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  • "The Rhythm of a Tongue":Literary Dialect in Rosemary Sutcliff's Novels of the Middle Ages for Children
  • Miriam Youngerman Miller (bio)

In her recent survey of historical literature for children, Suzanne Rahn addresses the question of language—especially dialogue. Noting that Howard Pyle has been roundly criticized for his "pseudo-medieval style," Rahn reminds us that in his day:

All historical novels written in English and set in Elizabethan, medieval, or even ancient Roman times used more or less the same artificially archaic idiom, at least for dialogue. This convention inherited from Scott was still unquestioned in the late nineteenth century, and Twain uses it no more convincingly than Pyle.


Rahn sees the disillusionment caused by World War I as a watershed in the development of the historical novel and the death-knell of its characteristic pseudo-medieval style. In 1923 Naomi Mitchison was the first to use modern English dialogue in an historical novel (The Conquered, a novel of ancient Gaul written for adults), and in his thematically groundbreaking novel, Bows Against the Barons (1934), Geoffrey Trease was the first to follow Mitchison's lead in a work for children. Asserting that "archaic dialogue had strangled the life out of the historical story," Trease defends Mitchison's (and his) use of "natural living speech" in historical settings:

Today it seems self-evident that, if the reader accepts the convention of Arabs, Eskimos and even Martians conversing in modern English, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck should be permitted to do the same. After all, if we were to set down their actual thirteenth-century speech, it would be almost as unintelligible as Arabic. . . . But there was never any suggestion that the Sherwood outlaws should use an authentic medieval diction. . . . What was expected was a bogus sort of. . . jargon which was supposed to "convey period atmosphere," but which some of us would say, more simply, stank.

(Tales 96-97)

Like Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff, arguably the doyenne of children's historical fiction, was keenly aware of the problems and possibilities presented by language in novels set in the Middle Ages, although, unlike Trease, she did not simply advocate the use of modern, unadorned diction. Writing on the problem of the spoken word in the historical novel, she proscribes the two to-be-avoided-at-all-costs extremes, what she terms "writing forsoothly" or "gadzookery" on the one hand and the use of modern colloquialisms on the other:

Myself, I try for a middle course . . . a frankly "made up" form that has the right sound to it. . . . I try to catch the rhythm of a tongue, the tune that it plays on the ear, Welsh or Gaelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon. . . . It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using a perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: "I beg your pardon." changed into "I ask your pardon."

("History" 307)

In her 1962 monograph Margaret Meek outlines what she sees as a pattern of development in Sutcliff's handling of dialogue in her works of historical fiction. Of the language of one of Sutcliff's earliest works, The Armourer's House (characterized by Meek as a "domestication of the past for younger readers," rather than as an historical novel), Meek says:

The dialogue still does not match the story-telling; it is uneasily modern. Other authors have shown that to avoid both stilted archaic speech and dated colloquialism a writer of tales with an historical setting must adopt either a form of dateless utterance, and thereby risk a feeling of formality, or else the unashamedly modern, while avoiding slang which soon seems more unreal than the much deplored pishtushery. It was not surprising that reviewers of The Armourer's House were unwilling to accept, 'I say, didn't the King's grace look jolly.'


Simon, a story of the English Civil War, published in 1953, two years after The Armourer's House, marks for Meek the beginning of Sutcliff's maturation as a novelist, a maturation which includes—and goes beyond—her increasingly sophisticated use of language:

A greater breadth of vocabulary and longer sentences are possible. With...


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