Have you seen the guide to Downton Abbey: Tracking the Anachronisms yet?
And having seen it…do you care? Or is it the case that you (sorry) couldn’t care less?
In the arts, an anachronism (from the Greek “against time”) can be a word, an object, an event, an article of clothing, or a concept that is placed in an inappropriate time period. They’re not hard to spot in the visual arts, in film, or in literature. When oranges appear on the table in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, that’s an anachronism. When, during Titanic, Rose discourses with cheeky authority on the theories of Sigmund Freud, that’s also an anachronism—Freud wouldn’t publish those theories for nearly a decade. When a character in a Regency strips down to her brassiere: anachronism. And so forth.
Some readers take a hard line against the presence of anachronisms in their romantic fiction, feeling that it betrays a certain sloppiness on the part of the author. Others don’t care so much, reasoning that as long as the story is good and the characters are believable, who really cares that the internal combustion engine wouldn’t really be invented for another four years? (Or whatever).
To me, the very best books allow me to immerse myself in a time or place, whether that’s an overheated Regency ballroom, a windswept prairie in the early twentieth century, or a bustling World War II battlefield hospital. The details carefully rendered by the author take shape in my mind and suddenly I am there. But when I’m brought up short by something that seems inconsistent with what I know (or think I know) of the period under discussion, I’m not there anymore. I’m right back here, and I’m looking up from my book all “Did eighteenth-century English parents really name their daughters ‘Raeven’?”
Yeah, period-inappropriate names are a personal pet peeve of mine; I discussed What’s in a Name?: The Importance of Names in Romance Novels before. Similarly, when the language is obviously all wrong for the setting, it can be pretty jarring. For example, in Ruth Ann Nordin’s A Bride for Tom, which is set in 1868, lovely Jessica notices the shy and awkward Tom lumbering toward her and reflects “That would just be gross.” That would also be something Jessica would never say: “Gross” was not used in the sense of “disgusting” until the mid-twentieth century.
Details of dress and appearance can also be tricky; the zipper didn’t become widely used until the 1890s, the bra is really a twentieth-century thing, and don’t even get me started on makeup. I know that even respectable women used powder, rouge, and lip color back in the day, although they may not have admitted it. But in Dana Fuller Ross’ epic romantic series Wagons West, a saga of the Oregon Trail, one of the female characters (I don’t remember which one, and in fact it might have been more than one—it’s been years since I’ve read those books) keeps showing up with “kohl-rimmed eyes.” Now, before you jump all over me in the comments all “THEY TOTALLY HAD EYE MAKEUP IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY,” let me just pre-emptively say…Okay, sure. But “kohl-rimmed eyes?” On a pioneer woman? On the American frontier? Yeah, probably not so much.
On the other hand, in the spirit of confession I feel compelled to admit that I’m sometimes perfectly willing to overlook certain details in the name of artistic license, and that furthermore I’m sure that plenty of historical weirdnesses slide right past me. If I’m reading a book about the Civil War and someone shoots a quadruple-barreled McBanger shotgun, I’m not going to be the person who snipes that the McBanger only had three barrels until 1880. On the other hand, if I’m reading a book in which the hero, Captain Handsome of the Army of the Potomac, rolls out of bed and slides his lean, muscled legs into a pair of buckskin breeks, zips his fly, and shouts to his long-suffering cook “Yo, Mikaela! Hot dogs for breakfast,” I’ll know that the author hasn’t done her homework. (If Captain Handsome then proceeds to take flight in his dirigible and spends the remainder of the chapter up in the clouds picking off Johnny Reb with his laser cannon, I’ll know I’m reading steampunk.)
Finally, in some cases a too-strict reliance on historical detail can be just as off-putting. A classic example of this phenomenon is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, in which hero Jamie gets fed up with heroine Claire’s bad habit of putting his men into mortal danger through her dangerously unpredictable behavior, so he beats her. He beats her! Gabaldon’s response to the clamor around this scene (paraphrased) was “I scrupulously researched every aspect of this book and Jamie’s actions and attitudes are fully consistent with those of a man in that time and place so obviously it’s all good because REALISM!!!” To which I can only reply…yes, from a historic standpoint, Jamie’s actions are unexceptional, but on the other hand this is a book whose plot kicks into gear when the heroine travels backward through time, so…well, I wouldn’t have missed that scene if it weren’t there, is all I’m saying.
In short, the author of a historical romance walks a difficult line; the story needs to be sufficiently rooted in its time and place that it can transport the reader, but fresh enough in attitude that the reader isn’t completely turned off. Both God and the devil are in the details, and the wrong details can make or break a novel.
What are your favorite literary anachronisms?
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.