, as it were, translated into the manners as well as the language of the age we live in.
Yes, but there was less angst in 1820 (I think). Today, we have to contend also with a ‘woke’ interpretation of history. But I cannot accept this world view transposed to the eighth century any more than I can write in Old English. I have to site my characters in a pre-Freudian, pre-Darwinian, pre-feminist, and perhaps pre-nationalist context. I apologise but oarsmen weren’t oarspersons and, as far as I know, they weren’t female, but great, hairy Viking men. I can be sensitive, I suppose and write rowers, but oarsmen seems somehow more in keeping with my tale.
A special lady writer, Hilary Mantel did not write about Cromwell using Tudor English—if she had, I guarantee she wouldn’t have written a bestseller—but in her use of language she sensitively refers to a suggestion of otherness. In my small way, that is what I try to do in my novels. The best I (and others) can achieve is to impersonate people from an imagined past, not a historical past.