Those Anachronisms: We All Dread Making Them


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Those of us who write historical fiction go in dread of committing the blunder of an anachronism; a real historical howler.

I’ve been double checking the research for my latest. Research is so tedious, and I fully understand how some writers must become so weary of it that they take a risk, and neglect checking on some tedious fact or other.

Of course, that will inevitably be the one fact that is glaringly, ludicrously inaccurate…

I envy rich and famous writers their research assistants. It must be wonderful to have one, so that they can do all the donkey work, while the writer hands over a pay check and takes all the credit.

Of course, the internet does make it easier; there’s always Wickipedia for a rough guide. Still, if you wish to look up something more obscure, for instance, some detail about the sort of streets the nameless middle class occupied in the early nineteenth century, then it can be horribly frustrating. There is any amount of information on Mayfair and the squares favoured by upper class, and some on the ‘rookeries’ at the other end of the social scale, but when it comes to those in between areas, a complete paucity of information. Often you have to fall back on the fiction written at the time, or of people writing soon afterwards, to come by information at all.

300px-Savile_Club_New_Bar_2About bourgeois streets, In the end, I had to fall back on ‘Vanity Fair’ for an address for a socially aspiring nouveau riche family who would certainly turn their noses up at Mr Gardiner’s Gracechurch Street address in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Thank you, Mr Thackeray…

Prize fighting features in my story. I had to do research on whether kicking and throwing was still permitted under the Broughton Rules. Also, I wanted to check when prize fighting was made illegal (intriguingly, it seems arguable it has never really been made legal in the UK, even after the introduction of the Queensbury Rules). Not as if the anti hero of the novel would be likely to trouble about that, but if a meeting was in danger of being broken up by the authorities, I’d have to stage it some way outside the metropolis.

All this made me think of that excellent post written a year or so ago by Mari Biella about these dreaded historical howlers.

The Dreaded A-Word

As she says, we all go in dread of being pulled up over them, and facts can be hard to ascertain.

For instance, from my own experience, there seems to be disagreement about whether or not the kiss featured as part of the Georgian marriage ceremony. I myself tend to think that it did, as it seems to have been an old tradition long before that age, and I have included it in weddings in my stories. Still, I may yet be proved wrong.200px-Eugene_Onegin_01_(Kardovsky)

It’s so easy to make these mistakes. There are so many factors that have to be taken into account; besides clothes and language, diet, and daily life including travel and leisure, there are current affairs. When I began writing ‘The Villainous Viscount’ , set in the spring and summer of 1821, I assumed that George IV must have been duly crowned by then. It was only when I checked on the date of the coronation, just to make sure, that I found out that because of the delays caused by his attempt to divorce Queen Caroline  in the ‘Pains and Penalties Bill’ , he was not officially crowned until July 1821.

For those interested, she was kept out of the ceremony…

Nobody wants to be approached by a reader saying, ‘I hate to point it out, but…’

Of course, a writer can be approached by people insisting on very odd facts. A reader from Canada contacted me once about ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ assuring me that there are no mosquitoes in Europe or the UK, and never have been.

The grounds for this assertion seemed to be that she was not bitten by one during the course of her holiday in Scotland.  To be fair to her, she seemed to think that I am from the US and had never been in Europe, despite my spelling. I can only say that she was a good deal luckier than I am; I am sitting here in Wales trying not to scratch two such bites.

220px-William_Ward_(engraver)02Another reader asked if I was unaware that I had made Émile’s former partner in crime and later valet, Georges, and Sophie’s maid Agnes speak using grammatical errors…

Language generally in historical novels is another pitfall. A writer who tries to reproduce the style of speech of the period too exactly will probably end up annoying people. In the first edition of ‘That Scoundrel…’ I put a fair bit of the inverted verb and pronoun frequently to be met with in Jane Austen. However, some readers found this hard going, and objected. I avoided doing the same thing in ‘Ravensdale’.

Then again, on slang; with racy, fashionable types, to add a period flavour it is surely a good idea to put in a certain amount: but too much of it is downright tiresome. Recondite references to fashions, customs and landmarks of the era can become ostentatious and wearisome.

There is the whole use of the word ‘in’t’ or ‘aint’ in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which was often used instead of ‘isn’t’.  It is rendered as ‘in’t’ in Fanny Burney and as ‘ain’t’ in some translations of ‘Pamela’. It seems to have been used in racy, careless or colloquial speech than writing; but it didn’t become a ‘vulgarism’ until sometime in the Victorian era.

220px-Renoir23All this wearisome research made me think with envy of those traditionally published writers of historical fiction who publish through companies which are supposed to check for anachronisms.

That may sound a sorry admission for a self published writer to make. I note that unfortunately this expert help does not seem entirely reliable.

For instance, while I believe traditional publishing houses such as those  of mass market romance (both US and UK based) are meant to check for historical accuracy in their historicals, here I am frankly puzzled. I have come across works published by Harlequin set in a Regency England plentifully supplied with duvets and larger, a parliament without two chambers, with the Speaker of the House of Commons apparently situated in the House of Lords, Duke’s addressed as ‘Mr Duke’, and heroines given to saying ‘humungous’ .

All this is rather unfortunate for the reputation of historical romance generally. There are obviously, many writers who are scrupulous about historical research; sadly, this could be more widespread.

I came across an article which suggested that: ‘Don’t know much about history? Read an historical romance’. grey outcastA number of book covers by well known writers of Regency Romances were featured in this article, which it said all had reputations for carrying out scrupulous historical research – well and good.

However, prominent among them was a cover of a Regency Romance featuring a man wearing a modern suit and tie.

I thought the kindest thing to do in the circumstances was discreetly to contact the writer of the article via ‘contact us’ , pointing this out, before someone else did the same thing openly and derisively on the comments section. However, I received no acknowledgement, and the article remains as it is…

I was dismayed to learn from a friend that writers of children’s stories set in the eleventh and twelfth century UK are  encouraged to pretend that the language gap between the Norman French speaking nobility and the Anglo Saxon speaking majority of the population frankly didn’t exist, ostensibly because ‘It makes for too many difficulties’.

220px-Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_death

Quite; being invaded by the Normans did make for a few difficulties for the dispossessed Anglo Saxons.

In fact, the first King to speak English after the Norman conquest in 1066 was Edward III (reigned 1327 to 1377), and this approach seems to me to encourage an a-historical approach,and to make for a far more bland and consensus driven presentation of historical reality than in fact existed.

Rant over, on that issue of Norman French speaking nobles  (looks about nervously, wondering what she has forgotten to double-check).

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