Monday, January 26, 2015

In defense of anachronism

A frequent charge leveled against historical romance is its tendency toward anachronism. Period-inappropriate technologies, dialogue, and allusions are pet peeves for even enthusiasts of the subgenre.[1]

Some authors bungle aristocratic titles and forms of address among the peerage. Others might put words such as “okay” in the mouths of eighteenth-century protagonists.[2] Still others might incorporate characters who base their actions on then-undiscovered scientific principles, discoveries, or practices (psychoanalysis, germ theory, etc.). Characters might eat the wrong food, wear the wrong clothing, or make the wrong joke. One of the most common complaints against the subgenre is that the mindset of the hero or heroine is incompatible with his or her setting. Often, objections are aimed at the text’s representation of the options available to women in a given period.

While I appreciate rigorous attention to detail in the subgenre, and while certain careless errors do annoy me, I would submit that a little unintentional anachronism isn’t the end of the world.

To demonstrate, I’d like to turn to another type of romance altogether: the Arthurian kind.

The literary tradition of Arthurian romance was largely developed from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries by a loose network of mostly anonymous authors writing in the major vernacular languages of the period (primarily French, English, and German, but also Italian, Spanish, and various Celtic and Scandinavian tongues). Derived in part from Latin chronicles, it began chiefly in verse but was quickly adapted into prose. Among the authors of Arthurian romance we do know, Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Sir Thomas Malory have all achieved canonical status in medieval literary studies.

All of them practiced flagrant anachronism.

The story of King Arthur was set in the fifth or sixth century. His legend was based on a (likely nonexistent) Celtic war chief who won a series of key battles around 537. But texts such as Chrétien’s Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Wolfram’s Parzifal, or Malory’s Le Morte Darthur depict the Arthurian realm in terms that are much more like high medieval Europe than early medieval Britain.

For instance, Arthurian knights in these romances typically wore full body armor and helmets, which would not have been used in the “real” King Arthur’s day. Moreover, most of these romances were inflected by the high medieval sensibility of courtly love. Arthurian heroes who aspire to the affections of a worthy but inaccessible  lady of higher station (e.g., Lancelot and Queen Guinevere) reflect the literary values of the period in which they were written, not the century in which their adventures were set.

Even the Latin chronicles that inspired many early composers of Arthurian romance were based on faulty sources and themselves introduced many errors. Eleventh-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth likely conflated two sources for the character Merlin (one of which probably has little basis in history).[3] In a subsequent work Geoffrey seemed to realize his mistake and attempted to explain his apparent anachronism by situating some events associated with Merlin many years before others, thereby resolving the discrepancy but creating an implausibly long-lived character in the process.

Leaving aside Arthuriana, but in the same vein, early modernists are well aware of Shakespeare’s many anachronisms. To cite just one play, Julius Caesar contains references to doublets, which were worn in Elizabethan times but not in ancient Rome. And in the second act, Brutus famously notes a clock striking, although mechanical clocks did not begin to develop until the 1300s.[4]

If we were to judge these works solely based on their adherence to historical accuracy, we would not find much to recommend them. And if we dismissed them on the basis their anachronisms, we would be depriving ourselves of masterpieces that have been a source of pleasure and study to generations of readers.[5]

But most scholars recognize that Chrétien de Troyes wasn’t aiming to faithfully recreate early medieval Britain for his high medieval audience, just as Shakespeare was more preoccupied with depicting human conflict with art and sensitivity than with the minutiae of life in ancient Rome. Both writers used the distant past as a backdrop for stories that reflected values and aesthetics popular in their own time. That is not to say that the setting was trivial; Julius Caesar’s plot is inspired and guided by real events. But Shakespeare was willing to sacrifice historical authenticity to meet the demands of his own genre, craft, and time.

Likewise, historical romance is more beholden to the constraints of the romance genre than it is to the reality of history. While historical fiction may generally aim to simulate the past for readers through painstaking attention to detail, historical romance’s overriding preoccupation is different. Emotional authenticity in the development of the relationship is far more important to the genre than strict fidelity to a historical or geographic setting.

Historical settings open up a range of concerns and possibilities to authors, some because they are similar to the present day and others because they are different. To cite just one example in the latter category, the consequences for unintended pregnancy were much different for an upper-class unmarried woman of Regency England than they are for most twenty-first-century readers. The elevated risks associated with extramarital sex can be used to raise the stakes for heroes and heroines in a way that would be out of place in a contemporary novel.

At the same time, historical settings provide a way to explore themes and issues that are vital to contemporary concerns. The remote past can serve as a safe space in which authors can tackle more sensitive topics without hitting too close to home for readers.

Heroes and heroines with postmodern sensibilities are a natural consequence of being written by authors of the twenty-first century. Expecting writers to purge their work of any trace of modern perspective is unrealistic in a genre predicated upon the reader’s connection to the novel’s protagonists.[6] And as we engage with settings that predate our own recollection, we must be careful to differentiate true anachronism from textual elements that merely depart from our assumptions about a period.[7]

Even so, it is worth noting that popular romance writers often take great pains to get their history right on paper. Many authors are scrupulous about differentiating fact from fiction for their readers, explaining in an author’s note at the end of the novel how events actually occurred and where the depicted history departs from reality.

One such note that I encountered recently and found particularly interesting comes at the end of Theresa Romain’s To Charm a Naughty Countess (2014). In it, she explains how a volcanic eruption in Indonesia was likely responsible for the summer of 1816 being so unseasonably cold that the year was nicknamed “the year without a summer.” This climatological detail figures prominently in the story, which features an impoverished duke trying desperately to save his Lancashire estate when the weather won’t support farming. At the end of the same book, Romain also acknowledges that her heroine’s line “Publish and be damned” is borrowed from the Duke of Wellington, who purportedly used it as a retort against a blackmailer—but not until 1824, eight years after the events of the novel.

Plenty of other authors of historicals provide such paratextual notes for at least some books, among them Eloisa James, Sabrina Jeffries, Courtney Milan, Jennifer Ashley, Judith Ivory, Lisa Kleypas, Juliana Gray, Sara Lindsey, Beverly Jenkins, and Tessa Dare. Some writers also post nuggets of romance-related research to their author websites or blogs so that readers can both see the research that went into a book’s composition and learn historical details beyond those that the story could accommodate.

I have even seen endnotes, complete with superscripted numerals in the body of the novel, used to inform readers on the historical basis for some story elements. I am thinking in particular of Susan Johnson’s highly detailed notes in Brazen (1995).[8] These endnotes, which delve into nineteenth-century contraceptive options and the real-life inspiration for her aristocratic protagonists, comprise twenty-one pages of text.

Placing a premium on strict fidelity to historical accuracy can also set readers up to overlook some of the creative and occasionally subversive ways that authors engage with their setting. Anachronism can be undertaken through canny recourse to alternate reality, as in Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy (2013), set in 1867,  in which the scientist heroine works alongside friends and colleagues to discover and theorize the chromosome.

In her own author’s note, Milan explains that this alternative history is based on a “what if?” scenario of Gregor Mendel’s pea plant research being applied to Darwinian theories almost immediately rather than being ignored for decades. Part of Milan’s intention for the novel was to reimagine this breakthrough in genetics to counter the erasure of female contribution to the sciences from narratives of discovery and innovation. The author is careful to separate fact from fiction and to show how the discoveries credited to her heroine could have plausibly taken place in the nineteenth century.

To go even further, the sci-fi/fantasy subgenre of steampunk blends historical settings, usually Victorian-era, with fantastical elements often based on mechanized technologies or the incursion of magic. The name ‘steampunk’ itself is derived from alternative histories that imagine that electricity was never invented and instead steam-powered machines dominated the technological landscape. Anachronism is an integral part of this subgenre, and romance novelists are starting to incorporate its conventions.

Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series imagines an alternate history diverging from our own in the thirteenth century as the Mongol Horde developed fantastic machinery and took over most of Eurasia. Jeannie Lin, already known for her medieval Asian historical romance, has recently begun a romance-inflected steampunk series set in China during the Opium Wars, deliberately rewriting the nineteenth century to include anachronistic gadgetry and fantastical contraptions. These books are sophisticated generic hybrids that demonstrate perfect awareness of the ways in which they depart from the historical record.

In other words, not all anachronism is created equal.

Still, if we aside all of the efforts at accuracy, transparency, and creativity, and admit that often authors of romance flub a detail or otherwise misrepresent the past, this should not be sufficient cause to assume that the book was carelessly written or that the author couldn’t be bothered to conduct research. We must remember that the genre’s goal is to create characters and a love story that readers find compelling and satisfying. If a historical romance accomplishes that goal with wit, nuance, and vigorous writing, then the devil’s not really in the details.

[1] For some discussion of anachronism by romance writer Kalen Hughes (AKA Isobel Carr), who finds it more problematic than I do, see this post on the History Hoydens blog; she makes a distinction between historical romance and historical romance. A number of prominent authors of historicals contributed to the comments thread:
[2] The earliest recorded usage of “OK” is from 1839. The word is widespread in British Regency historical romances, however.
[3] For a quick but comprehensive overview of the literary and historical sources of the character, see William W. Kibler’s entry on Merlin in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996, 319-20. See also Lacy, Norris J. and Geoffrey Ashe. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1997, p. 335.
[4] See Act I, scene 2 and Act II, scene 1:
[5] Author Courtney Milan makes much the same point using the examples of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on her blog:
[6] Lisa Fletcher goes a step further in her Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, arguing that the love story as we understand it is out of place in most historical contexts, thus making the genre inherently anachronistic.
[7] Moira Redmond from The Guardian offers some thoughts on literary occurrences that feel like they should be anachronisms, but aren’t: 
[8] Johnson’s note on nineteenth-century spermicide use offers a concise and engaging history of contraceptive practice. It is worth reproducing in full to illustrate the detail the author put into these endnotes: “A variety of spermicides have been used over the centuries, and the earliest surviving recipe from the Egyptian Petri papyrus of 1850 B.C. suggests crocodile dung made into a paste with honey and natron. Some recipes over the centuries have been practical potions—rock salt, a very powerful spermicide; alum, vinegar, and lemon proved effective as well; others, such as lizard and snails, crocus and mint, are more magical than useful. In the late nineteenth century one of the preferred spermicides was a combination of quinine and cacao-nut butter. Recent research has shown, however, that quinine’s spermicidal power is low. Casanova’s (1725-98) memoirs also describe a direct forerunner of the modern Dutch cap. He mentions cutting a lemon in half, extracting most of the juice, and  using the disc as a cervical cap, an ingenious and effective method that would have a spermicidal effect as well” (Brazen, Bantam Books, 1995, endnote 10, p. 421). 

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