Sunday, August 21, 2011


I've been hearing a lot of voices lately, but that was the plan. Part of my PhD project is about the quest (or lack thereof) for authenticity in voices in historical fiction, and now I can't read anything without seeing through that lens. It's a bit like when you're going to get a new car or a new dog, and suddenly the world is filled with that model or that breed. Except this will last for years. And is, thankfully, rather more interesting than ten year-old station wagons.

So here are some initial thoughts on a few voices I've heard recently.

Bethia Mayfield is the narrator of Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing. Brooks can enable her readers to hear a voice from the past with sublime felicity: her March is a tricky and unsympathetic narrator whose weakness and selfishness are difficult to bear but a joy to read. Bethia, on the other hand, is the opposite. the character is engaging, but her voice - I am very sorry to say - is uneven. I heard Brooks speak about the book recently, and she mentioned that she makes great use of the Oxford Historical Thesaurus. It shows*. The reader is happily meandering around the island with Bethia when we all trip over a word, and then another, which seem to be perfectly accurate in a historical sense but somehow out of time - out of tune - with all of Bethia's/Brooks' other words.

It's a very very tricky business, maintaining a voice that is palatable to the modern ear but somehow historically accurate - what Sarah Waters describes as "right enough - for us". Brooks almost always gets it right. Just not this time. Not quite.

In Room, Emma Donoghue's narrator is five year-old Jack, who lives in a small room with his Ma and that's the only world he knows. Hard to imagine a more difficult task for a writer - a credible five year-old voice, but also one whose world is so confined he simply doesn't realise, at the start of the book, that the things he sees on the television are real - and yet convey the entire action of a book, including some genuinely thrilling action - in that voice and world view.

But Donoghue manages it, beautifully. There may be the odd word that seems out of place, one or two concepts that Jack couldn't possibly know but it doesn't matter; it doesn't throw you out of the story. Anyway, as Jack says, "I know all the words".

Finally, a TV series: Downton Abbey.

I love it. I do. But please: there is no way on earth that upstairs and downstairs ever collided and colluded so often and so intimately. After the Great War - perhaps. As people's lives were shattered by grief and missing, and as the men and women at the many Fronts discovered they could be friends or enemies across class and that death really didn't distinguish; then the social - if not economic - barriers in British society began to crumble. Or in a crisis, such as a corpse in your bedroom, yes, one might feel a trusted maid is the only place to turn.

Sybil: can't touch this

But it really does reek of narrative reshaping history for upstairs characters to confide in the servants, for maids to offer unsolicited personal advice, for there to be such informality and idle chatter in the house of an earl. An earl! Not a minor baronetcy, but one of the great titles in the kingdom. Perhaps I wouldn't mind the inaccuracy it it managed to be consistent, but it isn't. Some of the voices and relationships are consistent and some aren't. I don't mind the lovely daredevil Sybil being too egalitarian, but other characters on both sides waver in and out.

Yes, I am one of those people who shouts at the television or scoffs in the cinema at blatant rewriting of history. Don't get me started on Shekhar Kapur's versions of Elizabeth I, for example.

As if!

And if I huff "As if!" several times in one viewing, we are in trouble.

I'm afraid there have been many "As ifs" during the otherwise winning Downton Abbey, though it won't stop me watching it.

* [Later: that sounds more brutal than I meant it to. It's a terrific story.]