Writers of historicals are always on the lookout for anachronisms. They still trip us up, time and again. But the real elephant traps are the unknown unknowns [© D Rumsfeld?], the things we don’t know we don’t know—and, as a result, we don’t know we’re getting wrong.
I was prompted to write this blog by some of the reactions to my post about habit words, a couple of weeks ago. So this week’s post is about anachronisms of various kinds.
Anachronisms? The standard definition is something out of its time—an object, an expression, an attitude—something that does not belong in the period of the story.
We wouldn’t put electric light in a Regency setting, for example. That one is easy to spot. But how am I, as a historical writer, supposed to spot the ones that lurk in the undergrowth of my ignorance?
I’m going to tell you a story.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Then I’ll begin.
Jane’s Story : background
Our heroine, Jane Austing, is returning from Brazil following the death of her widowed father, Sir Comfrey Austing, who had been a diplomat in South America for several years. Jane is accompanied by her faithful maid, Betty Coldsore, a woman of middle age and comfortable proportions.
Jane is en route to Fastbuck Abbey, Sir Comfrey’s family seat in Surrey. Sir Comfrey’s baronetcy (and entailed property) has passed to his nephew, Jolyon Fartheringale Fastbuck Austing. But the new baronet is unlikely to welcome her presence for long, because he hates her. Jane, in turn, detests Jolyon—her only living relative—because he picked on her when they were children. Jane’s situation is dire, as there was precious little unentailed wealth for her to inherit. If Jane can’t find a husband to provide for her, she may have to face the appalling prospect of becoming a governess or a lady’s companion.
[You may find this story somewhat formulaic, but stick with it, the anachronisms are about to heave over the horizon, obscured only by clouds of clichés…]
Opening : our heroine arrives at Fastbuck Abbey…
The abrupt slowing of the post-chaise woke Jane. Its rhythmic rocking—so similar to the motion that she and Betty had got used to during all those months at sea—had lulled her to sleep. Now its absence had brought her fully awake. Not so for Betty, who was still snoring in her corner. Jane was glad of that. Snoring was infinitely preferable to Betty’s constant chatter, mostly about nothing at all. It was true that both of them had had to adopt the seaman’s characteristic rolling gait in order to cross the quayside without mishap that morning. But why had Betty gone on about it for the whole day?
They were speeding up again. But nothing was the same as before. On the relatively even surface of the metalled turnpike road, the motion of the wheels had been regular, even soothing. Here the chaise was wobbling and lurching, as first the left wheel, then the right, dropped into deep splashy ruts.
Jane let down the glass, slowly and carefully so as not to wake Betty, and stuck her head out to get her first sight of her ancestral home for nearly five years. What she saw, instead of the mansion, was the disrepair that had befallen Fastbuck’s park in its master’s absence. Clearly, the new baronet had done nothing to ensure the comfort of passengers bowling up to his colonnaded front entrance.
From here, there should have been a fine vista of the house, along a drive flanked by stately limes, but the understorey of rhododendrons had been allowed to grow without restraint. She hated their gloomy humps, now more than ever. Their dreary outgrowths were encroaching onto the drive. No doubt their leathery leaves helped to drip extra water into those unfilled ruts.
Jane called out to the coachman to stop on the curve. From there, she would definitely be able to see the house. She wanted to have time to absorb the changes before she met Jolyon. Sir Jolyon, as she must now call him, she supposed. She had had a blissful childhood at Fastbuck. But now she did not even have the right to visit, except at the express invitation of the new baronet. And if he had not bothered to have the drive repaired, or the shrubbery pruned, what state might her beloved old home be in?
…horror upon horror in the grounds…
Betty woke up then, of course, but Jane refused to allow the abigail to climb down. Jane wanted this moment for herself. In contemplative silence.
It was as bad as she had feared. The turning circle in front of the grand entrance was puddled and rutted; the lawn surrounding it had been inexpertly mown—and not recently, either. Even from a distance, Jane could see the gold of buttercups and dandelions among the weedy green. For all she knew, there might be poison ivy as well, shrouding the majestic specimen tree that her father had forbidden her to climb.
She smiled at the memory. She had climbed it, of course. It had been worth it, in spite of the whipping she had received for her disobedience. Under its spreading branches, she had played cricket against Jolyon. And bowled him out, middle stump. Now she could see that some of the cedar’s lower branches had been lopped off. Was that Jolyon’s revenge for having been beaten by a mere girl? Future young Austings would be hard-pressed to gain a foothold, though nothing could daunt the squirrels. There were two of them, chasing each other along a branch, running straight as lethal leaden bullets. Were they fighting? Or perhaps—decidedly improper thought—flirting? It was spring, after all.
With a deep sigh, she climbed back up to her seat and bade the coachman drive on. Betty began a running commentary on all the dreadful neglect of the park, but Jane closed her ears to it. She would live in blissful memories inside her own head, until the moment reality was forced upon her, as she crossed the threshold of Fastbuck Abbey.
…and in the house…
The great door was opened by the butler. His hair was thinner and his pot-belly larger than five years before. His superior smile was unchanged. He looked down his nose at Jane and required her to state her business. Outraged, Jane drew in a deep breath. She would put him in his place, Jolyon or no Jolyon.
But Betty was before her, bustling forward to shake a fist in the butler’s face. “What kind of welcome is this, Wallflower? Are you become too fine to recognise us?”
Wallflower’s jaw dropped. Clearly he had failed to recognise Jane, but Betty had not changed a whit in five years, except to grow rounder. “Why it is Miss Coldsore. And…and Miss Jane, of course. Excuse me, I did not recognise you, miss. Pray do come in.” He pulled the door back to allow them to enter.
Jane knew she had been no beauty when she left. Five years in tropical heat had not improved her looks. But as she strolled through the hall, all that fell away. Happy memories flooded back and she was swimming through them, in slow motion, as in a hypnotic dream. Betty’s gabbling to Wallflower was merely background noise, an impenetrable robotic buzz.
…there is worse to come…
Her trance ended abruptly when she was installed in the blue saloon, to await the arrival of the master of the house. The room had been changed a great deal. It was grander than before, filled with gilded ornaments and furniture that even the Prince of Wales might have envied. Was Jolyon’s ego so massive now that it required such a backdrop? Was this how all Jane’s father’s substance was to be squandered? So that a nasty, jumped-up wastrel could have his moment in the limelight?
Jane resolved not to stay a day longer at the Abbey than she had to.
To Jane’s surprise, Jolyon strode into the room with a beaming smile on his face. “Why, Jane, how good to see you after all these years. You must be starving after all those hours cooped up on the road. There will be freshly roasted grouse for dinner. Shot it m’self. But, in the meantime, honey, can I fix you something? A whisky and soda? A sandwich?”
[NOT to be continued]
Let us draw a veil over the proceedings at that point…
You’ve probably fallen over the anachronisms in poor Jane’s story. I’ll admit that there are a fair few. And the author can’t cope with writing any more of this drivel.
Perhaps the worst horror is at the end of that last paragraph. It is modelled on an example repeated to me by a certain Sophie Weston of this parish. The original occurred in a historical novel set in 16th century Scotland and featuring Mary Queen of Scots and James, Earl of Bothwell. When the Earl arrives back at his remote castle, Mary says (I paraphrase here): “Bothwell, honey, can I fix you a sandwich?”
How many anachronisms in Mary’s single eight-word sentence?
I count a possible six. (1) honey, 20th century American English; (2) fix, ditto; (3) sandwich, 18th century (4) can, which should be may in speech of the period; (5) Bothwell which should probably have been James, since Bothwell was the formal mode of address and they were lovers; (6) the whole idea that an anointed queen of the 16th century would do anything as menial as preparing food. How many do you see?
And other bloomers in Jane’s story? I’m not going to quote any more here (though bloomer would be one). I wrote the Austing story, but that doesn’t mean I’ve seen them all. Unknown unknowns, remember? However, if you want to know about the anachronisms that I introduced deliberately, I’ll be producing a newsletter in midweek, with my complete list. If you’d like a copy, sign up for our newsletter at the top of the sidebar or click here.
PS The proper names in the story aren’t anachronisms. They’re just the author’s flights of fancy, to get her through the process of creating this claptrap.