Free Indirect Speech in Historical Fiction

Staying true to a character’s voice or limited perspective while narrating a story in the third person is one of the challenges that an author confronts in writing effective historical fiction.

Henry James was a master of free indirect speech. With this technique, some aspects of the narrator, who may be much more prescient and educated than his character, are merged seamlessly with direct thoughts or spoken words presented in the first-person POV.

To learn more about how James pulled off this difficult trick in his novels, check out Mira Sethi’s recent essay on James in The Wall Street Journal (Weekend Edition, July 24-25, Page W14). Sethi , a Bartley Fellow at the Journal, discusses James’s attraction to new, impressionistic forms of narration in his later years.

Focusing primarily on his 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew, Sethi explains how James gave the reader continual access to the mind of his main character–a child of divorced parents–while still offering his cherished philosophical insights.

Sethi offers this example from the novel: “[Maisie] puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a center of hatred . . . that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so.”

As Sethi points out, words such as imperfect signs and prodigious sound too intellectual for a child, but by finishing the internal thought with everything was bad, James manages to merge the POVs of the narrator and the child.

Free indirect speech is a technique fraught with peril if not used with discrimination, but play around with it the next time you have a historical figure whose education may be lacking, whose age may be too young, or whose worldly perspective may be too narrow to support the depth of narration you want to provide to the reader.

One Response to “Free Indirect Speech in Historical Fiction”

  • I tried using print screen then copying and pasting your article unsuccessfully. I wanted to send it to a friend as corroboration of my belief in the technique. Randolph Quirk gives an example of the use of free indirect speech in Dickens’ description of the crossing sweeper’s testimony in “Bleak House”.Dickens took impressionism much further by merging the identities of speaker and questioner with the perspective of the narrator.

    The technique is particularly risky for new authors who have to submit their writing to the scrutiny of unsophisticated commentators on web pages who dismiss the omission of speech marks, identification of the speakers and incomplete sentence construction as poor.

    Harper Lee has been criticised for writing from Scout’s point of view while introducing the narrator’s adult observations into the child’s reflections.Some commentators have asked how a small child could possibly reflect on her seniors with such insight and wit. It is clear to me that the author has used free indirect speech to explain matters the girl is too young to understand. Nevertheless, the author is remembering the quirks of her neighbours that amused and puzzled her.

    Harper’s adoring public were tolerant of her adventurous narration. Some of my Internet purchasers have been less kind with my attempts to use free reported speech at times when the matters discussed were more important than the identity of the speakers.I note that you provide manuscript consultation. I would be grateful for your advice on my historical novel “Chimes of Whitechapel”. I am heartily sick of the book. I was never particularly interested in Jack the Ripper, but I wanted to write a detective novel that provided a possible solution that would make more sense than the theories that had been produced.

    An earlier version called “The Chime” had an average of four stars though it sold few copies. The price of the print on demand copies did not help. The revised version earned an average of one and a half stars and comments like “muddled” and “jumbled”. My reconstructions of scenes of crime through the eyes of the leading character have evidently prompted the judgement that the narration was confused.I have withdrawn the novel for revision

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