Further to the comment about dialogue in historical fiction in my previous post. Whilst compiling review links for the next issue of The Historical Novel Society Online Newsletter*, I came across a review in Saturday’s Times of three new historical whodunnits, The Elixir of Death by Bernard Knight, Aztec: City of Spies by Simon Levack and Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake. The reviewer, Peter Millar, comments thusly about what works and what doesn’t in the tricky matter of dialogue in historical novels:
Hilariously [Bernard Knight] says that he is not writing in “olde worlde” language, when that is exactly what he does: everybody sounds as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure story: as if Biggles and Algy had had a trip in the Tardis.
Simon Levack makes no apologies for having his Aztecs speak in thoroughly modern English, but he also comes a cropper. On the face of it Aztec: City of Spies, his attempt to bring to life the little-known world of pre-conquest Central America, is brave and original. Yaotl is not so much a sleuth as an intelligent slave who ends up in hot water that only solving mysteries can get him out of.
Levack’s world is illustrated with a teasing map revealing a lakeland landscape of rival kingdoms, all of which today lie buried under the sprawl of Mexico City. His translation of descriptive Aztec names feels a bit odd at first but is easily excused when you come across originals such as Xayacaxolochatl.
On the other hand lines such as “Oh well, that’s just great . . . smartarse here suddenly decides it’s all bollocks”, make it all seem more Essex than Aztec.
In Peter Millar’s opinion (and probably mine if ever read the book, as we seem to be of one mind), it’s only in Nefertiti that the dialogue works, using “a spare style and subtly avoiding too much anachronistic speech.”
As the examples show, anachronism can work (or rather not work) both ways: it can be too modern or too archaic or, gotesquely, both.
These tin-eared approaches can really ruin a novel for me, no matter how good it is in other respects. Of course, we’re talking here of novels set in pre-English-speaking times, or where an unrecognizable version of English is spoken. But I’m sure there’s just as much of an art to balancing a flavour of, say, Tudor or Stuart English with intelligibility to the modern historical fiction reader who isn’t a scholar of the period.
I’d love to know if historical novelists find it difficult to pitch their dialogue just right. Does it come naturally, or doesn’t it really matter?
*The Newsletter is free and you don’t have to be an HNS member to subscribe. There’s a quick link to your right, should you wish to avail yourself of it.