Historical language: from Only Fools and Horses to farting-crackers


One of the great joys of writing Blood’s Game, the first book in my new swashbuckling 17th-century series, was having access to the language of the time.

This was an unusual pleasure for me. My previous historical series, the Outlaw Chronicles, was set in the 12th and 13th centuries and my cast of knightly characters would have spoken Norman-French to each other, and the English ones would have used the language of Chaucer. Any written materials would have been in Latin or, much less frequently, medieval French. I don’t speak any of those languages with any degree of proficiency so I couldn’t do primary research, and when I came across a figure who said something interesting in a text book, I knew that what he (or she) had said had been written down by a monk in Latin, probably years after the speech was made, then after another gulf of time, had been translated into modern English.

But I didn’t have that problem with Blood’s Game. I was able to read and understand and enjoy the actual words used by the historical people I was writing about. For example, Blood’s Game is about, among other things, the attempt by Colonel Thomas Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. The attempt failed and Blood was imprisoned in the Tower. And I was able to read a letter written by Blood to King Charles II, begging for mercy in which he claims that he was paid by officials of Charles’s own government to undertake the robbery:

“May it please your majesty: may this tell and inform you that it was Sir Thomas Osborne and Sir Thomas Lyttleton, both your treasurers of your Navy, that set me to steal your crown, but he that feeds me with money was James Lyttelton esquire. ’Tis he that pays under the treasurers at your pay office. He is a very bold villainous fellow, a very rogue, for I and my companions have had many a £100 of your majesty’s money to encourage us on this attempt.”

I can actually hear Blood speaking in this letter – note the use of the now archaic double-verb structure “tell and inform”, which only now exists in legal-speak such as “cease and desist”; and “very” as an adjective, rather than the more modern adverb, in “he is a very rogue”. 

But what also come through clear as daylight is the meaning of the letter: here is a man pleading for his life and desperately casting the blame elsewhere. He is also quite subtly threatening the King with a political scandal, and I have used that element of the letter to drive the book’s plot.

When I was putting words into Thomas Blood’s mouth, as every author of fiction must, I tried to keep in mind that actual words that he wrote or was recorded as saying. For example, when captured after the failed attempt on the Crown Jewels, Blood said: “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! ’Twas for a crown!”

He had a bombastic, self-congratulatory style of speech. He is commenting on his own actions, praising himself for his dashing style even after repeated failure. I found that he reminded me a little bit of Del Boy Trotter from the classic sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Del, who like Blood tries and tries and always seems to fail, repeats the phrase: “This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires.” And I tried to capture a flavour of that ill-founded perpetual optimism in Blood’s favourite and oft repeated expression: “Keep the faith, my son, and we’ll all come up smiling yet.”

A historical writer can never truly capture the authentic speech patterns of the day. The past is a different country, as the novelist L. P. Hartley pointed out in The Go-Between. The really do do things differently there. And quite a lot of the time we wouldn’t approve of what they do, believe or say.

Take attitudes to race, as the most glaring example, and use of the N-word. A hundred and fifty years ago, quite ordinary decent people frequently used the word to describe another group of people. Now, as we all know, it’s utterly taboo, at least for white folks, and using it marks you out as a monstrous racist. Yet the late, and very great George MacDonald-Fraser used the N-word liberally in his brilliant Flashman books; the word was common during the Victorian era and he was attempting honestly to replicate authentically the speech of the time. But GMF received a huge amount of abuse for using the term in his work, particularly in the latter part of his life, and there are still calls to burn his superb historical novels. Today I would not choose to use it, even if it might be absolutely historically accurate. I don’t want to offend any of my readers – and its use makes me feel uncomfortable, too

Or take religion: in our largely secular 21st century, most of us find the idea of killing someone for your beliefs abhorrent. And one of the problems I had when I was writing the Outlaw Chronicles, set in the Middle Ages, was getting to grips with the Christian mindset that drove the Crusades. The knights who went to the Holy Land truly believed they were doing God’s work when they slaughtered any Muslims they encountered.

The truth is that we don’t want absolute authenticity in our historical fiction – in either speech or actions. We prefer likeable characters, ones we can relate to. And in order to relate to them they have to share our values and think and speak similarly to us. So there is already a distortion at work when you, a 21st-century person, are creating a fictional historical person and putting words in their mouth, you are consciously, or sometimes unconsciously changing them to make them more like you.

Having said that, the art of writing good dialogue in historical fiction is to give the illusion of historical authenticity, while at the same time allowing the character to reveal qualities that the reader can get behind. Bigotry – whether racial or religious is a big no-no, unless that character is a baddie. But your fictional people can’t be too politically correct either. I aim for a certain amount of well-meaning parochiality. Or having the hero aware of the more unpleasant attitudes of the day but defying them. 

You also don’t want them to speak too much like a modern person, or someone from the recent past. It’s not just a case of avoiding crass terms like “OK” or “Nice one, mate” or “Cool”. I was recently put off reading a historical novel by the use of the phrase “upper-body strength” to describe the hero. It was so glaringly modern that I lost confidence in the book.

I was particularly fortunate when writing Blood’s Game to come across a dictionary of slang for the period (see picture above) by someone calling themselves “B.E. Gent”. The dictionary was first published in 1699 and, while it has its limitations, it is an attempt to capture the authentic idiom of the 17th-century London underworld. And it is full of absolute gems, many of which I have incorporated into Blood’s Game. 

A “dandyprat” is a little puny fellow; a “gage of fogus” is a pipe of tobacco; a “buffle-head” is an idiot; “farting-crackers” are trousers; an “arsworm” is a small, insignificant man; “clammed” means hungry; “chink” is money; to “nip” is to steal, “cant” to speak to tell, and so on. 

But, essentially, writing successful period dialogue is a balancing act, you can’t have too many sentences such as, “Tip us a gage of fogus and I’ll cant about how I nipped the chink out of the old arsworm’s farting-crackers,” without seriously irritating the readers. I mainly used these delicious slang terms as a kind of seasoning to give the book the flavour of the time. And, as a general rule of thumb, I tend to opt for simple language, and if two expressions present themselves, chose the one which is more old fashioned but still perfectly comprehensible to a modern reader. Whether I have succeeded or not, I will let the readers of Blood’s Game judge for themselves.

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