Style Notes (II): Adam Thorpe

Crafting metaphors is dangerous for historians.

They may enrich prose, illustrating and amplifying meaning, making ideas seem real and concrete, but when a historian develops and grows a metaphor, they are at risk of giving life to a distortion. Clarification and illustration fade into simplification and emplotment. The metaphors we use rarely come to us ready made from our sources, and when readers remember the metaphor and not the details, the fiction becomes realer than the facts.

This makes historians uncomfortable.

… and yet we cannot escape metaphor.

Language itself is saturated in metaphorical meanings that go beyond our intentions. Even if we choose to avoid the floweriest of imagery, what we write is necessarily metaphorical. Metaphors aren’t really flowers, after all. To even describe metaphors is to use them.

I think that a historical novelist such as Adam Thorpe is in a very different position to metaphor.

I’ve been reading his novel Ulverton since Mark Hailwood recommended it at the ‘Creative History’ event in Sheffield in July, and boy, is it good.

I’m not a historian of England, and I can’t comment on specific issues of historical accuracy, but in terms of how it makes me feel as a reader, it is a beautiful exercise in getting inside the minds of people in the past.

(And if that sounds like your kind of thing, you should join the #storypast discussion of the book which is taking place on 3rd November, 1-2pm GMT (details here).)

The metaphors that Thorpe crafts are central to how he brings his readers into the minds of the characters he has invented.

In a chapter told from the point of view of a carpenter reflecting on his life in 1803, Thorpe’s imaginary character declares:

‘How to make wood do for me what my tongue don’t’ (p.125).

In fact, this is not true: the carpenter has an astonishingly rich tongue of wood, telling his audience that the story he is telling is ‘pure oak’ (p.140), and sadly remarking at another point that his body is failing from old age:

‘I’ve forgot as how a woman feels, like. Touchwood. My pizzle’s nowt but touch-wood. Burns but no flame.’ (p.133)

I was struck by this, perhaps out of proportion.

Looking back through the chapter, Thorpe uses these metaphors lightly. They do not saturate the carpenter’s speech, but slip in, as telling details about how he sees the world.

I almost feel bad for peering behind the curtain to think about Thorpe the novelist creating these metaphors. Part of me even wonders if he did. The research behind the book is so detailed, I do wonder if some of the images are things he may have found in primary sources.

Would the same technique work for historians? Are there, in fact, examples where historians have enriched their arguments by weaving historically-specific metaphors which are nonetheless of their own making into their accounts of the past?

I’d love to hear of any examples you’ve seen, and if you haven’t done so already, get your hands on a copy of the book and join us on November 3rd!


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