Anachronisms 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