Something recently struck me about Wolf Hall (which I’ve almost finished): I haven’t had to look up any words. This is fairly astonishing for a historical novel; from Walter Scott on, novelists who dabble in the dead past tend to pound nails in its coffin not only with words like “thee” and “thither” and “accoutred” and exclamations like “Over God’s forbode!” but with quaint terms for long-forgotten objects and customs. (For a full-immersion experience, check out Skeat’s A glossary of Tudor and Stuart words, especially from the dramatists.) Even Ford Madox Ford, a fine writer whose Fifth Queen trilogy is one of the better pieces of historical novelry around, couldn’t resist tossing in some of ye olde wordhoard, as I posted here (aumbry, balinger, tulzie, et al.). Mind you, this passage from Alan Judd’s biography of Ford, quoted in the Wikipedia article linked above, is accurate:
He creates a version of Tudor English that is not only effective but does not in any way hinder the sense of reality. This is a considerable achievement; the use of a dated form of one’s own language always sounds the contrivance it is, unconvincing, artificial and slow. In order to work it needs to sound natural and in order for that to happen the author needs to have created a world or an atmosphere in the context of which it can be natural… The result in The Fifth Queen is vigorous and convincing, sometimes compressed poetic speech.
But it’s even more true of Mantel’s book, and I am in awe of how she pulls it off.