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.