I recently wrote a guest blog about writing dialogue in historical fiction. It’s always a challenge to create characters who talk in a way that feels authentic but that modern readers will understand.
As I explained in the blog, one of my favourite sources for how Elizabethans actually talked to one another is The Elizabethan Home, edited by M. St Clare Byrne. This wonderful little book reproduces some excerpts from the conversation manuals two Huguenot refugees, Claudius Hollyband and Peter Erondell, used to teach French in 16th-century London. They invented dialogues in English that were set side by side with the French versions so that their pupils could learn as many different everyday words as possible.
The dialogues are a wonderful source of information about everyday life in the Elizabethan home, about how they dressed, and ate, and spoke to each other. The first ‘scene’ is between a schoolboy, Francis, and a servant, Margaret. Francis has overslept and is taking out his bad temper on Margaret:
…where have you layde my girdle and my inckhorne? Where is my gyrkin of Spanish leather of Bouffe? Where is my cap, my hat, my coate, my cloake, my kaipe, my gowne, my gloves, my mittayns, my pumpes, my moyles, my slippers, my handkarchif, my poyntes, my sachell, my penknife and my books? Where is all my geare?
It’s unlikely Francis would need a cloak, a cape and a gown, but the list offers a vivid picture of how a schoolboy at the time might dress. (I confess, I don’t know what ‘moyles’ were, but they were clearly some kind of footwear.)
I think it’s interesting that he uses the word ‘gear’: it sounds very modern, doesn’t it? Words like these that were in common usage and yet seem inauthentic to the modern reader are always tricky. I probably wouldn’t use it in a novel, in case it jarred a reader out of the story. Sometimes you can take authenticity too far!