“Suppose within every book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.” (Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel)
Why do authors write historical fiction in period dialect? I had never asked myself that question before reading Wolf Hall, thinking the answer to be self-evident. But now, after reading Mantel’s lucid, modern prose as applied to the mind of Thomas Cromwell in 1520’s, I can’t imagine enjoying period dialect with the same relish again. An attempt at it seems phony now, a denial of the essential nature of historical fiction: that it is written from a modern perspective, for modern readers.
Another side effect of period language is that it has the tendency to make historical characters seem daft or simple since their thoughts aren’t expressed with the same variety of language we use now (or that they could use then). Mantel overcame this problem by writing Cromwell’s character in stream-of-consciousness, laying out his thoughts and motivations as well as any piece of recent literature could. As a result, he comes of as a multi-dimensional, complicated character instead of being reduced to a simple thug by a constrained dialect. The more I think about why Mantel might have wanted to break the historical fiction language taboo, the more advantages I come up with: it is a wonder no one attempted it sooner.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 604 pgs
Ending: Not a cliffhanger, but definitely not tidy
Further Reading: Follow this up immediately with Mantel’s recently published Bring Up the Bodies, also the recipient of the Booker prize.