The Dreaded A-Word - Mari Biella

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.

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.

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 said 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:

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.


What a brilliant and thought-provoking post! I thought The Quickening had it exactly right by the way - accessible, but it seemed perfect for the period you were writing in - I certainly felt as though I was there, and was never ever pulled out of it by any anachronisms. It's odd how even a small thing can do it. (And one of the many issues that make historical novelists obsessive about research, I suppose.)
I know that there are a great many novels out there with a Scottish historical setting, madly popular but full of anachronisms and inaccuracies. Readers don't seem to mind at all, so I suppose there's no point in complaining - you can only say 'these are not for me' and move on. And maybe, after all, they should be categorised as fantasy rather than reality. But 'voice' - that's something I'm wrestling with a bit at the moment. My characters are living in late 18th century Scotland - I know how they would speak, but if I reproduce it, the book would become unreadable for all but a select few. So I'm compromising like mad - but how far to go, that's the question? By the way - your new novel sounds like steampunk to me and it sounds so good - can't wait.
AliB said…
Hi Mari = I also love this post and have grappled with most of the issues! Dialogue is especially hard to get right I think in historical fiction and a conscious decision has to be made on how to go about it. Scottish writers also have the added complication of local vernacular - write it like The Broons or just drop in the odd bit of idiom? I prefer the latter but have been surprised by some other approaches. sorry, that's a digression! In terms of historical accuracy I also went to a talk last year in which Sarah Dunant (namedropper!) discussed accuracy v authenticity and reflected that authenticity involves the presuppositions of the reader. i.e. you could be perfectly accurate but if that's not how people perceive the period they will think you are wrong! So authenticity is hard to pull off but not impossible as long as you know your stuff, your history, and your characters, I suppose!
AliB said…
PS Catherine I thought the voice(s)in the Physic Garden were perfect. I'll have to read The Quickening too ;)
Susan Price said…
Terrific post, Mari - and Ali, The Quickening is a wonderful book.

Yes, the speech of characters is the biggie. In the past, people's speech had the same range as ours does to us - from the formal to the racy and slangy, even shocking - but to us, almost all historical styles sound, well, historical. Quaint.

You can have your historical characters speak as people do today - but that in itself will date, so you'll end up with, say, 16th century characters speaking like flappers of the 1930s.

In my Sterkarm books, I have 16th century characters alongside 21st century people - ('cos there's a time machine involved. Not 100% realistic history.) I felt that the 16th C people had to sound different to the 21st, so I tried to give their speech a dialect feel, using my own dialect to try and make it seem natural. I still think I might have overdone it.

Good luck with your alternative history - I'm looking forward to it! Deliberate, confident anachronism is a plus, not a fault.
Bill Kirton said…
Brilliant, Mari. Entertaining and thought-provoking as ever. Having being labouring over a novel set in 1842 for far too long, I frequently long to introduce the occasional anachronism. I'd love to get my heroine back from Thurso to Aberdeen in a light aircraft or even a train to hurry things along, but she's going to have to put up with a 2 day coach trip (having already spent 2 days sailing there). It plays havoc with pacing.

And the language issue is sometimes frustrating, especially when it comes to vulgarities and the vernacular. Some of the words they used for ... er ... sexual congress are the same as ours but it sounds wrong to hear early Victorians using them. And the ones that were specific to them sound like inventions by Monty Python.

Oh, and I agree with the others, The Quickening is a great read, untainted by anachronisms.
Wendy H. Jones said…
This is fascinating. I'm with you in that something which is out of place jars, and prevents me from really engaging with the story. I am impressed by your commitment to ensuring accuracy and the amount of research you do. Thank you for sharing
Umberto Tosi said…
Great read, Mari. Thanks. Whenever I see a medieval painting now I will think of everyone in it going commando.

I grappled with these same challenges in writing Ophelia Rising. Even though Ophelia is a purely fictional character, I populated the novel with many real historical men and women from the 16th century, and had to research them as well as the settings, customs, clothing and events of that period.

In the process, I encountered the obverse of the anachronism problem you describe. To wit: I found authentic historical twists that 21st-century common wisdom would tag as out-of-synch, but that, nevertheless really occurred and that I thought germane to the Ophelia narrative that unfolded as I wrote.

My challenge was to slip these into the story credibly, without sounding didactic. One example, was the role of women in 15th-and-16th European theatre - given that Ophelia goes off with a commedia dell'arte troupe at the start of the novel. Most English-speakers know that women weren't allowed on the Elizabethan stage. But that wasn't true on the Continent. In fact, women not only performed, but many wrote and directed plays. Some even wrote screeds that from our perspective seem proto-feminist. Another aspect involved renaissance communications - what we'd call "media" -- in that information spread swiftly via the novelty of widely published portable books, and that mail services continued reliably along trade roads, from land-to-land, crossing borders and even battle lines.

Anyway, thanks again. I look forward to reading The Quickening. Good luck with it!
madwippitt said…
Great post! And period dialogue: yes, that is a poser, isn't it? Love that cover for The Quickening by the way!
Dennis Hamley said…
This must be short as it's late now and we've been away for the weekend. Great post, Mari. The Quickening, Like Catherine's Physic Garden, may for all I know contain small anachronisms. Who cares? they both work brilliantly because of their wonderful integrity of style and idiom. That's what counts. I've written enough historical fiction to know what a problem anachronism can be. And as for dialgoue - when I wrote the Joslin de Lay medieval mysteries I decided early on that the speech, except for just one or two Middle English constructions just to remind readers that this was a long time ago, would be modern because that's how it would sound to the characters when they were in the middle of actually living. Simples, as they say.
glitter noir said…
Great post, Mari, on a subject much on my mind all this year. In MonsterTime, a train is sent back in time--most passengers ending in 1906 San Francisco. As author I had, of course, to get setting and history right--while at the same time having my characters get critical essentials wrong. They attempt to spend 'funny money', they're given away by their clothing, they don't know who is president, they talk about the damndest things--polyester and credit cards. One by one, they're captured and sent off to Alcatraz, which becomes the private blood bank of one fellow passenger who needs the blood of his day to survive. But a few of the cleverer 'strangers' prevail by clever use of creative anachronisms: one 'becomes' Harpo Marx to steer clear of verbal slip-ups...another 'becomes' Mae West...and one of the book's villains seeks fame and fortune by stealing a not yet written poem by T S Eliot. Now that I'm back in the future, I need to check out your Quickening.
Sandra Horn said…
Super post, Mari! I've been struggling for ages with a story set somewhere, at some time, but in a largely pre-literate society. I just have the people speaking rather formally. Doesn't work. Your post is a kick in the backside to keep going and think harder. Thank you!
Lydia Bennet said…
Gah! I typed a comment on my phone and then it vanished when I tried, unsuccessfully. to post it! Anyway just to say, top post Mari, I too find anachronisms annoying and labour to avoid them unless they are part of the work! I loved The Quickening too.

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