Books · The Writing Process

The Dreaded A-Word

Consider these three different scenarios:

1. The hero of a Regency romance stalks into a drawing-room and greets his bewildered valet with the words “What’s up, dude?”

2. A generally well-researched novel set in Mediaeval Europe has a scene in which the protagonist gets out of bed and puts on his underpants. (Underpants, so I’m told, were not commonly worn in the Mediaevael era.)

3. An author deliberately and knowingly introduces anachronisms, such as spaceships or the internet, into a novel set in Tudor England.

Which of these scenarios is worst, or best? Do all of them set your teeth on edge, or just some? Do anachronisms wreck historical fiction, or not? How much difference is there between an anachronism that is introduced by design, and one that is the result of shoddy research?

Historical fiction often (but not always) strives to be realistic, and this realism sometimes extends to a horror of anachronism. The argument seems to be that readers need to be able to suspend their disbelief, and that anachronisms puncture the illusion. G. K. Chesterton put it wonderfully: “Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

G.K. Chesterton. Image c/o Wikimedia Commons.
G.K. Chesterton. Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons.

The dreaded anachronism, eh? Having had a few tussles with it myself, I sort of know whereof I speak. Once, years ago, I attempted to write a novel set during the English Civil War. It was dire, and will never see the light of day, but it did present me with a few interesting problems regarding my portrayal of the era. The novel was in a realistic vein, and I spent much time researching the period, attending re-enactments, visiting a country house that was furnished much as a house of the period would be, and so on. Such was my commitment to realism, indeed, that I attempted to reproduce the speech of the period. You can imagine how successful that particular enterprise was; the characters sounded like they were reading from the King James Bible. In the end, I reverted to more-or-less modern English – an anachronism, but a reasonable enough one in the circumstances.

My novel The Quickening is set in Victorian England – and again, is largely realistic. Yes, it’s a ghost story; yes, lots of more-or-less improbable things happen, as they generally do in ghost stories; but I made a conscious decision to position that ghost story within a realistic setting. A framework of realism would, I hoped, help to make the rather unrealistic supernatural elements stronger, would allow readers to suspend their disbelief. Perhaps I was also conditioned by the expectation that historical fiction should be realistic. I’m sure a few anachronisms crept through, but hopefully they were small enough not to drag the book down.

The Quickening EBook Cover

Anachronisms can certainly be annoying on occasion, especially when you’re a neurotic geek like me. One of my particular non-favourites is the scene in Titanic in which a young Rose cheekily tells Mr Ismay what Sigmund Freud would make of his preoccupation with size. For one thing, I’m not sure that a well-bred young lady of the era would possess such daring chutzpah, though I could be wrong about that. Secondly, Freud didn’t publish this theory until several years after Rose’s hair-raising encounter with a giant iceberg, which leads me to conclude that Rose had been doing a spot of time-travelling on the side.

But then again … there’s another strand of thought, according to which historical fiction does not only reach back into the past, but forwards – into the present, and perhaps into the future. We see the past through the prism of our own times, unavoidably so. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is generally realistic, for example, and yet in its examination of power – how it is gained, how it is used and abused, and how the power of the few impacts on the freedoms of the many – it seems to be addressing a very modern concern. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, some of the cities described take on an oddly anachronistic modern character. It hardly matters; the cities described are metaphors for states of mind, attitudes, beliefs. Marco Polo describes his story of one city as “an approximate reflection, like every human creation.”

The question, perhaps, is this: if an author deliberately introduces anachronisms into a work, does that work then step out of the realm of historical fiction, and become speculative or experimental fiction? This is more than a matter of theoretical concern for me. I’ve recently been brushing the dust off an old manuscript that I once despaired of, and now think might work after all. It’s historical, in a sense, being set in Victorian London. This is, however, a slightly alternative Victorian London, and the protagonist has a strange connection to our own times, for reasons that I couldn’t explain without entering spoiler territory. Anachronism is the name of the game here, as this cheery collage that I put together to illustrate the novel suggests:

All images c/o Wikimedia Commons.
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Oh well. It’s not pure historical fiction, so hopefully any prospective readers wouldn’t be too dismayed by its anachronisms. It belongs, perhaps, under the bracket of sci-fi or speculative fiction; I’d opt for steampunk, but it’s not technological enough to fit easily into that category. Maybe it belongs to that group of novels that don’t fit easily into any genre at all.

I leave you with an example of anachronism as God surely intended.

By the time you read this, I’ll be visiting my (WiFi-free) mother in Wales, and might therefore not reply to any comments. Thank you in advance for any you might wish to leave, though!

Reblogged from Authors Electric.

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9 thoughts on “The Dreaded A-Word

  1. Hello, Mari,now in Wales.
    Your project sounds fascinating – you are the last writer to need to worry about anachronisms generally; that was one of the things that made ‘The Quickening’ so horribly believable. I know what it is to dread anachoronisms; wildly incongruous, they’d make for great fun – in mine, Cerridwen Kenrick sending photos of Emile Dubois’ past to him on his mobile along with suggestive texts?
    I have to say that an anachronism that does make me sigh is one from readers, particularly of historical romances, who have the odd belief that if they had lived in Georgian or Regency times, they would have belonged to the tiny upper class in the UK; perhaps it’s because they don ‘t think in class terms at all, and see themselves as necessarily enjoying a high standard of living in a past age, if they enjoy one now, not connecting it with industrialisation, mass production, global markets, etc etc?
    Some people have solemnly pointed out to me that my servants use grammatical errrors, and they really ought to be corrected…

  2. I trust you to include anachronisms that strengthen and inform the overall story. I would guess that such a work world be labeled speculative, but when I’m reading, any concept of genre or label is subsumed by the joy of encountering the story. I cannot artist wait to read this book, Mari, it sounds amazing!

    -aniko

    PS I hope you have a wonderful visit with your mother!

  3. As an audiobook narrators Anachronisms are the bane of my life. One of my ‘favourites’ was a Victorian Duke of the Realm, who upon discovering that his bosom-heaving lady love was not quite behaving as she should, became ‘antsy’! Try saying that with conviction!!

    1. Hello Helen, and thank you for commenting! As anachronisms go, that’s a highly silly one – perhaps it added some comic relief, though! I haven’t yet got round to creating audiobooks, but if/when I get sufficient funding it’s an avenue I’d like to explore.

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