Having finished The Lion and the Throne (see this post), I thought I’d follow up with Mary Lee Settle‘s novel I, Roger Williams, simply because it was also set in the seventeenth century (and had come highly recommended). Imagine my surprise when it turned out Williams had as a youth been an assistant to Coke, the subject of the previous book! I do love serendipity. At any rate, I haven’t gotten very far, but I’ve already noticed a distressing feature. Back in this 2006 post about Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen, I complained it was “written in standard Historical Novelese, with solemn avoidance of contractions and use of musty words and turns of phrase.” This isn’t as bad, but it exhibits the same phenomenon, a quaint, even-flowing prose with a musty air—over the course of several chapters, it has a similar effect to that of hearing too much of the music accompanying a Ken Burns special. Here’s a sample, so you can see what I’m talking about (this is the start of chapter IV):
How well the year dies, and with what holy grandness and pomp! On yonder hill beyond the river the frost has painted the tops of the maples bright red. The virgin tree beside the water is decked with yellow leaves, and I will go down to it from Foxes Hill slowly, with my stick with the wolf’s head on it. How smooth it has grown under my hand. Well, I too have grown smoother with age, under the weight of Providence, and Providence. I promise myself this fine morning no railing at circumstance, no judgement, no decision, no quarreling with Papists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Boston saints, drunken sinners, land grabs, land deals, money, power, Mr. Harris, Mr. Whipple, or any other of the thousand things that goad me. I will simply take my morning walk along the woods, skirting the meadows lest one ear of grain be lost to my foot.
I have walked by the waterfront before the new houses that still after a winter have the smell of pine resin where the sun rests on the log walls. We have tilled more fields, girdled more trees with more invasions of that primeval barrier of forest that stretches uphill behind us all the way to forever.
I could go on quoting indefinitely to show you how little it varies, but that “all the way to forever” stops me in my tracks and makes me think “I’m sorry, but that’s just a terrible phrase, Hallmarkish today and unthinkable for someone supposedly writing in the seventeenth century.” This is the kind of writing that makes people who don’t really dig good writing go “Wow, great stuff!” I don’t want to be too hard on it—it’s well above the level of Jane Stevenson—but why do authors feel the need to make historical people sound like animatronic figures in a museum display?
The actual Roger Williams (in case you’re curious) was a much livelier writer; this is plucked at random from George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes: “I was not desirous to trouble the Audience with more Quotations, but they still urged, haste thou any more, hast thou any more, &c. upon their provocation I Quoted many more to make up an overwhelming Cloud of Witnesses against these Protestant Jesuites and Judasites, Betrayers of the Son of God the true Lord Jesus Christ.”