13 December 2023

1st Person Familiar


I went looking for a book I hadn’t read in 60 years – a novel called The Golden Warrior, that I was assigned in the 8th grade or thereabouts – and for whatever reason, I was curious to read again, or at least leaf through.  Something about it had stuck in my mind.  They didn’t have it at the library, and I found it on the internet.  For nine bucks, I was thinking trade paper, but it’s a hardcover, from 1950.  It came from a mail-order outfit called ThriftBooks, highly recommended.  https://www.thriftbooks.com/

The Golden Warrior is about the complicated political and dynastic struggle between Harold, last Saxon king of England, and William, duke of Normandy, that ends in 1066, with the Conquest.  It picks up the story fifteen years earlier, when William visits England to talk some turkey with then-king Edward.  Edward the Confessor is known for his piety, which unhappily means his marriage is without issue.  He has no heir, and Duke William wants to be named.

The first thing I noticed was that the dialogue seemed a little strained, at least to my ear, and theatrically archaic.  I don’t mean like Sir Walter Scott, and Ivanhoe, where the flourishes are exaggerated to the point of parody – think Danny Kaye, in The Court Jester – but you find yourself thinking, Did these people actually speak like this?  You understand the need for a certain formality, or discretion, or indirection, and plain speaking could invite a rain of troubles.  Still, the elevated speech patterns push you away, they don’t ask you in, they make you all too aware that it’s artificial, a construct. 

Historical fiction is, of course, tricky.  There’s a higher bar to clear, the suspension of disbelief.  It’s easy to make fun of Sir Walter Scott, but the books that are closer in time to his own, Old Mortality, say, or The Antiquary, ring less false, for the simple reason that he can actually imagine or conjure up how those people talked, whereas the speech of a 12th-century Crusader is beyond him.  (I’d think it was pretty much beyond anybody.)

If you look at Patrick O’Brian’s work, though, or Mary Renault, they somehow get around this problem.  Renault, in particular, uses a device you could call the First-Person Familiar, or the First-Person Intimate.  Think about it for a second.  I recently read Tana French’s In the Woods, and liked it a lot, but the way she chooses to tell the story is unreliable: the first-person narration is as much about concealment as it is about peeling away secrets.  The buried past, the buried present.  See, instead, how Renault opens The Last of the Wine, or The Mask of Apollo.  It’s a sleight of hand, which appears transparent; she seems to withhold nothing.  “When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.” 

It’s so matter-of-fact.  It might remind you of Dickens, Copperfield, maybe.  The later Dickens is slyer, more oblique, sliding up into the story from below.  This, the beginning of Last of the Wine, starts with the boy being born, but in fact in the middle of the story, the war with Sparta already a decade old.  Renault gives us an immediate present, nothing that smells of the lamp.

Actually, that’s not accurate.  It does smell of the lamp.  Not in the metaphorical sense, from Plutarch, meaning labored, but in the literal sense: you can smell the oil in her descriptions, see the light flickering on the wall. 

I’ll get past my initial resistance to The Golden Warrior.  I’ll accommodate the rhythms, the storytelling, the manners of speech.  You learn the beat, the time signature.  Some writers are more easeful than others, is all.  Renault can be deceptive; it goes down so smoothly, you never taste the hemlock. 


  1. Mary Renault and Cecelia Holland are my two favorite historical novelists. "The Praise Singer", "The Last of the Wine", and "The Mask of Apollo" are my favorite Renaults, and Cecelia Holland's "Until the Sun Falls" and "Great Maria" are mindbogglingly good.
    Historical dialog is tricky - and they cracked it.
    Oh, also Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse mysteries, set in the 15th century are very good.
    The WORST historical novel I ever read was Frank Yerby's "An Odor of Sanctity" - I even wrote blog about it at one point. Unbelievably bad.

    1. David Edgerley Gates13 December, 2023 16:52

      My favorite Cecilia Holland is "The Kings in Winter," closely followed by her Mongol book, "Until the Sun Falls." I'm also partial to "Floating Worlds," and I can't be the first person to suggest Holland shares a lot with Ursula Le Guin.
      Frank Yerby was hugely successful for a time, and I think the rap is that he turned to historicals because he got nowhere with contemporary political stuff (I'm guessing that most white readers of "The Foxes of Harrow" didn't realize Yerby was black; Yerby left the States in the early 1950's, like Chester Himes). I don't think Yerby got that much critical respect in his lifetime; his books were regarded as potboilers or bodice rippers, and to my knowledge, opinion hasn't changed.

  2. David, this is so timely! I'm starting to write my third book in the Merry Widow Murders series, circa 1928, and getting it right is paramount with me. The time period, the language...and yet it still must be easy to ready for today's readers. Quite a feat, that writers of contemporary times don't have to deal with. (I've been both.) I'll be posting a blog on this soon.

    1. David Edgerley Gates13 December, 2023 16:59

      Definitely a tricky line to straddle. One of the ways Renault manages to seem both accurate and immediate is that confiding narrative tone - she asks you in, and the 3rd century BC seems like just last week. The real problem is avoiding anachronism - meaning casting a present-day attitude or habit of thought backwards that somebody in 1928 wouldn't have (and couldn't even conceive).

  3. Interesting stuff. It is also possible that the Golden Warrior read better years ago because it was closer to the time it was written. I argued many years ago that a historical novel may feel like a product of, say, 1066, in 1950 when it is written, but half a century later it feel s more like a product of 1950. https://criminalbrief.com/?p=10725

    1. Whoops. That was Robert Lopresti

    2. David Edgerley Gates13 December, 2023 16:30

      This is very true. The writer John Crowley remarks that the future is at right angles to the present, meaning that Hugo Gernsback's projection of future ages is grounded in the 1930's, for instance. I think it's true of looking into the past, as well. An example would be Frannklin Schaffner's movie "Nicholas and Alexandra," which came out in 1971, and is less about the Russian Revolution than it is about Viet Nam.

  4. Looking back to childhood, I seem to have been able to swallow anything without choking. When I have reread boyhood books, I sometimes wonder how I got through them. Some weren't great works of art back then, but others, like H Rider Haggard, were classics. Definitely, some of them needed a Renault solution such as you point out.


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