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.”


  1. The droning effect probably comes from the author having adopted a solemn voice inside her head in order to reproduce that 17th-century effect. Liveliness comes from being in control of your own voice; when the voice is not your own, it is all too easy to adopt a false one where your own natural powers of expression have to be constantly curtailed. I think it takes a masterful writer to be lively and interesting, and at the same time convincing, in a voice that is not their own.
    The words that pulled me up were “land grabs, land deals”. I could be quite wrong, but they don’t sound very 17th-century-ish to me.

  2. Where do historical novelists get the idea that no one used contractions before 1900, anyway? Haven’t they read Jane Austen?
    I remember being brought up short while reading Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which is set in the early nineteenth century, and is quite well written on the whole) by a character expressing a reservation with the line, ‘I do not know that I agree’. It stuck in my mind because of the blend of anachronistic modern idiom and equally spurious contraction-avoidance.

  3. Gassalasca says

    I would never dare to write a faux 17th century novel without having read an enormous amount of actual 17th century prose. Something which these authors clearly haven’t done.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Are there modern novels written in a setting-appropriate pastiche of 17th or 18th century style that actually works? I recall being impressed back in the early ’80’s with the 18th century pastiche of Erica Jong’s _Fanny_, but I haven’t gone back and reread it since and didn’t have much to compare it to at the time, so that wasn’t a very informed judgment. Maybe the Sot-Weed Factor?

  5. Mason & Dixon, kinda?

  6. This is dreadful. Yonder!

  7. Hat, your “animatronics” line is perfect. But something bothers me about This is the kind of writing that makes people who don’t really dig good writing go “Wow, great stuff!” I dig what you’re saying, so what is it that bothers me? The fact that you’re lumping zillions of people into one category, maybe. I can’t put my finger on it.
    I wonder, by the way, if her earlier writing was better. She was in her 80s when this was published.

  8. I dig what you’re saying, so what is it that bothers me? The fact that you’re lumping zillions of people into one category, maybe. I can’t put my finger on it.
    Yeah, it’s not a good line, but that’s the kind of thing that comes out when I’m too irritated to write with my usual precise panache.
    I’m thinking of giving up on the book entirely. She refers to Francis Bacon repeatedly as “Baron Veralum,” which is like having someone who supposedly grew up in the 1960s talk about that great Liverpool band the Bottles. Takes you right out of the illusion.

  9. Hey, don’t knock the Bottles. I remember seeing them at the Cavern Club in early 1960 when they had the classic line-up of Jack Lemmon, Joe McCarthy, Rex Harrison and Freddie Starr. Then some bloody upstarts came along and stole their thunder…

  10. Now I’m remembering a science fiction novelette from the mid-’60s that struck my teenage self as a brilliant pastiche of eighteenth-century style; does anyone have any idea what I’m talking about? I think it was about aliens (an alien?) landing in England (?), and it had Lots of capital Letters; it may have been published in F&SF. Sigh… this will probably haunt me for weeks.

  11. She also writes “infra dignitatum.” And I strongly suspect she used “ex tempulo” when she meant “ex tempore.” What a mess.

  12. The first word that comes to mind is affected, over mannered. Contrary to an earlier post, seems like she’d read too much period prose. Here’s betting she was likewise a member of her local Renaissance society and had a closetful of dress-up draperies.

  13. Hat: Dammit, I think I read the story you are thinking of last month, and yet I can’t recall author (Aldiss?) or title. Mine was about an 18th-century fellow who finds a time machine and uses it to take several trips to 20th-century England. The time machine itself, however, comes from later yet and nobody understands it, though it’s easy enough to use. The story’s plot isn’t much; the interest is in the 18th-century view of the 20th.

  14. That’s probably it, and Aldiss sounds right. Must investigate…

  15. Got it! It’s David I. Masson’s “A Two-Timer” (February 1966 New Worlds): “I was standing, as it chanc’d, within the shade of a low Arch-way…” He was also the author of the brilliant “Traveller’s Rest.” He should be a lot better known than he is.

  16. And I see it’s actually written from the viewpoint of a man of 1683, almost exactly when Williams is supposedly writing. How much better Masson is, both as writer and as pasticheur!

  17. Is “infra dignitatum” a spelling error or a grammar error? This is a phony question, of course: the error is of the “a little learning” kind, or something: I suppose that, like me, Settle knew the expression infra dig and knew in her mind’s ear what it was short for, but didn’t have the Latin.

  18. Do modern historical novelists want to sound like real seventeenth century people, or what modern readers think seventeenth century people sound like, i.e., “like animatronic figures in a museum display”?
    “I was standing, as it chanc’d, within the shade of a low Arch-way…” differs from modern English only in spelling and punctuation, so one could think of it as a species of eye-dialect. That may, of course, be a way to give an antique flavour to a work without making it tedious to read.

  19. Well, that’s just the first few words. If this link works for you, you can read quite a bit of the story and get a fuller sense of the prose.

  20. “This is the kind of writing that makes people who don’t really dig good writing go ‘Wow, great stuff!'”I dig what you’re saying, so what is it that bothers me? The fact that you’re lumping zillions of people into one category, maybe. I can’t put my finger on it.
    Not that you weren’t clear in framing your explanation as just a tentative stab, but the problem with what Hat already admitted to be beneath his usual thoughtful eloquence is less that it paints readers with a broad brush than that it applies to too much bad writing to highlight anything really distinctive about this specimen. Don DeLillo, for example, produces a lot of downright awful prose that enthralls wannabe litterateurs who haven’t yet learned to see all the way past themselves to the page, and he’s certainly never mannered a la Settle. He’s just a genuine but very inconsistent talent, with a cult following who’d be shocked to hear such things said about their hero. I know; I used to be one of them. But my point is, the kind of reader who wants to make heroes out of writers in the first place (i.e., the bad kind) has plenty a beat to nod his head to, whilst adjusting his beanie or flat cap or what have you.

  21. David Masson got an Oxford lang-and-lit degree, so he was certainly a linguist by training, and worked almost all his life as a librarian. One of his other stories (there are only ten altogether) turns on a phonological point.
    Maybe he should become the Official SF Author of Language Hat?

  22. So decreed!

  23. And Tolkien the Official Fantasy Author, while you’re passing out the certificates?

  24. Absolutely.

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