CONVERSATION: Where Do You Stand on Anachronisms?
Jayne: Our next topic for discussion is “anachronisms.”
Do anachronisms bother you? Or not?
Are any types worse than others? Language, culture, legal stuff, character actions, titles, anything else?
Can you tolerate a certain amount or is there a point beyond which you throw up your hands and say “No more!”
If a book is hitting all your sweet spots otherwise, can you forgive things that you know are incorrect?
Do Anachronisms Bother You?
Jennie: Anachronisms bother me…sometimes. I don’t know if it’s a “chicken vs. egg” scenario, but sometimes I’m not sure if a book starts to lose me with anachronisms *or* if I notice/care about the anachronisms because the book hasn’t fully engaged me. I don’t read nearly as many historicals as I used to, so I don’t come across anachronisms as often. If I’m really enjoying a book, I am probably less likely to notice an anachronism, and how much I care if I do notice probably depends how egregious it is or how successfully I can find a way to excuse it. The way I see it, a good book is like a good friend – you give them grace if you possibly can.
Janine: Do anachronisms bother me? I need to be able to suspend disbelief when I read a book, to be convinced that a situation is believable, and too many anachronisms get in the way of that. The definition of “too many” varies. If a book is really engaging in other ways I can enjoy it even if in another book those same anachronisms might ruin my reading experience. Julie Anne Long is an example of an author who takes liberties but whose books I have loved because of my enjoyment of other factors (depth of characterization, great chemistry, charismatic protagonists, swoony elements, pretty prose).
Jennie: I don’t want to think of the author while reading. I rarely get so immersed that the characters and plot feel *really* real (that is the ultimate, desired-for reading experience IMO), but in most books I can get absorbed enough that I don’t question the characters’ thoughts or actions. By that I mean, I accept that this character is thinking and acting this way (not that I always approve!). I don’t think of the author moving the characters around like a player with a chess board.
Anachronisms of all types threaten the illusion, however thin it is. The thicker the illusion is, the more likely I am to be able to shrug it off. But multiple examples in a book that already doesn’t feel that real to me has me in a constant state of, “what is this author thinking?” – meaning I’m thinking about the author, which as I said, I don’t want to do.
Jayne: These are excellent points about anachronisms breaking the illusion of reality that (I assume) the author is trying to create. There’s nothing better than sinking into a book and really getting lost in it. As for an otherwise fantastic book sweeping me along past things that should have made me scream, I offer The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt, which I loved but I know you DNF’d it, Janine.
Sirius: If the author doesn’t label their books as historical nothing bothers me if the author manages to build a coherent world around historical fantasy settings. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite writers and his historical research I find ten times better than many authors who claim their books are historical.
Kaetrin: I’m not usually bothered by anachronisms in historicals, mostly because I’m unlikely to notice them! If something jumps out at me I might look it up but things like titles and such I’m probably going to skip over. I know it bugs a lot of readers but it’s not near and dear to my heart so I can go with it. I’m like Jennie in that I’m more likely to notice an anachronism if the book isn’t working for me generally. If I’m bored or unhappy I tend to get nitpicky. If I’m interested and engaged I’ll generally sail right on by!
Layla: Anachronisms don’t always bother me, because I can’t always spot them! However, I do like congruence in tone in historicals. For example, in the West End Earl book I reviewed (the author is Bethany Bennett), the heroine felt very ‘modern’. It wasn’t just the choices she makes, but also how free and open she is–with her sexuality, with her emotions, with her independence. The author justifies this in her peculiar history and her choices to dress and live as a man–and this makes sense in the world of the novel. But in the world of Regency or Victorian England, I’m not so sure! I’m not an expert, however, and I haven’t done extensive research (or any!) on cross dressing women in those times. I liked the heroine, I found her refreshing and I was into the fantasy of the book. Is she a historically accurate representation of a woman of her class and her time? Probably not.
I think certain authors capture the mood and feeling of historical periods better than others. Evie Dunmore, Meredith Duran, Jo Beverly, Mary Balogh, Laura Kinsale, Elizabeth Hoyt–when they write, I do feel like I’m encountering historical figures whose lifeworlds are different than mine. They have historical detail and richness which I love.
I have read and enjoyed Tessa Dare for example, but her books read very modern to me. The heroines, the heroes, the plots–they are Disney like. I don’t read them for historical accuracy at all.
Anachronisms that are Relevant to the Plot
Jayne: Tolerating anachronisms often depends on how noticeable and pertinent to the plot it is. For instance Wulfgar and Aislinn (The Wolf and the Dove) could chow down on baked potatoes for the rest of that book and it wouldn’t really have bothered me. They could even have added a nice tossed salad with chopped tomatoes and I would have shrugged. Yes it was a “there’s no doubt about it” mistake but it didn’t affect the plot. It’s the kind of thing I would grimace slightly about and keep reading. The Substitute Bridegroom by Charlotte Louise Dolan had some howlers that also didn’t end up affecting the plot but could have if Dolan had had the hero go through with stepping aside from inheriting his Dukedom or obtaining a divorce as he so easily seemed to think he could do.
Janine: I do notice wrong titles and forms of address now that I’ve acquired some knowledge of them, but I try to forgive that because it isn’t straightforward at all. One exception is when knowing the correct title is very relevant to the plot. In Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, Leda is supposedly an expert on Victorian etiquette. Her ability to assist them with that is one of the reasons Lord and Lady Ashland welcome her as a guest in their house even though she’s basically a stranger. But she flubs their titles, which surely even they would know! She doesn’t even stick to one title for each of them but addresses or thinks of them as Lord Ashland/Lord Gryf, Lady Ashland/Lady Tess, Lady Kai/Lady Catherine. Her mistakes undermined the marquess and marchioness’s already tenuous motivation for hosting her, and their decision to host her is a key factor in the plot. That kind of thing really does bother me. Authors: if your character is supposed to be an expert on something, get it right.
Jennie: I probably encounter language anachronisms the most – usually slang that I’m fairly sure doesn’t belong in the period the book is set.
Janine: Language is probably the anachronism type that jumps out at me most. I have a good ear for period language and when I see authors tweet about how word X or Y isn’t anachronistic even though readers think it is, it irritates me because at least 95% of the time I know that word is true to the period. I am usually proven right even when I’m not sure and check the OED to confirm. Unless it’s qualified as “some readers” or “sometimes readers,” etc., then when authors say that I often read it as an attempt to silence the complaints of readers and reviewers.
Jayne: Anachronistic sounding language is something I’m not as confident about unless it’s really off. If a Regency character snaps, “You’re kidding me, right?” or a Restoration person mutters, “As if!” then yeah, it irritates me. Usually though I’m fine with a bit of leeway.
Sirius: Anachronisms do bother me – language less than custom and cultural stuff simply because I often don’t know if an English word is an anachronism or not, but when I do I roll my eyes and repeatedly so.
Layla: I was just reading Joanne Schupe’s latest, The Lady Gets Lucky, and something about the dialogue made me think perhaps, that she was taking liberties. But then again, because its set in America, I wasn’t sure if perhaps that was really how people talked back then!
Character Actions and Cultural Anachronisms
Sirius: Mindset bothers me way more than anachronistic language – too modern mindset that is.
Layla: Sometimes I find anachronisms slightly annoying, like in the Tessa Dare book where the heroine runs a proto animal shelter, The Wallflower Wager. I was on a tour of the Tenement Museum in NY and a kid asked the guide, did they have pets back then? And she said not poor and working class people no! Also animals were not seen in the same way that domestic pets are in the 21st century.
Janine: Ahistorical cultural attitudes absolutely can bother me, but this one is tricky for me. I’ve definitely been on thin ground there in the past and I learned years ago to look things up before saying anything in a review if I think there’s a chance I could be wrong.
Jennie: I find cultural anachronisms the most bothersome. I can glide over an “okay” or “as if” in a historical with a minor eyeroll, but messing up cultural practices bothers me. I still remember a historical I read YEARS ago where the h/h practice bundling in a time and place that I truly don’t think it was practiced (specifically, I think it was 19th century English aristocrats). Things like that, where the author just decides to throw something in to serve the plot, feels lazy to me and it makes me, as a reader, lose trust (if that’s not too dramatic a way of putting it).
Jayne: By “anachronistic character actions” I mean stuff like young, aristocratic heroines routinely wandering alone at night through the mean streets of London (such as the Seven Dials area) without a care in the world or that bundling thing that Jennie mentions. Anything that pulls you up and makes you think “Real people of the time probably wouldn’t have done that, would they?”
Kaetrin: Some things (heroines wandering around in Seven Dials late at night) are part of the necessary suspension of disbelief for me so I don’t usually get bothered by those things.
Jennie: One thing with some of the anachronistic behavior that’s come up – like a lady walking in Seven Dials – is that it’s one thing if a character does something that is unusual from a cultural standpoint. There are always outliers in any era. It’s another thing if everyone around acts like the behavior is normal. Sometimes the hero or heroine acts like unusual behavior is normal as a way of signaling (at least, this is how it feels to me) that they are forward-thinking, good people. I find this particularly irritating.
Realism vs. Fantasy
Jayne: Another thing that I’ve noticed is the number of book blurbs that hint that anachronistic behavior or plots will be taking place in a book.
Janine: You bring up a good point, Jayne, which is that a lot of readers want anachronistic plots and enjoy the fantasies. I don’t think that’s at all wrong but I wish these books were labeled as fantasy historical romance rather than historical romance so that I would be able to choose which kind of book to read–one that hews close to history vs. one that’s frothier and more fantastical–according to what I’m in the mood for.
Jennie: Yeah, I’m okay with it if it’s clearly alternate history, and marketed as such.
What about you, readers? Do anachronisms bother you? When and what kinds? What kinds of anachronisms do you happily overlook? And how important to you is realism in a novel?