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.
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?