Monday 4 July 2011

Getting it Wrong (On Purpose?): Anachronisms in Historical Fiction

by Katherine Langrish

So here is Jael, from the Book of Judges, about to hammer a very large nail (or stake, or tent peg, depending on which translation of the Bible you use) into the temples of the sleeping Sisera.  The painting was made by James Northcote, RA, in 1787,  and I think you will agree its impact is not diminished by the fact that no attempt has been made at historical accuracy and Sisera is (most uncomfortably, one supposes) lying fast asleep in a suit of 15th century armour.

So how important are anachronisms?

I write historical fantasy, not straight historical fiction: which you might think offers me a loophole out of strict adherence to absolute accuracy.  After all, if my books set in the Viking Age also include trolls, ghosts and water spirits – for which clearly there is no historical evidence – then surely it won’t matter too much if some of the details of everyday life on a 10th century Norse farmstead aren’t exactly right either?

Actually I don’t see it that way.  For one thing, there’s the small point that Viking age people believed in ghosts, trolls and water spirits, as well as in a mixture of gods – Christian and pagan – for whom there can be no evidence of physical presence either.  And so I don’t feel that fantasy is necessarily less ‘historical’ than non-fantasy.  Indeed, partly to correct this notion, I have sometimes referred to my fiction as ‘history with the beliefs put back in.’ 

But let’s come clean.  Even with the best of intentions, I’m never going to get everything absolutely right. There is not nor ever can be such a thing as absolute historical faithfulness.  The past is a jigsaw with many missing pieces. Did Richard III really murder the Princes in the Tower?  We’ll never know.

Historians relay social, political and domestic information about the past: facts derived from primary and secondary sources which most of us do not have the skill or patience to read.  There is room for many interpretations of history.  And when history is remodelled as fiction, there is not only room but a licence to go further.  It’s not the duty of an historian to determine Richard III’s guilt (though quite a few of them try); but for a novelist (as for Josephine Tey in 'The Daughter of Time') it may be an imperative, and the reader will understand it as fiction: a possible, not definitive, version of events.

Further, anachronisms can be used to bring an old story to life.  In the painting of Jael and Sisera, above, it's probable that the artist used anachronistic clothing (old fashioned, yes, but nothing like old-fashioned enough!) as a way of giving Jael's murder of Sisera a more universal meaning: in the Bible, Sisera is a leader of the Canaanites, an enemy of Israel: his downfall at the hands of a woman could be seen as the downfall of a tyrant.

Sir Philip Sidney once said in his ‘Defence of Poesy’ that poetry – by which he meant invention: fiction – was less likely to deceive the reader than history, because it does not pretend to be the truth: 

“What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?  If then a man can arrive at that child’s-age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively, but allegorically and figuratively written.  And therefore, as in history looking for truth, they may go away full-fraught with falsehood, so in poesy looking but for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative ground-plot of a profitable invention.”

However, some anachronisms do matter.  Even one can grate, breaking the illusion.  Too many, and I don’t see the point of using an historical background for your novel at all.  Many fantasies are set in a sort of generic ‘medieval England’ with no relation to a genuine historical period.  It sets my teeth on edge if I read a book placed, say, in 12th century England, only to find the characters all have 14th or 15th century names like Alison and Matthew (or even Rose and Jack), while the villages are full of 16th century inns complete with 19th century-type regulars and landlords, and everyone speaks English (of course they do: it’s a modern novel) but there’s not the slightest hint that the 12th century was a linguistic and racial melting pot of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Welsh and Latin.  Stick a white witch at one end of the village street and an evil Norman overlord at the other, and you’re done.  Medieval Disneyland.

Beliefs even in fairies changed over the centuries.  When I wrote my own 12th century fantasy, ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’ in the US), I tried not only to indicate some of the racial and linguistic issues mentioned above, but to investigate 12th century fairy lore, courtesy of Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Tilbury, Walter Map and other 12th century men of letters.  It turns out that the characteristic story of the time was of abductions or journeys into or out of underground fairy kingdoms: The Green Children of Woolpits, Elidyr, Wild Edric; and of ‘dead’ wives being seen with the fairies: Sir Orfeo, The Sons of the Dead Woman.  This supernatural underworld was assumed to be ruled by a king: belief in a sovereign fairy queen – as in the 16th century ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – seems not to have come till later (perhaps not until Elizabeth Tudor and the literary cult of the Faerie Queene).

Does any of it matter?  Well yes, to me it does: to me it’s worth trying to be faithful to the 12th century experience of the world, which is different from that of later centuries – and interesting in its difference.

But there are occasions when deliberate anachronisms are permissible when writing fiction.  Or at least, I think so, and here’s an example. In my first and second books, Troll Fell and Troll Mill, a lot of the action takes place in a dilapidated old water mill, an important element which I needed to visualise very clearly.  Off I went to visit the local (18th century) watermill up the road, to talk to the miller, who was a knowledgeable enthusiast.  And I learned that in the10th century, watermills were very different. 

You can picture a watermill, can’t you?  An old wooden or stone building with a big, vertical waterwheel turning around and around on its horizontal axle as the water rushes through the mill race?  And if you’ve ever been inside a mill, you’ll have seen the heavy-duty machinery of cogs and gears which turns the horizontal rotation of the axle into a vertical rotation to drive the millstones.  Well, in the 10th century, watermills weren’t like that.  Instead, water would be led from the mill dam down into the mill itself via a long wooden chute, to strike against the paddles of a horizontally-laid wheel whose vertical axle would have disappeared up through the floor of the grinding platform to drive the millstones directly above.  Much simpler.  No cogs, no gears.

It’s not easy to imagine without a diagram, but the point is that a 10th century mill would have looked very different inside and out from the sort that we’re used to picturing.  Trying to describe it would have taken up a lot of space, added nothing to the narrative, and probably confused my readers.  I decided I wasn’t writing a treatise about early water mills.  So the mill in ‘Troll Mill’ is an anachronism – a water mill of the sort that wasn’t seen in Europe for another two hundred years.

Does this contradict what I said earlier?  Isn’t this just part of the Disneyfication process?  Maybe…  But if there are anachronisms in my work, at least I know they’re there.  I chose for them to be there. 

And that, I think, is important.

Katherine Langrish is the author of 'West of the Moon', HarperCollins 2011, a YA fantasy set in the Viking period, and of 'Dark Angels', HarperCollins 2009, set in the 12th century.  Visit her website and her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles


Caroline Lawrence said...

Bravo! I totally agree that sometimes we have to allow anachronisms to make the past clearer. But yes, sparingly and with full knowledge of what we are doing!

Stroppy Author said...

Agree - it's knowing where and why you've changed it that is important.

I'm rather confused by your point about language, though - I find books that use fake 'old speak' extremely irritating, and while I wouldn't want a historical novel full of modern slang, I do think it should be easy to read. What do you mean about getting across that 'but there’s not the slightest hint that the 12th century was a linguistic and racial melting pot of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Welsh and Latin'? Most people are not aware that modern English is a mix of these, either.

I really like you point about exploring the beliefs current in the age and the differences between folk lore then and now. Great!

A superb post, Katherine - thank you.

Nicola Morgan said...

Really interestng and thought-provoking, Katherine.

I think Philip Sydney was wrong when he said that fiction "was less likely to deceive the reader than history, because it does not pretend to be the truth" - I know what he means and obviously his example well illustrates what he means, but I think there are many times, in novels for example, when the reader is carried into the story so much that he or she can be deceived into thinking that the fictional bits are factual. (Not that I have a problem with this, but I don't think it's as clear cut as he suggests.)

Nicola Morgan said...

And by the way, great post!

Linda B-A said...

I suspect that the writer has to "suspend her disbelief" when first developing the story so placing it in an accurate a historical context as possible becomes important. It's a way of making it real. But there are times when it runs away with you and afterwards you think why did I do that? Your water wheel is a great example of knowing when to be pragmatic. Fascinating stuff.

Stewart Ross said...

In a sense all historical fiction is an anachronism because we have no option but to interpret the past through 21st century sensibilities: we impose our ways of thinking on a world we cannot enter. On a more superficial level, there's always spoken language, attitudes to gender, religion, morality, etc etc. In a way it's like the study of history; as each generation of historians reinterprets the past, so each generation of historical fiction writers does the same.

H.M. Castor said...

Exactly! I agree that historical non-fiction is very much affected by the attitudes of the times in which each generation of historians writes, which is so often forgotten when historical fiction is attacked... Great post, Katherine. So much food for thought!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks for all these thoughtful comments! Stroppy Author, what I meant about the language difficulty was that - for example - in my book 'Dark Angels', characters can't be sure, when meeting a stranger, that they're going to be sharing the same language. And this must have been the case on the Welsh border in the 12th century (in fact it's almost the case in Wales still!) My young Saxon hero would speak Anglo Saxon English, and also some Latin and French, because he's been educated. He's meeting a Norman lord who speaks Norman French, and his half-Welsh daughter who speaks Welsh and French but no English. Most of the labourers speak Welsh, but some of the men-at-arms speak only Norman French or a sory of French/Welsh patois. I tried to bear this in mind rather than go for the 'John Smith meets Pocahontas and five minutes later they are both chatting away in English' option.

Nicola, you are probably right that some historical fiction can mislead readers. But I still think Sydney's point is to some extent valid, and that fiction does carry an implicit 'reader beware' sign: it's not intended for fact. Whereas straight history (even though it's always an interpretation, really) suggests that 'this is really how it was'.

janeyolen said...

Interesting, Katherine, that you lead off with reference to Jael, since at this VERY MOMENT I have just finished reading several very dense scholarly chapters about Jael for a nonfiction book on women in the Bible that I'm writing.

And of course, they all disagree about who Jael was, why she murdered Sisera, and how she did the deed--arguing history, the two different Bible passages telling of Jael's actions, references to cultic religions, hospitality rules, ancient goddess warrior tales from other semitic tribes, and of course a lot of close looks at the translations of individual words.

I am tempted to agree with Sidney and say--it's fiction, dummy! But I also agree with you when you remind us that writing fiction doesn't mean ignoring research, grounding the unreal in reality, and then making conscious (and unconscious) choices for the way to Make The Story Better. And of course ALWAYS include an author's note in the back that says essentially "What is true about this story and why I made these choices, just so you know I did my homework. . ."

Two quick notes about books of mine: in "Queen's Own Fool," a novel about Mary Queen of Scots and her 3 female jesters (they are real!): try writing scene after scene with Mary and her four maids of honor all of whom are called Mary. One has to give them nicknames just to sort things out for the reader.

And in "Prince Across the Water," a novel about Bonnie Prince Charlie--the men he was leading spoke a bunch of different dialects and languages including English, Scots, Gaelic, Erse, etc. Charlie spoke French and Italian and a smattering of English. My co-author and I had to make a choice of how to show this without making it unreadable, a choice for sense rather than actual historical truth (whatever that is!)


Katherine Langrish said...

I should love to read your book about Jael and the other Biblical women, Jane! It sounds fascinating, and I've always been interested in the 'goddess' elements hidden away in the Bible. Jezebel too...

I must look for your 'The Queen's Fool' I remember the Maries - isn't it in the ballad? - Last night the Queen had four Marys/This night she'll have but three/There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton/And Mary Carmichael and me'?

Catherine Johnson said...

Fantatstic post Kath, so interesting and so true, and who knew that's where the Four Marys out of Bunty got there name? (Sorry to lower the tone)

adele said...

Most interesting post, Kath! My best anachronism (and lots of my friends have heard this story so apologies for repetition) was having people cooking with LEMONS throughout my novel ITHAKA. No lemons in Ancient Greece apparently....note to self: MUST TRY AND DO MORE RESEARCH!

Sally Prue said...

On the other hand, all that awkward reality isn't half inspiring!

Katherine Roberts said...

Kath, good post! I "play" with history too, because I am aware how much of it comes to us through the mouths of the victors, and when you start digging you discover quite different accounts.

Things like the workings of a mill, of course (and Adele's lemons?), are factual and can be proved/disproved, so care must be taken but - as you say - so much of this is just background detail, and unless the plot depends upon such detail probably best left out of the story, anyway. Maybe that is because I write for younger readers, though... adult readers might enjoy this detail?

Katherine Langrish said...

Catherine! I had totally forgotten Bunty's 'Four Marys'! (And now no editor would allow: 'too confusing'...)

Love the story about the lemons, Adele! (So where DID lemons arrive from, and when?)

adele said...

I think from the East or South America...I never really bothered to find can see how amazingly SCHOLARLY I am!

Mark Burgess said...

I could have sworn Homer wrote 'and early born the lemon-fingered dawn'...

JO said...

Great post. I think historical fiction is a dialogue between history as we construct it and story. It's the vitality of that dialogue that underpins the most successful historical opinions - an occasional anachronism, included for the good of the story, is fine. Sloppy research isn't.

Catherine Johnson said...

Adele I feel so much better knowing you don't know everything! xc

Judith Geary said...

Katherine, I got here via a link from Irene Hahn, and my fiction is ancient rather than medieval. For the Getorix books, I went so far as to have characters speaking English words with Latin roots if they're Roman and German and French they're speaking the native Celtic. I hope it added veracity, though of course, they're often supposed to be speaking Greek as the universal. I'd have assumed the straight-line, water-driven mill wheel as the charcters would have known nothing else. But I can identify an anachronism or two in my own as well.

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh, put me down for Jane's Biblical women too! (Perhaps we could persuade her to do a guest blog when it comes out?)

Mark, I'm sure dawn in Homer is always "rosy-fingered" but it ought to be lemony occasionally.