Taking another bash at the anachronism pinata

Reader Joanne sent me an e-mail recently that thrilled me down to my bitchy little toes, because she hit on one of my biggest peeves in historical romance: the way many of the characters tend to sound like Americans in period drag. Americans with bad British accents in period drag.

To quote from her e-mail:

I have literally not read any historicals since I was a teenager (now mid-thirties so a big gap there). I immediately re-read a few Heyers, and then the two novels so far released by Elizabeth Hoyt and my first two Julia Quinns (Bridgerton ones).

They were all very enjoyable but every time I came across anachronisms in the dialogue (it’s not so bad if it happens in the narrative) it would suck me right out of my happy haze. They might as well have stuck in the words THIS IS NOT REAL; YOU ARE READING A WORK OF FICTION. It would have much the same effect.

Now, I am British, so it may be that there are very small things that sound glaringly American to me but perhaps sound so everyday to an American reader that they don’t particularly notice them.
My beefs:

1. Julia Quinn’s characters constantly say “Right” (as in “ok”). I just can’t see English people in the early 19th Century saying that. English people today don’t say that.

2. Again Quinn: she uses very English words like “bloke” and “sodding” as though to add to the authenticity but to me, these are contemporary words and stand out like a sore thumb.

 

Ohhhh, lordy lord yes. I have to interrupt here to emphasize this point, because honestly, adding contemporary British slang (bad British slang, at that) to a historical does nothing for the verisimilitude of the book. In fact, it makes the book sound more jarring. Look, kids, we’re aiming for characters who sound like Jane Austen, not Nick Hornby, mmmkay? Just remember: throwing in the occasional “sodding bloke” does not a convincing historical make.

(Insert Oscar Wilde jokes here.)

3. I have to say, Elizabeth Hoyt was pretty much spot on for my money on her dialogue – but for one thing. Her characters constantly said “I guess” when, to me, an English person would in fact say “I suppose”.

I suspect that 95% of the buyers of these books are American so, if those readers are not bothered by these (admittedly minor) anachronisms, I suppose the authors will not be particularly concerned. But damn it, this bothered me when I read these books and I wanted to bitch about it!

By the way, I am not just having a go at American writers. I am sure there are lots of British writers who are guilty of these faults – it’s just I’ve not really read much of this genre in the last fifteen years but in the last four weeks I’ve read 6 or 7 pitch-perfect Heyers and then read four novels by contemporary Americans with these very minor faults.

To get to the point – what interests me is this:

(1) is this type of anachronistic dialogue bothering to anyone else out there or am I being way too picky?

(2) what other anachronisms bother people and

(3) most importantly given that I am just getting into this genre again after about 15 years – who are the novelists who really get this right?

Here are my answers to Joanna:

1. You’re not alone. Oh God no. I believe I’ve bitched before about how it drives me bugfuck when authors slip in Regency-era slang like “make micefeet of things,” only to turn around and use terms like “OK” or “That’s fine,” or construct sentences that use “get” as an auxiliary verb, often resulting in sentences that are an unholy chimera of Regency Miss and Valley Girl (e.g., “I’ve got to run now, or I won’t get to go to the ball, and then Mama will surely be beside herself”). It throws me out of the story, and it’s one of the reasons why I have to be in the right mood to read Julia Quinn. Mary Jo Putney used to get a pass from me, but after a while I had to stop reading her, too, because I couldn’t get past her dialogue. And I gave up on Patricia Ryan’s medievals entirely (hey, what happened to her, anyway?) when one of her characters used the term “pariah” centuries before the English traveled to the Indian subcontinent.

2. It peeves me when scientifically-inclined types in historicals talk about science in modern terms—I’ve caught characters talking about bacteria, oxygen, genes, electromagnetic waves and morphine long before these things were discovered or isolated and given names. Look, if you want to create a mad scientist type who’s years ahead of his or her time, that’s all well and good, but have them talk about the science in the terms of their day.

Anachronistic behavior and attitudes often annoy me as well, but that’s another rant for another day.

3. Laura Kinsale, in my opinion, gets the dialogue right—but she gets most things right. For My Lady’s Heart has dialogue in Middle English—how sexy is that? You may not care for her plots or the way she writes in general, but she does a fantastic job with the dialogue. And earlier Loretta Chase novels, before she became enamored with very. short. sentences, are a joy to read because she gets the cadences right as well. The Lion’s Daughter, Captives of the Night and Lord of Scoundrels are all cracking good reads, as are pretty much all her Regencies. Judith Ivory, a.k.a. Judy Cuevas, does a decent job much of the time, though she occasionally slips. These are just the names that immediately came to mind; I’ll post more as they occur to me.

So now we turn the questions over to the Bitchery: Do you in any way care about anachronistic language? If you do, what are the examples that especially burned your biscuit? (Note to authors: if you’ve ever, ever, ever used the word “cookies” to refer to biscuits in British-set historicals, shame on you—that makes the sodding blokes weep tears of sadness over their crumpets and cucumber sandwiches.) And most importantly: any authors to recommend Joanna?

Categorized:

Ranty McRant

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  1. 1

    For My Lady’s Heart has dialogue in Middle English—how sexy is that?

    Can you give an example, Candy? For, shame on me, I haven’t yet read any of Kinsale’s books (I totally blame this on living on the other side of the world and starting out very late in romance) and when I used the Search Inside function, I found medievalized (modern) English, but no real Middle English.

    I have been blamed for historically incorrect language in Castle of the Wolf: one of my characters says “geez” twice; another “holy cow” twice, but in both cases I used the anachronism deliberately because imo, it suited both the character and the situation (and a correct German expression like Himmelherrgottsakrament! wouldn’t have had the same punch as geez). But so far, nobody commented on the fact that my heroine finds a Terry Pratchett book in the library of her castle or that at one point she refers to a short story by Tolkien. *g*

    As a reader I’m not so much bothered by historically incorrect language (what about historicals set in Anglo-Saxon times??? Does anybody want to read Old English dialogue?), but by factual mistakes or by overdone explanations.

    Oops. Sorry this became so long …

  2. 2
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    I can’t think of an example of an author getting this right or wrong, but if you are going to use the second person informal, use it when it makes sense to use an informal, and decline it correctly.  (Is decline the right word for English?  I learned all the grammatical terms I know for changing noun forms in Latin class.)

  3. 3
    Emily says:

    I can’t recall the author or the title, but I innocently opened an alleged Regency with a blonde heroine (the cover had a decided brunette in a gown nicked from Scarlett O’Hara, but that’s another issue,) to have the first sentance describe some Regency Ladies’ Book Club wherein they’re reading a book by “Miss Jane Austen” in a specific year when Austen would have only published novels anonymously and the novel in question, I think, didn’t get published until two or three years later. The Austen nerd inside me cried a little and I shut the book and never looked back.
    “Okay” is my pet-peeve in dialogue. I was watching One Night with the King; and hearing some ancient characters ask people if they’re “okay” (more than once,) made me cringe.

    (verification: period25)

  4. 4
    Nifty says:

    <

    Can you give an example, Candy?>>

    I gotta wonder how anybody not specifically schooled in the language can translate Middle English.  In college I had to memorize the prelude to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English (or whatever period of English it was written it), and it’s not the type of stuff we modern folk can translate very easily:

    Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote,
    The drought of March hath perced to the roote
    And bathed every vein in swich liquor,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour….

    Say what?!?!?!  I can make out a few words, of course, but it’s not like I can read that stuff for comprehension.

    I don’t like the very obvious anachronisms—the really modern ones—but a lot of them are going to pass right by me due to my own ignorance.  Not only am I not English, and therefore don’t know what is typical English slang/vernacular, but I also don’t know when words came into common usage. 

    One author I enjoy who weaves the anachronisms throughout her story—but has a valid reason for doing so—is Diana Gabaldon.  There’s a scene in Outlander when Claire calls Jamie a “fucking sadist” and he has to ask for a translation.  Such instances crop up througout the series, and I always find them to be very entertaining.

  5. 5
    sleeky says:

    That Austen one happens all the time and it drives me nuts! The authors always seem so fatuous.

    The original commentor did pick a particularly poor choice to restart reading historicals though. There are many, many less obnoxiously anachronistic authors. Try some Jo Beverly, you can count on her to get it right.

  6. 6

    First, if you’re going to talk about anachronism pinatas, I’m pretty sure you should put the tilda over the n!

    Seriously, I’ve just finishing a Lauren Willig novel, and it is so damned good! I’m reading it right after a Mary Jo Putney as I seem to be on a historical jag right now. Willig’s dialog is so very very right. I’m just finishing THE BLACK TULIP, but I just check THE PINK CARNATION out, so its next in my tbr pile.

    I’m not British, but I’ve spent way too much time overseas. I highly recommend Lauren Willig.

    SWAK,
    Lucinda

  7. 7
    Dayle says:

    We just had a long and fascinating discussion about anachronisms, in dialogue and more, over at Lust Bites, if anyone wants to pop over and check that out.  :-)

    FWIW, I lived in Wales for four years and some of my “mates” did use “right” for something loosely like “okay.” It was more of a greeting, kind of translating to “Hi, everything going well?” thing, but not requiring a “Yes, I’m fine” type of response.

    As I said over at Lust Bites, I don’t mind some minor tweaks to the historical accuracy if the author does it for a specific reason (and I love it when an author says as much in a note). If an author says, “I know this event actually happened two years after the book is set, but to make the plot work, I had to fudge a little,” I’m perfectly happy—s/he knows her stuff and made a conscious choice.

  8. 8

    Nifty, my students didn’t even understand Chaucer when I gave them the modern English translation to read. I had to explain to them all the naughty bits—and even then there were people who just didn’t get it (like that a guy who grabs a girl between the legs and says stuff like, “If you don’t love me, I shall die” doesn’t necessarily have everlasting love and marriage on his mind…) (fitting verification: wife99)

  9. 9
    snarkhunter says:

    I have to say that, usually, anachronistic dialogue doesn’t bother me. I can totally accept that these characters live in a fantasy past where they bathe regularly and shave their legs (if they don’t, I pretend they do), so I also accept fantasy-past dialogue. Maybe it’s b/c I read romance novels with the same part of my brain that I use watch Buffy and love Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. The anachronisms are actually part of the charm.

    What bothers me more is when the author appears or wants to appear to be really in touch with the period, but makes really obvious historical (or literary) mistakes…which leads me to Lauren Willig.

    Maybe it’s just b/c it’s my field, but when Willig has characters talking about Edmund Kean’s acting a decade before he took the stage, or mentally comparing themselves to Keats in a year when Keats was all of 10 years old, my teeth start grinding together and it kills my enjoyment of the book. I’ll keep reading, but I’ll sneer the whole time.

    So. Yeah. Anachronistic dialogue? Great! Bring it on! Characters enjoying Frankenstein in 1815? I mentally throw things at you in disgust and wonder if you (the author) is one of my chronology-challenged students.

  10. 10
    Alison Kent says:

    Patricia Ryan has been writing her “Gilded Age” mysteries as P.B. Ryan and now erotica as Louisa Burton.

  11. 11
    snarkhunter says:

    And by “you (the author) is…” I of course mean, “you (the author) are…”

    Some English teacher I am.

  12. 12
    Najida says:

    Mine isn’t language, it’s things.  One author describing the huge one carat sapphire the heroine was wearing (erm, that’s the size of a pea).  Or another describing the naughty clothes that harem girls wore—- straight out of a Theda Bara movie and so wrong I was rolling my eyes.

    Clearly wrong language does jar me, but more so is not knowing about the time and place of the book.  I know just enough junky trivia to get pissed because someone describes a fabric that hasn’t been woven yet or a dance that was created in Hollywood, not that country.

    OK, and as gross as it sounds, I know folks didn’t bathe that often, so nightly baths by the fire may make me the reader feel better, but, well, I know they’re there to make me feel better :)  About two dirty people getting down and, ah, dirty.

  13. 13
    Peyton says:

    “Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote,
    The drought of March hath perced to the roote
    And bathed every vein in swich liquor,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour….”

    A quick and dirty translation is that March was dry April’s showers are soothing and the flowers appreciate the rain.

  14. 14
    Charlene says:

    Actually, not understanding how people in other parts of the world speak in the modern day bothers me more than anachronistic language.

    The cringing Indian who calls every European memsahib; the Briton who uses words like tally-ho, pip-pip and toodle-pip (in 2007!); the American called Hiram who’s right excited, ma’am, to be around so many purdy fillies; the Australian who talks like Crocodile Dundee; the Canadian who puts “eh” at the end of every sentence (and isn’t even from Ontario!!); it’s all very distracting.

    spamblock: normal69?

  15. 15
    Marianne McA says:

    Yes, there are some words or phrases that pull me out of a Regency.
    Off the top of my head ‘block’ as a measurement of distance – it’s not British English. ‘Intersection’ which I read as crossroads, though I’m not sure that’s right. Pupils ‘graduating’ from school – Quinn talks about graduating from Eton. You graduate from university in the UK.
    ‘Pants’ meaning trousers.

    I probably wouldn’t be informed enough about the period to notice most anachronisms, but blatant Americanisms trip me up.

    And I’m sure it happens the other way round. Was it John Creasey who had to stop writing westerns because he confused buzzards and coyotes and readers never quite forgave him the flying coyotes?

  16. 16

    Language problems don’t bother me nearly as much as authors who Make Shit Up or don’t bother to fact check or are just plain lazy with things like spelling, place names, et cetera.

    Movies are the same. In 300, I could not have cared less that all the Spartans and most of the Persians had vague Scots/Brit accents. It was consistent; whatever. In BEOWULF AND GRENDEL, on the other hand, everyone has a different accent and manner of speaking and it means NOTHING. Sometimes the Irish guy is from supposed to be Irish, but another Irish guy is supposed to be a Viking. Beowulf was the ONLY Scotsman. There was a Canadian witch. Ugh, urgh, achk. And they wore Uggs.

    In Nora Roberts’s ANGEL FALLS (or whatever it’s called; the one with Heather Locklear on Lifetime), she repeatedly spells Newbury St. in Boston as “Newberry St.” She never once spells it correctly. Now THAT’S the kind of thing that makes me throw books.

  17. 17
    Charlene says:

    Marianne, it does happen both ways. My favourite (although it wasn’t a romance) was a British writer who had his hero drive from Calgary to Banff – and stop for the night halfway on because it was too long to drive.

    It’s about 70 minutes by car.

    Not to say that he had spring beginning in March, and something like six feet of snow at Christmas!!!

  18. 18
    Charlene says:

    Actually, there’s a post right now on the hockey LJ group about one of Nora Roberts’s books, “Loyalty in Death”, where she calls one of the wingers an “offensive guard” and one of the defencemen a “defensive lineman”. She also refers to the “upper deck” of Madison Square Garden (um, no!), has an occurrence happening in the “first period” at 8:43 (not completely impossible if there was an event at MSG earlier, but still about an hour or two too early) and a guy with a minor injury to the face is “carried off” (what hockey player would be carried off for a minor facial injury!!) and taken to the ER!!

    The anachronisms are glaring!

  19. 19
    YorkshireLass says:

    Oooohhhhh this is such a bugbear with me as well!  I’m also a Brit who cringes inwardly at every Americanism in historical romances.  I’ve just finished one book where the author uses “quit” as in “will you quit doing that?” rather than use “stop”. It hauled me right out of the period with a jolt.  Another author uses the word “easy” when her hero comforts the heroine.  I have never heard a modern British man use “easy” in that particular context, so is it likely to have been used 150-200 years ago?

    I would agree that Loretta Chase comes the closest in being able to imitate the flow of spoken English.  This was especially true in “Mr Impossible”, despite the use of short sentences.  Liz Carlyle also makes a fair attempt, although I think she has used the term “block” to mark distance instead of yards.

    How do you feel about the use of various British dialects in historical fiction?  Obviously no-one can come close to the lovely recreated (or is that unreadable) Yorkshire accents in “Wuthering Heights”, but is it actually worth using them, or should they be avoided at all costs?  I must say I’ve read some laughable Scottish accents, cockney accents and west country accents in some of the historicals I’ve read.

  20. 20
    Dara says:

    Anachronisms don’t bother me… except when they do.  I mean, if I’m really enjoying the book—love the characters, ripping good plot, etc—then I barely notice the anachronisms (or they become part of the charm, as someone said above).

    But.  BUT.  When there’s something blatantly out of place right on the first page, or if it’s a book I’m reading with lukewarm enthusiasm, they can throw me enough to put the book away unread. 

    Most memorable one: someone in a medieval story referring to a person as ‘sadistic’, several hundred years before the Marquis was even a gleam in his papa’s eye.

  21. 21
    karibelle says:

    These things bug me when I catch them,but I will admitI usually miss the “Americanisms” in european historicals. I love Emma Holly, but she has some glaring “Brittishisms” in some of her earlier contemporary novels set in the US, such as calling sneakers “trainers” and elevators “lifts.”  Those annoy the hell out of me, but I will say she has done much better with her more recent books.

  22. 22
    jmc says:

    I just read a sentence that read that Something had been done “for sure.”  In a book set in England in 1788.  Haven’t checked the etymology of sure, but that seems (to me) like a very modern usage.  Jolted me out of the story.

  23. 23
    Cori says:

    It’s a little hard to be sure about anachronisms with books like Loyalty in Death that are set in the future, though. Hockey could be a very different game in 2053, just like a number of games are different now than they were in the 1950s. Historical and contemporary anachronisms are easier to agree on, at least.

  24. 24
    DS says:

    Oh yes, drives me nuts.  Also drives me nuts when colors are anachronistic.  It’s not as if people don’t have access to period information in the form of fashion books from at least the regency forward.  Aniline dyes weren’t invented until the mid 19th Century and the first color was mauve. Also black would have been very expensive to get right in Medieval times because of the available dyes, it would soon wear to rusty brown.

  25. 25

    What Dara said. It doesn’t bother me, except when it does. I can deal with a few anachronisms in a book I’m enjoying, but if it’s borderline already the language will start to grate on me. Who is it whose heroes are always talking about a bloody damn this and that?

    (and on the hockey thing… I got two chapters into a Rachel Gibson once where the hero was reminiscing about a particular game in which he incurred a three-minute penalty. I gave the book up for other reasons, but I thought it was a Sign.)

  26. 26
    Wendy says:

    There are many British-isms in early Emma Holly erotica because they were published under Virgin’s Black Lace imprint.  Virgin is a British publisher.  Emma Holly is actually American, and now publishes with Berkley – an American publisher.  So that’s why you don’t see British-isms in her more recent work.

  27. 27
    AnneD says:

    Sandra – I just finished Castle of the Wolf, and yes I picked up the ‘problems’, and I laughed at them too (which I assume from your post was your intent). Especially one of the “holy cow!” ‘s. It was perfect!

    For some reason, the tone of your book, the attitudes of the people let me ignore that it wasn’t in period and just enjoy it.  I mean we went from holy cow to namby-pamby noddy-pole, what’s not to smile at :)

    As for the topic, maybe it’s just because I have to be on the look out myself when I’m writing (I’m a NZ’er, so there’s Britishisms as well as Kiwi ones slipping in), but I often notice them now.

    Biggest bug for me recently – Leslie LaFoy’s Duke’s Proposal. It says 1891 on the prologue and “one shoe was a good five to seven centimeters taller than the other”. ???? It didn’t think the UK came close to converting to metric until the 70’s/80’s?

  28. 28
    AnneD says:

    PS forgot to say, I forgave her and liked The Duke’s proposal anyway.

  29. 29
    Candy says:

    Sandra: I’ll type up some dialogue examples when I get home. The dialogue that’s supposed to be in French and the like is rendered in Medieval Historical Romancelandic (not to be confused with its close cousin, Regency Historical Romancelandic), whereas the dialogue that’s supposed to be in English is Middle English. Well, -ish. Kinsale had to make a choice between accessibility and accuracy, so the vocabulary and grammar aren’t 100% authentic all the time, but it’s pretty damn impressive, and a lot of fun.

    I also agree that it’s impossible to be completely historically accurate with language once you get beyond a certain point. But in books set in the 18th century onwards, it’s possible to create characters who speak authentically—or at least as authentically as we can make it, since we don’t have any actual recordings of how people spoke informally in those times, though taking a look at the correspondence from the time period should give most people a decent idea. That is, if you’re the sort to care about this kind of thing. Most people don’t, or if they do, they make only the barest, most half-assed gesture, and I’m hard-pressed to decide if that’s better or worse.

    Lucinda: First, if you’re going to talk about anachronism pinatas, I’m pretty sure you should put the tilda over the n!

    Neglecting to include diacritics while typing isn’t anachronistic—it’s incorrect usage, sure, and an indication of what a pain in the ass it is to ensure all accents are where they should be in HTML when one only has a standard QWERTY English keyboard, but not anachronistic in any particular way.

    BATTLE OF THE PEDANTS COMMENCES!

  30. 30
    --E says:

    This is why I write fantasy novels. Every now and again I get into a throwdown with someone who says, “Your characters said ‘okay’ but it’s a medieval setting!” And I reply that:

    1. It’s not Earth, so they’re not even speaking any sort of English.

    2. Even if it was medieval Earth England, the whole freaking book is written in not-Middle-English. If I can use the several thousand words the Shakespeare coined, I can jolly well use a word that’s a 170 freaking years old. (If someone wants to ding “okay” for an Americanism, that’s one thing. But to ding it for a modernism…get a calendar, honey.)

    I knew a woman who was annoyed that Tolkien had Sam growing potatoes in the Shire. Fine, even allowing as how the Shire is supposed to be analog-England, it wasn’t bloody pre-Renaissance England! Potatoes were widespread by the 19th century—Irish Potato Blight, hello?

    Ahem, sorry…this is a peeve of mine. People carry a lot of weird baggage with them to books, and then blame the writer.

    I feel very sorry for writers of historicals, because no matter how hard they research, there will always be someone unhappy with some decision or mistake they made. If a fantasy writer who only has to make the worldbuilding consistent and logical is subject to hounding, how much worse is it for folks who are playing in the realm of historical reality?

    I rarely am bothered by anachronistic language, so long as it is consistent. Candy’s “unholy chimera of Regency Miss and Valley Girl” bothers me, too (plus, the image makes me snort water out my nose).

    I get annoyed by historical mistakes and large cultural errors. And physics errors, such as people carrying large gold bricks.

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