Rosemary Sutcliff, writer of historical fiction and children’s literature, on ‘gadzookery’ and ‘writing forsoothly’

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Reader-follower-commenter Anne alerted me a couple of years ago to Rosemary Sutcliff’s comments on ‘gadzookery’ and ‘writing forsoothly’.

Victorian writers, and even those of a somewhat later date…saw nothing ludicrous in ‘Alas! fair youth, it grieves me to see thee in this plight. Would that I had the power to strike these fetters from thy tender limbs.’ Josephine Tey, whose death I shall never cease to lament, called this ‘Writing forsoothly.’ A slightly different variant is known in the trade as ‘gadzookery.’ Nowadays this is out of fashion; and some writers go to the other extreme and make the people of Classical Greece or Mediaeval England speak modern colloquial English. This is perhaps nearer to the truth of the spirit, since the people in question would have spoken the modern colloquial tongue of their place and time.

But, personally, I find it destroys the atmosphere when a young Norman Knight says to his Squire, ‘Shut up, Dickie, you’re getting too big for your boots.’ Myself, I try for a middle course, avoiding both gadzookery and modern colloquialism; a frankly ‘made-up’ form that has the right sound to it, as Kipling did also. 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, the sensible workmanlike language which one feels the Latin of the ordinary Roman citizen would have translated into. It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: ‘I beg your pardon’ changed into ‘I ask your pardon.’

  • Source: Rosemary Sutcliff, History is People (1971), published in Virginia Haviland’s “Children and Literature: Views and Reviews”.
 Edited, August 9, 2014; original version 22 March 2012.

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