The skill of making the past come to life for the modern reader is a difficult one, involving tons of research, which I love (I just got back from a research trip to London!) and reading the papers, journals, novels and trivia from the period. But when you do that, one thing becomes quickly apparent – the language and the way they used it. Writing a scene set in a literary salon, or the bustling, tobacco and coffee redolent coffee house sets my creative juices going, but how to get the reader to see what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye? That’s why I do the research, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to!
Recently I re-read Fielding’s “Tom Jones,” published in 1749. It’s a rollicking, robust novel and one I re-read on a regular basis. While the language is very similar to ours today, reading a whole book couched in those terms could make the story a challenging read for someone not used to it. Therefore I don’t mirror the language of the time precisely, but I do aim to retain a flavour. I don’t use anachronistic words, for instance, or I should say I try very hard not to. However, this is hard, because some words that we take for granted these days describe things perfectly but weren’t in use then and in the mouths of eighteenth century characters they would sound strange.
Take the Freudian/Jungian way we describe character. Words like “ego,” “paranoid” and “cathartic” may have existed in that time but they were used in an entirely different way to mean different things. People of that time just didn’t think in that way. They didn’t work out character and characteristics like that, so even the thought processes would have been alien to them. Even “charisma” wasn’t in existence then as a description of someone with a magnetic personality. It’s not just the words, it’s the way of thinking behind it.
But some words are a lot older than we tend to think. “electric” and “computer,” for instance, were around at that time, although with the advance of electricity and computer technology they describe much more. Talk to an eighteenth century person about an “electric” feeling and they’d know what you meant.
I’ve often had the comment that they didn’t use contractions in the past. Extensive reading of novels and fiction authored in the eighteenth century proves this is far from the case. “can’t,” “don’t,” “we’ve” and the rest are all there. They are used a little differently, but nobody in the past went around saying, “We have arrived and it is a fine day, let us go into the garden and stroll amongst the roses,” unless they were making a point or in a formal situation, ie making a speech or attending court.
The language of love was earthier and more direct, even among the highest in the land. The “f” word was always a rough word, but used to describe sex, not as a general swear word. Oh yes, and “sex” described your gender, nothing else. “having sex,” “climax” and “sexy” were phrases that would mean little in a sexual context to our eighteenth century counterparts. It seems that these phrases, and others, were invented by the forerunners of the sexual revolution, the family planning pioneers who helped people regulate their procreation in the early twentieth century. Our eighteenth century forebears would talk about “making love,” although this could mean kissing and fondling as much as it did having sex with someone, “sexual congress” or “sexual intercourse.” They’d also know what “to come” met in a sexual context (that one floored me!). Words weren’t always specific to the sex act, either, so “congress” and “intercourse” had several different meanings, and, indeed, levels of intimacy. However “orgasm” and, surprising to me, at any rate, “clitoris” were known and used. I found one instance of using “pussy” to describe a woman’s genitals, although they preferred the “c” word. “Puss” or “pussy” was also a general word for a woman, particularly a comely one, so a father might refer to his daughter fondly as “puss.” And “cock” was a well-used word to describe the penis. Tricky thing that, having sex. I find the poems written by Lord Rochester in Charles II’s reign a useful point of reference, because he’s not backwards in his earthy descriptions, but other sources exist, although not as richly as in the Victorian age! Just as “French” engravings show us titillating pictures and practices from those times, a few underground or semi-respectable publications do exist, although they’re hard to find. However, in the eighteenth century the tipping point for literacy occurred, so that most of the population could read. That meant publications were produced for people of all classes, as either you could read, or you’d know someone who could.
Also, descriptions of sexual preferences were very different, and it reveals the way such thinking has changed. “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “asexual,” and the rest were unknown words. The only crime that the Old Bailey convicted men who preferred men of was “sodomy,” that is, the act of anal sex, and in law a woman could be as guilty as a man. It started as a church law, but as church law was slowly assimilated into civil law, “sodomy” became a way of describing homosexuals, and it was sodomy that was illegal and punishable by death, not being gay. Legally, that is. Men could be effeminate, could seek out other men to share their lives with, as could women and do it more or less openly. They would still be condemned in some quarters, but a man like John Augustus Hervey, bisexual in an age that didn’t know how to describe the term, could reach the highest political offices in the land. And that is why lesbianism was never illegal. Because lesbians can’t commit sodomy.
Curse words. Always a problem. Our ancestors might make quaint exclamations like “SBlood!” which would just make a modern reader smile, but there are a few that still work. “Damn,” for instance. In “Tom Jones” (published 1749), Squire Weston can hardly get through a sentence without a “damn” or “damn me” or “damnation,” or all three on a good day. Fielding depicts it as “D—n,” presumably to appease the delicate sensibilities of some of his readers. I use that one a lot, because the way it’s used hasn’t changed much in the centuries. “Bitch” was not a term used in polite society, although that’s another one the Squire is fond of. There’s no instance of “Bloody hell” before the late Victorian era, either, so Regency rakes never said it. “Bloody,” however, was used, although rarely.
About Lynne’s return to Georgian historicals:
Victoria: Lynne, as a fellow Georgian junkie, I became a huge fan of yours several several years ago after reading your Georgian set Richard and Rose series (clink link for more info) I understand you are now returning to the Georgian era. Could you please tell us a little more?
Lynne: I am returning to the historical in a major way, with two new series, one of them paranormal, “Even The Gods Fall In Love,” the other straight-down-the-line Georgian historical romance. With the emphasis on the romance! My new book with Kensington, “Rogue in Red Velvet” has a Jacobite theme, with feuding families and hidden secrets!
About Lynne Connolly
I was born in Leicester, England, and lived in our cobbler’s shop with my parents and sister. It was an old house and most definitely haunted, but I didn’t find out until I left that my great uncle had hung himself in the living room! But I think our ghost might have been older than that. It was built on the site of the old Roman cemetery, and the land had been constantly inhabited, being in the centre of town. Then, when the council bought the house from us to build a road, my grandfather retired and my father went and worked for the Post Office. My mother was a sample machinist; that is, she worked with designers on the prototypes (models or samples) of garments. So I was very well dressed! We bought a relatively modern house in the country, and my mother was blissfully happy. It’s all very well living in a large old house, but it’s a dreadful task to keep it clean and warm!
My mother’s side of the family are Romany gypsies, although sadly we haven’t any of the old trailers that are so astonishingly beautiful. I was taught to read the Tarot cards, and I usually use two packs; the Rider pack for simple readings and the Crowley Thoth pack for the complex stuff. I’ve always had an interest in the paranormal and it’s been a delight to be able to put some of this into my novels.