I am by nature a perfectionist. (I know, I know, the fastest way to drive yourself crazy.)
I am also, again by a twist of nature, a stickler for detail. (Yes, that’s right, the second most direct route to madness. Particularly if you’re a historian writing historical fiction.)
Together these two probably constitute the fastest way to send yourself round the twist, or perhaps along the quickest route to total eccentricity.
(No comment from the pit, you!)
And this peculiar combination of traits has seen me doing everything from riding long distances hell for leather through gale force winds and sheets of rain–terrifying, invigorating, brilliant!–to enable me to write truthfully of an age when horses were the only mode of transportation, to learning to take snuff one-handed, to learning to crack the Napoleonic codes spies used two hundred years ago.
Obviously, it was this that led me to undertake that–what’s the opposite of a wild goose chase?–tricksy bit of sleuthing over the last few weeks about the waltz, to which I’ve previously referred after I’d come up against was the visit by Tsar Alexander to Britain in June 1814…
[He, as the victor over Napoleon, was paying us a little visit to cement the friendship between our countries, to flirt, to play the saviour of Europe to an adoring audience, to flirt…He was wildly popular in London. (He brought his pet poodle with him. Does that help or hinder?)
And one of the things for which he was famous was dancing all night. Quite literally. Whether because he genuinely liked it or whether because it was an opportunity for him to get closer, I don’t know, but he did love to waltz. But I kept being teased by this one thing–his visit was in 1814, yet too many authors and websites were insisting the waltz wasn’t done till 1816.
Still, I couldn’t really imagine the local aristocratic lovelies saying to the 6-foot tall, blond hero and emperor in his spiffing formal uniform, “No, your Imperial Immenseness, the waltz is too immodest for me and I don’t know how…”?
No, not so much, hunh? Doesn’t really work, does it…]
So, admittedly, some of my work is just plain bonkers. Yes, I do know that.
But, you see, all of it–every miniscule minute iota of it–is absolutely necessary so that I can convey as powerfully and dramatically and accurately to the reader what it was to live 200 years ago. Because above and beyond all things and at all times, I strive to put the reader in the room. (Not to tell a modern tale in dress-up clothes, but to put you in the room!)
Still, one of the tricksier areas of research though is speech. Because I can read their letters, their journals, even their books and speeches, but who talks everyday as they write in letters? Or diaries? Those may be marginally better perhaps, but it’s still not the same as a recording, is it?
So one of the great finds and great delights of my life has been to come upon and read–cover to cover and more than once–a book called The Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence by Captain Francis Grose, originally published in 1785 and continuing in publication until 1812…
Imagine, a book full of words like:
Slubber de gullion — a dirty, nasty fellow;
Nocky boy — A dull simple fellow;
Basting — beating; Spider-shanked — thin-legged;
Kinchin — a little child, Kinchin coes, orphan beggar boys educated in thieving…
Go ahead, try rolling them about in your mouth, letting them fall into speech. An intoxication of language, really. Sheer absolute joy.
It’s all too evocative, too atmospheric not to revel in it. But the use of just a smattering of such slang in the dialogue easily transforms it from modern to, well, a sense of what they must have spoken like.
We can’t be sure, of course.
And we always have the awkwardness of, in my case (I write about Napoleonic Europe), 200 years of history and hind-sight as an obstacle. But the slang gives us a feeling for the roistering, boisterous, rambling world of London that Jane Austen did not talk about, the world of the military, the Britain that had as yet no police force, the city that hadn’t yet been ripped up by the Victorians for the installation of sewers, and the countryside given over to farming.
But even a simple reading of dictionaries of historical slang give one a sense of their different perception of things, of what mattered to them, what their daily lives encompassed, who they met with and how they perceived their fellows. It’s an education in itself. Occasionally shocking, often surprising, always ebullient.
As I say, tremendous fun.
And as for me, well, I’ve learned at least one thing, I can tell you–I am without a doubt a plaguey saucebox and a scapegrace. Ha ha ha ha. (But you probably already knew that. Though now, you have the precise nomenclature, yes?)