Friday, 19 November 2010

Words out of time

Browsing through the letters page of next week’s Radio Times I see that some correspondents are objecting to the anachronistic language in the recent series of the period drama Downton Abbey. Examples quoted include ‘allergy’, ‘hung parliament’ and colloquial expressions such as ‘Papa will hit the roof’, ‘The suspense is killing me’ and ‘just so I know’.

I guess these are accidental, unlike the deliberately modern style affected by youth-oriented period stuff like Robin Hood and Merlin. Should we get worked about it? I ask, having spent over two years on the ms of Mr Stephenson’s Regret, my novel about the Northumbrian railway pioneers. Leaving the research aside, I took longer on the actual writing process than I have ever done on previous work, not least because of my constant etymological checking; I wanted to avoid being faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian, but at the same time I challenged myself to use only vocabulary that would have been available at the time.

There is, of course, no sense in being a stickler for linguistic accuracy if by doing so you put your narrative in a strait-jacket or make your dialogue seem stilted even allowing for the restrained conventions of the time. Perhaps the risk is greater in these days when the classics are generally accessed through the modernising medium of television rather than through the words of the original novelists. The nineteenth century seems and perhaps sounds a long way away for many of today’s audience. For the contemporary author writing in a historical context, there is a delicate balance to be found between past and present, and it’s hard not to fall between the cracks.

I have reproduced the first few pages of my draft Stephenson novel below (just push the Show/hide button to reveal it). I would welcome any feedback on the sample.

Extract from Mr Stephenson's Regret

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