When Anachronisms Work

anachronismAnachronisms are the bane of historical fiction readers. Modern diction, technology, or mindsets can pull someone right out of the story. But sometimes I sort of like it.

In Tessa Dare’s Three Nights With a Scoundrel, one of the characters makes a comment that made me laugh out loud — literally. And that doesn’t happen often. I’ll not give too many details as it happens at the end of the book, but shortly after being confronted with homosexuality in an acquaintance, one man says to his (straight) friend, “We’re not going to hug.” “I should hope not,” he replies. “Er… not that there’s anything wrong with that.

How often have we heard that out of the mouths of people who accidentally said something potentially homophobic? That, and the follow-up, “My brother’s gay and I’m fine with that.” The awkwardness is hilarious. But… does it belong in a historical novel?

I say, why not? A line like this isn’t in itself anachronistic; its connotation is. It may have pulled me momentarily out of the 19th century, but it also broke the tension in the scene wonderfully.

Tessa Dare is far from the only one who takes advantage of anachronisms, whether they are in speech or ideas. Cormac McCarthy tossed a “That’s what she said” joke into No Country For Old Men, though that one didn’t quite work for me because it just left me confused as to when the story takes place; there’s not a whole lot of distinction between 1980s middle-of-no-where-Texas and 2000s middle-of-no-where-Texas.

In the side romance of Again The Magic, Lisa Kleypas doesn’t give her characters modern one-liners, but modern ideals. Olivia gives Shaw a choice: her or alcohol, and she lays it out in terms that will not look alien to modern eyes. Not a very period-accurate view on alcoholism — at least not when it comes to an upper class man. Teetotalers may have spoken against the poor’s overuse of gin, but who would confront a wealthy, respected businessman about his foibles?

We don’t often see pregnant women drinking in historicals, either. They certainly didn’t know that there was anything wrong with it, but I can’t be the only one that cringes when an author mentions an expectant woman having a glass of wine. It’s rare, though; in this case, it’s almost an anachronism by elimination. Avoiding it may be historically incorrect, but it’s better than being “accurate” while giving readers concerns about the heroine’s child being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

I think that it is sometimes forgotten that the large majority of historical romances are written by modern authors, for modern readers. They are not written inside of a vacuum. Modern influences are impossible to escape, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. There are some accurate parts of history that would probably pull many readers out of a romance – just think about some aspects of medieval living conditions.

Bear in mind, I’m not talking about lazy researching on the part of the author. There is no reason at all for historical factual inaccuracies. If someone’s worried about Napoleon after 1815, there’s a problem. But intentional, purpose-driven anachronisms can sometimes be better than strict historical accuracies.

– Jane Granville

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29 Responses to When Anachronisms Work

  1. Monique says:


    I couldn’t help but be struck by your comments regarding alcohol and Lisa Kleypas’s novel. In answer to your question “…but who would confront a wealthy, respected businessman about his foibles?”, Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). In point of fact, the heroine of that book, the wife, specifically calls her husband on his lifestyle and particularly his drinking. I would say that while it might not make good romance, it probably was discussed at the time more than we might think.

    And, “giving readers concerns about the heroine’s child being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome” in historicals is indeed easily avoided by simply not saying anything, you are right. But it leads to the very natural question of exactly how many children were born with it, seeing as how so many women drank while pregnant. After all, given the way things were, you’d have to figure at least 50% of children born to wealthy parents had to have had it, and yet, it doesn’t seem like that is the case. It would certainly make for an interesting study.

  2. Cindy says:

    While I agree I can somewhat overlook minor speech anachorisms (sometimes there is no better or funnier way to say something), the behavioral discrepancies really, really bother me. Has anyone else noticed a trend in Regencies these days where the heroine just seems to throw away her virginity? This makes me livid. Hello, in that time period a woman’s virginity was so regarded, she was ruined if she gave it up before getting married. Completely ruined as in had to hide in the country for the rest of her life and was completely shunned by the rest of society. Now don’t get me wrong, I am sure that historically some women didn’t wait for that all important wedding, but they were probably very far and few between. Reading Regencies these days, I would be led to believe (assuming I didn’t know better) that people would say a woman needed to remain a virgin until marriage, but didn’t really believe it. That a man needed only kiss a woman and she would swoon and fall into his bed with no thought to the consequences. Does this seeming trend in modern Regencies bother anyone else, because it drives me batty!

  3. Monique says:


    I totally hear you. Regencies, unlike the more general historical, are supposed to follow a more “real” approach to the times. At least, that’s what I thought. I too have read quite a few lately where a woman has been very easily persuaded to become erm, active before marriage and in one case, she was also serving as a headmistress to a school she ran. Um, that would have been disastrous for her.

  4. xina says:

    The speech anachorisms actually do bother me more often than not. Unless the book is leaning toward humorous I can rarely overlook them. To me it shouts out almost as much as a misspelled word. There are a handful of historical authors that never step out of the time they are writing in with speech, and others that do pretty frequently. I remember a historical where the heroine “couldn’t wrap her brain around that”, or the hero who spouted off a “whatever” to the heroine. There are exceptions, but mostly I find it a little annoying.

  5. Jane AAR says:

    Xina, Monique, and Cindy… I think those are definitely instances of authorial laziness or just not caring. There’s a huge difference between that, and intentional or purposeful anachronisms.

    Monique– that is actually something I’ve wondered about rather a lot. I just did a search in a few databases but can’t find anything that would suggest that there’s any data on it.

  6. xina says:

    I agree Jane. It does seem like laziness.

  7. JMM says:

    *Snorts* I agree with Cindy; the biggest anachronism of all is the number of gently bred virgins who flop on their backs and give it up with one kiss.

    And “The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall” and “Sense and Sensibility” both addressed the lack of wisdom the heroine displayed by giving in to a wild infatuation with a rake. Of course, in those books, the rake was NOT the hero. It was made clear his behavior was NOT something that would lead to a happy ending.

  8. Monique says:


    That’s my point. Jane said that in Kleypas’s novel, it was “[n]ot a very period-accurate view on alcoholism — at least not when it comes to an upper class man.” I simply said that it was probably more accurate than we might think as evidenced by books from the times that actually addressed the issue.

  9. xina says:

    But, don’t you think many readers of romance novels would be disappointed if there weren’t x amount of love scenes? Sure, it’s not realistic, but it is not women’s fiction or Jane Austen either. :)

  10. chris booklover says:

    There are different types of anachronisms. One type is largely factual. If an author has characters eating potatoes in medieval Europe that’s a sign that she has not done her homework, and it’s likely to jolt many readers out of the “willing suspension of disbelief” needed to make the story work.

    From my perspective, however, anachronistic attitudes – characters from past eras thinking and acting like twenty-first century middle class Americans – can be even worse. We need to be careful here. The attitudes held by most people in, say, the Regency era on such subjects as gender, race, religious tolerance, democracy and civil liberties were so far from our own that most contemporary readers probably would not want to see them presented in unvarnished form. But too many characters in novels by authors like Eloisa James and Liz Carlyle behave in totally anachronistic ways. The hero of Carlyle’s Never Lie To A Lady – a hereditary aristocrat born in the 18th century – sounds like an editorial writer for Ms. magazine. The heroine of Ashley March’s Seducing The Duchess is eager for a divorce (and is willing to be named as the guilty party) at a time when divorce meant social death for a woman. Eloisa James’ characters often display a complete disregard for social conventions, and are not punished for it. Why bother to write a historical novel if you simply want to show contemporary middle class behavior?

    Cindy: You are generally right about the treatment of virginity in historical romances, but I have two comments to add. First, engaged couples were sometimes sexually active (as were Olivia and her fiance in Lisa Kleypas’ Again The Magic). The betrothal was regarded as being almost as binding a commitment as marriage, and the “seven month babies” who appeared so often were normally the products of committed relationships, not evidence that people were engaging in casual sex. Secondly, recognition of the importance of virginity to people living in the Regency and other past eras is decidedly at odds with the common complaint that “there are too many virgin heroines” in romance novels, historicals as well as contemporaries. Unless being a (non-virgin) widow is a job requirement, many of the heroines in historicals will be virgins, and if the unmarried upper class ones are not this would be unusual enough to require explanation in their backstory.

  11. JMM says:

    I don’t have a problem with virgin heroines who are gently bred single women. I’m tired of Virgin Widows, Virgin divorcees, Virgin mistresses, Virgin courtesans, etc.

    And while I’m certain there were a LOT of “7-month” babies, I’m tired of virgins who yank up their skirts with a guy they’ve just MET.

  12. Monique says:

    Betty Neels. Barbara Cartland. And all those Christian romances, both for adults and for YA readers. IMO love scenes are not necessary for it to be a romance.

  13. rsmith says:

    In a regency or historical by a good author, I am more disappointed when the heroine gives in so easy and the hero does not act like a gentleman. I don’t need x amount of love scenes in a well written book. For that I read erotica – it’s supposed to be trashy – regencies aren’t.

  14. LynnAAR says:

    With the speech anachronisms, I have to admit that I often overlook them if they work and for me, they can work in humorous books with some regularity. I forget the book, but I do once remember reading a more serious historical where a heroine said “Duh”, and that completely broke the mood for me.

    I was a history major in college and from things I’ve read, I really don’t find it anachronistic for couples to be having sex outside of marriage. I still remember reading church registers for a research thesis and finding a shocking number of preemies listed. And somehow it was always the couple’s first child that seemed to be a preemie! ;-)

  15. Cora says:

    I am bothered by blatant anachronisms in speech and attitudes as well. In fact, that’s the reason why I hardly ever read historical romances, unless I either know and trust the author or they come highly recommended.

    I don’t freak out at minor anachronisms such as champagne flutes appearing a couple of decades too early (to use an actual example), but major historical mistakes, overly modern attitudes and anachronistic speech annoy me. For example, on the AAR start page there is a link to a review of a book called “Dukes to the left of me, Princes to the right”. Now I haven’t read the book and it’s quite possible that it’s a wonderfully researched and highly accurate historical romance. But that silly pun title is a turn-off right there.

    Now I do understand that certain historically accurate attitudes would be a turn-off for modern readers. It’s very hard to sell a hero or heroine who are in favour of slavery, for example. But I don’t mind a character with beliefs that are uncommon for the period, as long as it’s made clear that those beliefs are not standard for the period. On the other hand, I’m also not a fan of presenting attitudes that would be perfectly normal for the period depicted with a constant authorial fingerwagging. “Look, aren’t those people stupid and backwards and ignorant.” That’s what annoys me about “Mad Men”, I constantly see the authorial finger wagging at me regarding things like smoking, drinking (while pregnant even), casual racism and sexism, etc… It’s so blatant that the only thing that’s missing is a flashing red arrow on screen pointing to the cigarettes or martini glasses. The BBC’s “Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes” was in danger of falling into the same trap, but managed to avoid it.

    As for sex, of course people had premarital sex in the Regency and Victorian eras, because people are people and will do stupid and socially ruinous things. But must every Regency virgin be so terribly cavalier about giving up her virginity to the first rake who casts a glance her way? And is it really necessary that those gently bred virgins can easily be persuaded to attempt sexual techniques that were most likely only known to seasoned courtesans at the time?

    Monique, if I remember correctly, when fetal alcohol syndrome was first described, it was found to occur in approx. 20-25% of all babies born to severely alcoholic mothers, i.e. women who constantly drank large quantities of alcohol throughout pregnancy. So for women who are not heavy alcoholics but drink the occasional glass of alcohol, the risk would be much lower (but still high enough that keeping away from alcohol is vastly preferable). So even before the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy were known, the percentage of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome wouldn’t be that great. Never mind that alcohol was usually weaker than what we have today and often the lesser evil in times where clean water was not guaranteed. Though I understand if a writer shies away from showing a pregnant woman drinking, because alcohol during pregnancies has become such a huge taboo by now.

  16. Christine says:

    For me, everything depends on the time and circumstances of the novel particularly with regards to anachronistic language and pre-marital sex.

    One Medieval romance that got a DIK here completely took me out of the story when the heroine perkily told the hero “You’re not so bad yourself!” It was just such modern cliched language in the middle of a somewhat earthy story set in Medieval Ireland it screamed anachronistic.

    I can accept a heroine sleeping with the hero before marriage in a historical novel when the era was more permissive than say an unmarried aristocratic woman in Victorian England where the consequences would be dire. Under Charles II, while not the best idea for the woman the looser morals of the time would have made it less life and death depending on the circumstances. Do it and have Queen Victoria find out and you would be banned for life (if you were a woman of course.)

    I can also accept it in American Westerns when people were living without a minister/parson/judge nearby on the farms and homesteads. Often times people would consider themselves married and make it legal when the judge or minister came around. That’s why so many western states recognized common-law marriages when so many eastern ones didn’t.

    I agree the idea of the proper Regency or Victorian miss deciding to “give it a go” just for the heck of it screams “anachronistic” to me.

  17. With regard to the children of wealthy families being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – I think it unlikely.
    Upper class women of the early 19th century would have been highly unlikely to drink to anything like excess simply because it would have been deemed unladylike. Ale for breakfast was commonplace because of the dangers of drinking water. Same with tea and coffee – at least the water had been boiled. The poor girl has to drink something and if she just sticks to water, someone is going to wonder about that, too.
    Problems arise for authors who don’t wish to dump a whole lot of anachronistic rubbish on their characters, because you end up avoiding all possible situations where it would have been natural for your heroine to have a glass of wine or ratafia. Silly really. And having two normal, if somewhat feral, sons who survived me having a glass of wine a week, I find this even more ridiculous.
    At the time I was pregnant with my elder son – he’s just turned 13 – it was still considered perfectly acceptable for a pregnant woman to have the occasional glass of wine, or another standard drink, after the first trimester. Since we tended to eat out with friends about once a week on a Friday or Saturday night, I’d have my glass of wine then. Same when I was pregnant with my younger son. Neither child was born with FES. Neither were either of my siblings or myself and it was considered perfectly acceptable for pregnant women to drink moderately in the 1950′s and 1960′s.

    As for the dreaded champagne flutes, I have a gorgeously illustrated book of antique glassware. That shape of glass has been around for centuries for drinking bubbly wines. I recall the argument on the boards here about flutes a couple of years ago, and laughed aloud at the book sale when I found this book. It fell open at a page with two utterly divine Bohemian engraved flutes (described as such) dating from the late 17th century.

    I tend to be rather careful these days before using the word anachronism in these cases. All too often it isn’t any such thing. It’s perfectly possible that they might not have been called flutes at the time, but then we are back to the old problem of using the correct contemporary word, or a word our readers will understand. Should the governess report to her employer, the Duchess of Stonehenge, that five year old Lady Julia had an orgasm that morning? Or would it be better to use the word tantrum?

  18. Susan/DC says:

    There are anachronisms that I care about, and there are anachronisms I don’t. A lot depends on the tone of the book. For example, in Julia Quinn’s “The Lost Duke of Wyndham”, she has the hero use the word truthiness. The heroine tells him it’s not a word, and he responds that it should be. That Stephen Colbert reference is clearly an anachronism, but the tone of the whole conversation (and much, though not all) of the book is so lighthearted that I didn’t mind.

    In addition, there are some things that we may think are anachronisms but which are not. As Elizabeth Rolls mentions, fluted glasses have been around for a long time. So has anti-slavery feeling, and feminist writing existed before Betty Friedan and Susan B. Anthony. These ideas may not have been the general attitude, but they did exist. I must admit that while I don’t expect every romance hero and heroine to be active abolitionists and/or suffragettes, I would not find a slave owner romantic.

    OTOH, I agree with those who have commented that historical heroines who give it up to the hero after five minutes’ acquaintance simply because He Is So Hot are more likely to earn my scorn than my admiration. Many women in the past were not virgins when they married, and I don’t care if the heroine is a virgin or not, but I at least want to see that some serious thought of possible consequences occurred before the heroine tosses up her skirts.

    • Susan/DC: I must admit that while I don’t expect every romance hero and heroine to be active abolitionists and/or suffragettes, I would not find a slave owner romantic.

      That’s fair enough, too. I tend to agree although there can always be the exception that proves the rule. Whether we write historical or contemporary romances, our books are going to reflect something of our times. Very often it is in implicit attitudes. Romantic love as an ideal basis for marriage is one of them; rather an awkward anachronism for a romance. While preferring to avoid outright factual mistakes/anachronisms in my own books, there is no point in forgetting that I am writing NOW, for readers NOW. I am not writing for a late 18th/early 19th century audience. Heyer, whether her admirers of whom I am one, admit it or realise it, reflected a great deal of the social mores of her own upbringing in the Regency world she created. I don’t have a problem with that because I view it as inevitable to a degree. What I do have a problem with is people claiming that if Heyer didn’t do it, then no one else should either. Interestingly, one of Heyer’s novels that did explore the reality of a marriage of convenience, where marital love blossomed in the course of the marriage, was A Civil Contract. It’s one of my favourites, but many readers find it totally unromantic.

  19. dick says:

    While I dislike encountering “glaring” anachronisms in either expressions or mores, I try always to remember that what I’m reading is fiction, not history, and that history itself consists of what has been preserved not necessarily what actually happened but was not preserved. In human relations, in my thinking, if something occurs today, it most likely occurred yesterday as well, despite how long ago yesterday was, despite the mores of the time, despite what the history books record as most likely.

  20. Carrie says:

    Agreeing with Cora and Elizabeth about FAS. It doesn’t bother me to read about a pregnant woman having a class of sherry or wine. For one thing, until the past few decade, no one knew drinking could harm a fetus, and as Elizabeth pointed out, there wasn’t a great alternative. Drinking the water could be much more fatal in some times/places. In fact, the warning against drinking is absolute only because the government doesn’t do subtle very well. Since they feel we’re all like children who will take advantage of any loophole, they have to banish it completely. Like taking swing sets out of children’s playground because a few children get hurt each year. Evidence I found seems to indicate that even a glass a wine a day won’t hurt the vast majority of pregnancies, much less cause something as severe as FAS. Moderation is always key in living a careful but happy life.

  21. Sandy C. says:

    I can usually speed by anachronisms, especially because I’m not a historian! However, I just read a free book on my Kindle in which two characters talked about a third one being “in denial”. That took me completely out of the story, and I was never able to get back into it. I only finished a quarter of the book due to the author’s inept writing. There was more wrong with that book, but you get the idea.

    I think it would be very difficult to write a historical that’s accurate without losing some of today’s audience, which is what a lot of these comments have expressed. I would also like to see a return to virtue, only because the consequences were so dire! Pregnancy, disease, social ostracism aren’t things to be taken lightly.

  22. JMM says:

    I have to agree with Dick; romantic love had to exist in the past for it to exist now. Although it is perhaps ‘utilized’ unwisely.

    And Heyer? She wrote well, but to make her an authority on the Regency period is laughable.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Some time ago, I read an older traditional Regency where the main characters were picnicking in the park. Included in the picnic was a THERMOS of tea. I’m not kidding. I continued reading the book, though.

    I have a degree in history. Strangely enough, though, big honking errors like a thermos in a Regency bother me less than more subtle errors of fact. Historical events like battles or wars, or terms of Prime Ministers, are so easy to look up these days; they shouldn’t be wrong.

  24. Louise B says:

    Never say never. I did once read a well done romance where the hero was a slave trader. It was M. M. Kaye’s Trade Winds set in Zanzibar.

    And I totally agree that I can’t stand heroes and heroines who go at it without any thought for the consequences. And no, he’s not much of a hero if he’s willing to do have sex with the heroine and not think about what she might face if discovered or pregnant. As much as I like historical romances, the modern sexual attitudes have me shopping at used bookstores more than new ones.

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