Acceptable Anachronism

Though I read many different types of romance, historicals remain at the top of my list. At various times, I find myself turning over in my mind a certain question, though. Why is it that I can easily forgive certain anachronisms in a book but cannot move past others? To some extent, a writer with a very good voice draws me into a story so absolutely that I will blow right past such things as title usage errors or flaws in the history. For example, there is a rather glaring historical gaffe found in On the Way to the Wedding that had some readers up in arms soon after the book’s release. However, I found the story so engaging that the anachronistic plot device found near the ending didn’t bother me at all – even though I knew good and well as I read it that it was not historically accurate.

Likewise, I suspect many of us don’t mind the anachronisms that gloss over the less romantic aspects of our beloved characters’ daily lives. When rereading old favorites such as For My Lady’s Heart or Candle in the Window, I have no problem with the author not concerning herself with some of the nitty gritty details of medieval life. The shocking cleanliness of the characters in an age in which many people bathed rarely and did not wash clothes with great regularity did not draw me out of the story in the least. A love scene in which the hero gallantly ignores the bedbugs, body odor and lice of his beloved would move me far less than the scenes a good author typically comes up with.

And then there is the language. From time to time, on the message boards, readers debate the language issue, with some mentioning that the use of 21st century dialogue by characters of another time simply distracts them too much. While I can certainly see where certain extremes would do this to me as well (a heroine calling hero “dude” instead of “sir” or “milord”, for instance), I cannot tell anyone with a straight face that I expect historical accuracy in language usage. Some authors do manage a very convincing and old-fashioned voice that adds greatly to their stories. However, certain places and time periods do not lend themselves to strict accuracy. If I’m in the mood for an intellectual challenge, I may well enjoy picking my way through a passionate tale told in Middle English. However, on the average Saturday afternoon, I’d rather not – and that’s why I’m happy to note that authors such as Jo Beverley or Mary Reed McCall chose to use a little anachronism in their choice of words.

In the end, my personal tolerance for anachronism in a historical hinges on the characters and the world-building. For example, in the recent release, What a Scoundrel Wants, even someone having only passing familiarity with medieval England will spot some items which seem out of place. However, when the author creates a world vivid enough that readers want to believe in it, it works. And, to use an example from a more recent era, I’m fairly certain that the vampire ass-kicking antics of the Venators in Colleen Gleason’s Gardella Vampire Chronicles would seem out of place to a visitor from the Regency world. The author manages to create a very vivid alternate world, though, and the internal logic of that world hangs together well enough to allow a reader to believe in it. The strong characterizations in those books don’t hurt either.

On the flip side, when the internal logic of the author’s world just isn’t there (usually because it’s tissue-thin wallpaper) and the characters are not quite so well-drawn, historical anachronisms seem even more glaring. For instance, I recall reading a medieval titled Come the Morning. The book was not helped by its less than compelling 13th-century Scotland peopled with characters who all have very odd-sounding, not terribly Scottish names. A feisty heroine straight from Romancelandia Central Casting further hindered the tale. Adding all manner of modern phrasings as well as the anachronistic belief of a feudal maiden who never seemed to consider protocol or the idea of treason when planning to openly disagree with her king simply exacerbated a bad situation. And then there’s the time I had to read a romance set in the 1790s (pre-Rosetta Stone) in which the main characters seemed miraculously able to read hieroglyphic writing!

My bottom line? The comforting anachronisms that make the past seem like a romantic place might not be so bad, and I’ll forgive a good world-builder very much indeed. However, I’ve noticed that almost every reader sets his or her bar in a different place. Where is yours? And are there certain anachronisms you simply cannot tolerate, no matter how good the author?

-Lynn Spencer

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19 Responses to Acceptable Anachronism

  1. Beth Re says:

    If I’m drawn into the story I don’t really care if there are historicals mistakes. If I wanted to read about history I would read history books. I want to be taken into a different world for a while and get into the story.

  2. Magnolia says:

    Normally I don’t care much at all about historical anachronisms, and usually don’t even notice them.

    But sometimes the use of contemporary language is SO glaring and obvious that it takes me out of the story.

    One memorable example (and not in a good way) is in THE DUKE by Gaelen Foley, when the couple is kissing at Vauxhall, out in public with people watching, and one of his friends yells out “Get a room!” I mean, please. You might as well have them saying “Dude, chill!”

  3. Jessa Slade says:

    Strangely, I find that modern language bothers me less in historicals than in futuristics. I mean, ‘dude’ is never okay outside a contemp :) but I’ll let most anachronisms slide in a historical whereas I pretty strongly insist that my futuristics feel future-y.

  4. Tinabelle says:

    While I appreciate well-researched historical accuracy overall and truly enjoy stories that incorporate actual events/people, I am not bothered by little or minor anachronisms when the story is well-written and the characters interesting and well-developed. Historical accuracy doesn’t necessarily make for a “good” story and could really kill the fantasy and the romance. Hygiene habits are a good example! I can think of a lot of plots and events in historicals that probably would never have really happened but make for a wonderful story. Glaring errors/modern language might raise my eyebrows and produce an eye rolling moment, but I can usually overlook them up to a point and move on if I am into the story. It is fiction after all, and I’ll allow some artistic license.

  5. skrabs says:

    I have to admit I like historical accuracy but such anachronisms don’t do much more than distract me. I’d keep reading regardless, though I do tend to make a note of authors that keep doing such a thing (Laurell K. I mean you!). I’m more interested in the story. If you suck me in I’ll forgive you pretty much anything.

    One case of too much info – the Key by Lynsay Sands which had the hero smelling like a true medieval man probably should, and the heroine being turned off by it. Which pretty much turned me off it.

  6. MMcA says:

    Language would pull me out of historicals, which in a sense is unfair, because I wouldn’t want them to be written as people spoke at the time – I want the author to write in modern English – but if it seems too modern, it does jar.

    For instance, I was reading, and really enjoyed Carla Kelly’s ‘Marrying the Captain’ last night, but at one point the Captain sees the heroine: ‘She was there, pouring tea for two vendors who were trying to chat her up.’
    English usage isn’t my speciality: for all I know people did chat each other up in the 19thC – but the phrase completely distracted me from the story, because it sounded odd in that context. (Still, fantastic book.)
    And Americanisms distract me too. I remember one Regency where the English character called his horse ‘the orneriest horse’ and ‘the fool horse’ both of which sound so distinctively American to me that it was impossible to imagine an English Lord using them.

    Thing is, I could be wrong and the author could be right – because obviously language changes over time.

  7. LizA says:

    I think there are anachronisms and anachronisms. Hygene is a good example for the one kind. While it is generally known that standards were different, it is always possible to imagine individual people who were different. There is absolutely NO way to say that “everyone in the middle ages was filthy at all times”. So I can overlook something like that because a skillful writer can make me believe that the heroine and hero are just different. What never fails to annoy me are the things that are simply wrong, no exceptions. I once read a book where the heroine was an early photographer – at a time when photography did not exist yet. I might still get past it if the story is engrossing enough, but it does annoy me!

  8. SusiB says:

    If a book is well written, and has a logical plot and good characters, I’m willing to overlook a lot. But I often find myself thinking that the author really could have made a little more of an effort to research the story. And it’s not even only the anachrosnisms that hint at an author working sloppily. It’s characters having stupid names – or does anyone really think that Regency-era British dukes would have called their sons Hunter? It’s people travelling through Morocco and seeing lots of pigs – yes, pigs, in a Muslim country – in a village. And then there’s the problem of languages. If you’re going to have, for example, a hero whose mother was Italian, and who’s prone to spouting Italian phrases or sentences, just go ahead and ask someone for help who actually speaks the language! The same applies, of course, to Suzanne Brockmann’s characters’ attempts at speaking German. Full of mistakes. That said, I enjoy her books a lot, I even buy them in hardcover – but could it really have been so difficult to find somebody to help her translate those sentences?

  9. PatW says:

    It’s the British titles that bother me when they are wrong – if the story is god enough I can ignore the error IF IT IS CONSISTENT. What drives me batty is changing the mode of address throughout the book – so sometimes it’s right and sometime it’s wrong or worse, it’s wrong in different ways ARRRGH.

    On the other hand, I freely forgive the hygiene ones – don’t want to imagine what it was really like :-) and I will totally miss certain things like when Christmas carols are written.

    I do get bothered by mistakes in actual history if they are central to the story – like an Englishman being able to travel around Napoleonic France other than during the Peace of Amiens.

    One particular quirk of mine (because of a different hobby of mine) is being annoyed by how easy it is to travel many miles in a day on really bad roads in Regency England; plus some authors get this very right (Dinah Dean’s Cockermouth Mail or Mary Balogh’s Incorrigible Matchmaker).

  10. Great topic.

    I just have to comment briefly on the medieval hygiene issue, in case it might prove interesting to anyone. In the course of more than a decade of readings and research concerning medieval people, places, and times, I’ve learned that while “well-off” medieval people might not have attained quite the levels of cleanliness we modern people consider desirable, they were quite a bit more concerned about bathing and cleanliness in general than they are often given credit for. Later ages (the Renaissance etc) seem to have associated full immersion bathing with negative things, like illness and potential death – but all of my research indicates that medieval people quite enjoyed and indulged in regular bathing (personal and ritual both).

    Of course this addresses primarily people of the middle class and above; the lower classes of the medieval population were necessarily more likely to have dirt as a part of their usual life, thanks to their occupations and the circumstances of living (i.e. sharing living space with their farm animals etc LOL). However, the nobility seems to have been fond enough of bathing to often have their own, personal tubs (round types, which were lined with fabric padding, filled with steaming, herb-scented water, and complete with little canopies, to keep in the heat). These tubs were often turned over and used as tables in between baths.

    Public bath houses were also very popular in most cities, though many of these were eventually shut down because they attracted some illicit behaviors (prostitution and the like).

    There are many pieces of medieval art, writings, and recipes (for bath herbs etc) devoted to the pleasures of bathing in the middle ages. it seems that the Church, even, had to address the issue to try to prevent people from indulging in bathing so much; Church leaders, while concerned with “cleanliness” of soul and body, nevertheless felt that many of their flock were becoming distracted and too immersed in this practice as a pleasure of the flesh. Here are a couple links that might prove interesting for some in terms of this subject:
    And a few pictures: (this is a modern reconstruction of a medieval bath at Leeds Castle)

    Happy Reading!


  11. LizA says:

    SusiB, you are so right about languages! The first rule of foreign languages in a romance should be:Get a native speaker! And it is not that hard to find native speakers, even of “obscure” languages – there are these funny places called universities that attract even funnier people called international students … who would surely consent to checking these few phrases for a bit of cash or even for free! Sorry for being sarcastic, but I remember one romance writer arguing that she could not find a person to speak Finish… which I found really lame. Just contact the international office of the nearest University, and you will find native speakers of more languages than you’d ever need! Sorry for the rant….
    oh and never rely on a few classes you took years ago. They might be fine for traveling and general communications, but most people forget the little details and that is annoying as hell in books.
    Okay, rant over!

  12. AAR Lynn says:

    LizA – I think you have a good point. There always seem to be people who don’t follow the norm of their time and so unusual behaviors can be acceptable to a reader because of that. Jumping the gun on inventions would be something else. I just read a book set in the early 1870s and the heroine refers to electricity and automobiles as if they have come into common use at least among the rich in rural England. That jumped out at me so much that I had to go look it up!

    And SusiB -I’m with you on the languages. The area I’m in has people from all over the world, so I may just have a skewed view of things, but it seems as though it would be fairly easy to find language help. I have to do it for court cases all the time, and I’m always able to find people – even for some fairly exotic languages.

  13. Susan/DC says:

    I admit to being inconsistent about my requirements for historical accuracy. I prefer authors to be as accurate as possible. However, I recognize that complete accuracy may be neither possible nor desirable. I don’t care that medievals don’t reference personal hygiene because contemporaries don’t either — when was the last time you read a contemporary that discussed whether the hero had bathed or brushed his teeth recently or pointed out the wonders of modern sewer systems? When I read a medieval, I don’t expect the heroine to particularly notice the hero’s bathing habits because they would be the same as hers and everyone elses. If something is universal, people don’t notice it and so it wouldn’t be commented on. I’m more likely to notice inaccuracies that relate to things I know, and I’m more likely to be annoyed if the errors are things that are easy to check (e.g., languages, historical events, and titles) — errors in such things indicate laziness on the author’s part and a lack of respect for the readers.

    As several others have noted, if the author has created characters who are psychologically true and a story that’s emotionally true, I’m much more willing to forgive the occasional historical lapse.

  14. AAR Lynn says:

    For Mary Reed McCall – Thanks for posting the links! They were really interesting.
    Funny you should mention the folks who had to share living space with their animals. I still remember learning about that in history class. It was quite a jolt to my 10 y.o. mind! :-)

  15. Heather says:

    As LizA says above: there are anachronisms and there are anachronisms. I generally will be pretty forgiving if the problem is only 10-15 years either way, and if the general details are right. I don’t read romances for the history (grin). HOWEVER, that being said, a couple of wallbangers for me happened when the modern language and attitudes got out of control. For instance, a governess was ranting at an English landowner within the first 10 pages of the book for being a ‘control freak’. Book was round-filed immediately. Heroines who are out of their class with feistiness get me too. There is romantic tension and the hero appreciating that the heroine is her own character, and then there is behavior that is WAY too 21st century. If one is going to write a historical, one needs to remember that political correctness DID NOT exist back then!

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