One of the reviews of “Milligan and the Samurai Rebels” on Amazon raises the important question of the historical accuracy of the dialogue. This challenge of getting characters to speak in a mode convincingly of their time while accessible to the modern reader is I imagine one that haunts all writers of historical fiction as it did me. There are I think two parts to this: inadvertent anachronism, and intentional modernisation.
With anachronisms, it is not only words but also objects that can be out of their time. Most well-known are slips by film-makers, such as extras in costume dramas still wearing their digital watches. English like other languages does of course change over time, and lexicographical lapses are easier to make than you think. One that my editor, Jo Field, picked up was my use in a couple of places of the word “Blighty” by Milligan to refer to his home country. “But it’s a posh, old-fashioned term that would surely have been used by a 19th century diplomat!” I spluttered to myself, before checking and seeing that it only came into use during the First World War and then went out of common useage in the post-Second World War period; an anachronism for a 19th century and a 21st century speaker.
Then there is intentional adjustment to improve accessibility for the modern reader. This is true in my book and others for some of the spelling, for example. Fully authentic historical dialogue, particularly in a supposedly humorous work, might at times be tough, or worse unamusing (think much of Shakespeare’s comedies), for a contemporary audience. Attitudes to women and minorities have also changed (think Taming of the Shrew or Merchant of Venice), although that can be used for comedic value, as say George McDonald Fraser does with his Flashman character. In general I aim for a balance between authenticity on the one hand and accessibility or effectiveness on the other.
How to achieve authenticity? That has to be through reading works of the time itself. Relying only on modern books about the period or on your own acquired impression of how people spoke “back then” can lead to error as the above “Blighty” example shows. I was lucky to have the diaries of Ernest Satow, a real figure and a character in my novel, to show me just how young diplomats of the 1860s spoke and wrote. And fortunately, sardonic understatement has deep foundations in the British version of the English language upon which I could erect my modest construction.
I think that through careful consideration, good editing and reference to 19th century sources I have got the language about right, but I can’t rule out the odd historical slip. Certainly I’m glad that my initial opening line of “Oi Milligan, lend us your i-Phone will ya?!” hit the cutting room floor.
Simon Alexander Collier is a former British diplomat and the author of "Milligan and the Samurai Rebels", a humorous, historical novel set in the Japan of the 1860s.