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Linguistic anachronisms

August 5, 2014

I’ve just read Emma Carroll’s children’s novel The Girl Who Walked on Air, which I am reviewing for the Independent on Sunday. The book is set in Victorian times, and so I was surprised to come across the sentence “I wasn’t exactly flavour of the month”.

No. Sorry. Victorians didn’t say that. And this was just one of many linguistic anachronisms throughout the book. Writers should make the effort to have their characters speak as they would have done in the period, if they care at all about recreating that period convincingly. There is a risk of overdoing it – there’s no point packing a novel with forgotten Victorian expressions that nobody understands today. But a few judicious uses of idioms appropriate to the period, and a conscious avoidance of idioms that sound obviously modern, would help create the right atmosphere and give the characters voices that are their own, not the author’s.

In Carroll’s defence one might argue that her readers probably won’t have read much Victorian literature and so won’t recognise the anachronisms as such. That’s true, but if the language was more in keeping with the period it would add a sense of difference and authenticity which would make the book seem both more believable and more special. The world would feel both truer and stranger. It would be a better book.

PS. My review of Carroll’s book – as well as my reviews of Lynne Segal’s Out of Time, Edna O’Brien’s Night, Jane Lythell’s The Lie of You and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Padrama – will be in the next edition of the Independent on Sunday, on 10th August.

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