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?