Wednesday 14 December 2016

Anachronism Alert!

Did you see the Tarzan movie that released earlier this year? I'm not normally a Tarzan kinda gal, but I did really enjoy this film - & Alexander Skarsgard ;) Apart from one thing: the film was set in the 1880s, and there were a few decidedly non-1880s things going on. (Hello, Margot Robbie's wardrobe coordinator! Hello, script writer - yes, I'm talking to you!)

The word 'anachronism', meaning 'something out of harmony with the present' was first recorded in 1816. I write Regency, and one of my fave sites is my Online Etymology Dictionary. When I'm writing, I'll often refer to it to check the word or phrase I'm using was actually in use during the time period I'm writing (1810-1820). For example, did you know 'Grandfather clock' was not in use until 1876? That puts it way out of sync for my Regency time period, when such clocks were referred to as tall case or long case clocks (or even eight day clocks). Historical accuracy is important!

Which brings me back to Tarzan. Apologies to my more sensitive readers, but 'screw you' wasn't recorded as being used as an euphemistic exclamation until 1949. Come on, writers - get it right!

One of my fave movies is 'Austenland', about a Mr Darcy-loving American who goes to England to stay at a special resort for the Austen-obsessed. (Don't laugh - you can stay at Georgian House Parties in Britain, where people dress up and try to recreate a time of manners and empire-waist gowns - and no flushing toilets!)

One of my favourite lines in the film is when our heroine, Jane (of course!), is confronted with a lecherous older man, and she's forced to resort to some ninja moves, whilst yelling 'this is so not Regency appropriate!'

I read a lot of Regency novels, secular and Christian, and I can't help but feel this describes many (secular) books, with their emphasis on titillation. Yes, I know Jane Austen included naughty characters such as Lydia Bennett and Maria Bertram, but she gave them appropriate consequences for stepping out of the moral code of the day. So many modern authors seem to succumb to the lowest denominator in order to appeal to a broader market - even when it's 'so not Regency appropriate!'

Sometimes it can be a difficult line to walk between historical accuracy and the tastes of modern readers. I hope that the many layers of editing my novels have undergone have weeded out the anachronisms, and show the research undertaken to create a degree of authenticity. Because writers are like filmmakers, hoping to create something where people can suspend their disbelief and enjoy another place and time, without being pulled out of the experience by an anachronistic phrase or event - or Margot Robbie's split skirt!

How about you? Any films (or novels) you can recall with anachronistic moments?

Carolyn Miller lives in the beautiful Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia, with her husband and four children. A longtime lover of romance, especially that of the Regency era, Carolyn holds a BA in English Literature, and loves drawing readers into fictional worlds that show the truth of God’s grace in our lives. Her Regency novel 'The Elusive Miss Ellison' will be published in the US by Kregel in February 2017. She is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.

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  1. Excellent post, Carolyn. I was surprised I enjoyed Tarzan so much especially after it got panned by the critics. I didn't appreciate some of the incongruities within it and I'm not sure I do in many movies. However, as I'm reading an historical novel I'll be more cognisant of anything "too modern". The challenges of research for historical novelists. I'm glad I write contemporary stories.

  2. I loathe anachronisms, and I find them too often for my own liking. The language anachronisms annoy me most - words like "moxie" to describe a woman in 15th century Spain, or a character eating chocolates decades before the process was invented.

    The one which puzzled me the most was the reference in a novel set in the 1870's, to how the British police wouldn't accept women into their ranks for another 40+ years. How could the character possibly know that? (No, it wasn't a time travel novel.)

    I'm a little more forgiving of historical characters who behave in more modern ways, like believing in "liberal" ideas like equal rights for women. I've read a couple of novels with time-appropriate treatment of women and minorities, and I can't say I enjoyed that aspect.

    1. 'Okay' is another word used too often out of time appropriateness. And I believe modern readers just wouldn't buy a heroine who behaved too dissimilar to today's cultural expectations. They want a Lizzie Bennett, not the naive Catherine Morland or meek Fanny Price type characters.

    2. Catching those anachronisms can be tricky & annoying to the reader when they are glaring.

      I did smile at 'moxie' in 15th century Spanish as it raised a question for me - obviously they wouldn't be using English at all (unless the characters were from England) - so any words would be translated from 15th century Spanish, question is - do you choice a time-consistent English equivalent (pre-Shakespearean, post Chaucer) or a more dynamic translation.

  3. Thanks Ian. It's been really interesting going through the editing process looking for those words that sound too modern. I guess contemporary fiction can have its challenges too, with regional phraseology posing its own potential for anachronism :)

  4. Ha ha! I used to cringe when reading a certain American author who chose to write Victorian English novels. They were sooooooo Americanised, and full of anachronisms, I had to quite reading her stuff. It was killing me. But good call, looking up phrases and actions to make sure they are 'Regency appropriate'. PS I watched Austenland too, and though I don't admit it out loud, was very amused by it.

  5. I find the Americanizing (see that?) of spelling tough to deal with, seeing as I write Regency- in England! I guess knowing your target audience influences some of these things. And I suppose the directors of Tarzan couldn't have Margot looking anything less than glamorous!

  6. Great post. I like the online Etymylogical Dictionary as well. Anachronistic terms and Phrases in Fiction drive me nuts. They really do. Medieval people saying 'okay' and British characters in Regency novels using terms like 'sidewalk', 'two blocks away' or 'write mother'.

    Yet one thing that also annoys me is the assumption that everything modern, or everything American is 'better' then or superior the 'other'. Honestly, there are some books that make out nineteenth century Britain was still in the grip of Feudalism. Some authors even go as far as to claim those in domestic service were nothing more than slaves, which I strongly object to.


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