The most difficult chapter of my PhD's critical commentary has been the one on voice. I don't see how you can write about the practice of historical fiction without tackling it, but as I've talked about before, it's both the most crucial and the most un-pin-downable aspect of writing. Its effect is simultaneously micro - a single choice of word - and macro - the thing which creates the world of the novel: the thing which makes the characters live and breathe for the reader. Different voices are central to the way that both The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy work, and are probably the thing which both readers and reviewers most consistently like.
Of course, there's always the option of writing a novel with a historical setting in a completely modern voice. Julian Barnes's postion on Arthur & George, that he's writing a contemporary novel about the past, in a voice to suit, seems perfectly reasonable to me although it's not one I share; I think it misses part of the point of setting fiction in the past. But Barnes's cool, elegant prose hardly shrieks flash-in-the-pan 2009 transience, and there's nothing that feels 'wrong' about Arthur & George. On the other hand, I really don't buy the slightly different argument, that the voice should be built from what's modern colloquial, conversational speech and even slang, as being equivalent for us to 1550s colloquial speech to the characters; it seems to me as daft as putting cars and potatoes and modern sensitivies about race or gender in there: these are not modern people, and they lead not-modern lives. If you think that means that the voices in historical fiction will be awkward, formal, stilted, and generally lacking in flexibility, expressiveness and rude words, just drop into Anthony Burgess's Dead Man in Deptford, and find out how wrong you are.
What's triggered this thought is a blog review of A Secret Alchemy. The blogger didn't specially like the book, which is fair enough, but what fascinated me was his/her comment that "I’m not sure how accurate the language of the historical section was. I’m not an expert, but it just reads differently from other books written about this period."My first reaction was "So I should hope", and not just because I'd hate to be accused of plagiarism. My second reaction was that I've no idea whether it's different or similar, since I've been avoiding novels set in the late 15th Century, ever since I first started wanting to write about Elizabeth Woodville a good decade ago. But actually, of course, the point's more subtle than that. Any conversation about historical fiction always starts off with everyone declaring that of course authenticity is all and facts are sacred, but it's not as simple as that: if you don't believe me, try writing the most accurate reproduction of 15th or 16th or 17th Century prose you can, and then try getting it published...
What we think of as 'historical' voices come from a mixture of the documents we have from the time, and other writers' historical fiction. By definition, the latter is not accurate to historical voices - it's the novelist's take on them: Charles Dickens's Revolutionary Parisians talk very, very differently from Hilary Mantel's, and Jeneatte Winterson's differently again. And, again by definition, historical documents can't present us with a usable fictional voice, because before the 18th century documents - even plays - don't include the realistic reproduction of conversational prose that fiction attempts.
And just when I regretfully had to cut the bit in my PhD about using modern colloquialisms because I haven't been able to find an actual quotable, referenceable writer saying so*, I came across something much better. By way of David Lodge's The Art of Fiction, and some vigorous Googling, I found the Russian critic Bakhtin, talking about how, while lyric poetry is 'monologic' - the voice of the poet, using their own words as suits them best - prose fiction is of its very nature, 'dialogic'. What Bakhtin actually says is this (my emphasis):T
...the possibility of employing on the plane of a single work discourses of various types, with all their expressive capacities intact, without reducing them to a single common denominator – this is one of the most fundamental characteristics of prose. Herein lies the profound distinction between prose style and poetic style... For the prose artist the world is full of other people’s words, among which he must orient himself and whose speech characteristics he must be able to perceive with a very keen ear. He must introduce them into the plane of his own discourse, but in such a way that this plane is not destroyed. He works with a very rich verbal palette.
So in fact my amusement at the blogger's comment, and my wariness of Barnes's view, stem from the same idea, which Bakhtin makes more generally, that the excitement of fiction lies in the intersection of fact and fiction, of other voices (past and present, then and now, here and there) and one's own voice. So (when the writer's got it right) the voice isn't either modern or historical, either accurate or readable, either mine or someone else's, it's both those things and all those things... Fiction is about both-and, not either-or, because writing is a process of synthesis, of taking all sorts of things from all sorts of places, and creating a whole which didn't exist before.
* If anyone knows of where I could find a writer arguing this, could they say in the comments, or email me at the address on the right?