Anachronisms: The Regency Writer’s Enemy?

Anachronism: Something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time. I love the word, but I don’t love finding them in a book or a film where anachronisms are not intentionally placed to somehow benefit the story. For example, I adore the movie Moulin Rouge partly because it is full of interesting anachronisms. While the story unfolds in nineteenth century Paris, the music is entirely modern. The characters are singing Madonna, Elton John, and The Police while frolicking around in Belle Epoque costumes and settings.

moulin-rouge

As a writer of both Regency Jane Austen variations and time travel fiction, I have found it is important to be very careful of, or intentional about, anachronisms. For the most part, I dread them popping up in my Regency JA variations because of an unnoticed gap in my research. Like most writers of historical novels, I try to be very careful that the things my characters say or do, or the things they wear, their manners, etc., are all appropriate to the time period. On the other hand, fiction being fiction, I feel it’s okay for a tiny historical error to appear here or there, as long as it doesn’t distract from the sense of reality in the story. Besides, I think even the most knowledgeable Regency writers, and I’ve noticed there are some genuine scholars out there, sometimes take liberties with historical accuracy in the interest of a great plot. And maybe it doesn’t always matter, because I think most readers are looking for that great story first, and accuracy second. While I hope that my readers will cut me a little slack if they find a small flaw in my Regency accuracy, I am equally forgiving of other authors who might lapse, as long as I really enjoy the book overall.

In my Regency time travel novel, The Time Baroness, I purposefully use anachronisms as a way to point out that my time-traveling characters do make mistakes. That’s part of the fun: that a time traveler is often in danger of committing faux pas by saying or doing something that no one in that time period says or does, or worse, bringing something into the past that can only exist in the future. Lots of time travel movies and books use this device, and it usually makes for some interesting plot points.

What inspired me to post about anachronisms now was that I was watching a movie the other day in which someone was playing a piece by Chopin on the piano, and I thought it was the same piece that is used as the theme throughout the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film. Well, I got all up in arms, knowing that Chopin couldn’t have written the piece in the time period in which the film takes place since he was born in 1810. I stormed around about the absurdity of a filmmaker not taking more care with historical accuracy, until I did some simple research on IMDB and found that the piece is called Dawn, and it was written for the film by composer Jean-Ives Thibaudet. Boy, did I feel dumb. My only remaining argument was that the piece sounds like Chopin, which maybe you could argue feels somewhat anachronistic.

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Then I got inspired to Google Anachronisms in Jane Austen Films and several things showed up on IMDB. Here are a few fun ones:

In the 2005 Pride and Prejudice: Lizzie is clearly wearing Wellington boots in many scenes.

In Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility: When Mrs Dashwood stands alone looking at the paintings on the wall in Saltram House, there is a portrait of Oscar Wilde. The movie takes place in 1810, he would not be born for another 46 years.

In the 1996 Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow: Emma plays and sings the song “Silent Worship”. Although it’s based on an aria from George Frideric Handel‘s opera “Tolomeo”, the version in the film was arranged by Arthur Somervell in 1928.

In the 2007 Persuasion, starring Sally Hawkins: Anne plays Gymnopedie no. 1 by Eric Satie on the Piano – this was not composed until the late 1880s.

Have any of you experts caught anachronisms with your own eyes in the film or television adaptations of Austen’s novels? If so, please share!

 

31 Responses to Anachronisms: The Regency Writer’s Enemy?

  1. I commented on a discussion list about the way a very famous best selling author of Regency romances used the word sex in her books. I was told that the reading public wants such anachronisms. I say why write a historical romance if it is just a modern story dressed in costume?
    Another problem is that words like elastic, plastic, facsimile were around centuries before the modern products to which the names are now attached. So if a person wants to know if she can use a word like elastic , she feels confident when she learns how long it has been in the English language. Trouble is, the name elastic was given to a product because of the meaning but that product is modern. Stockings can be elastic because they are stretchy but they do not have the product elastic in them.
    One now best selling author had pajamas, elastic bands, and zippers in her first book set in Regency England.
    Many movies have many anachronistic props and costumes .
    I think it plain error for gentlemen to be wearing boots to balls and dinner. Even military officers had regular shoes. I imagine one reason authors are reluctant to name the man’s evening shoes. is that they were called pumps. That sexy Alpha male wears pumps to the ball!!

  2. I do go back and look for these bloopers that others mention here or elsewhere but can’t say I notice them for myself. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anachronisms are definitely a challenge. Like you, Georgina, I am fairly forgiving as a reader. As a writer I go to extraordinary lengths to research and hunt down facts, but the truth is that one could spend endless hours searching every word or detail, still make a mistake, and never get anything written! Words are the true bane, IMO. You simply can’t look every single one up or the book would never get written! All we can do is try our best to avoid the obvious errors. As I see it, very few people aside from other authors or language historians are gonna know when a word originated, and those who nitpick over such mistakes are looking to criticize rather than enjoy the story.

  4. Anachronisms, if blatant, can spoil a scene, but I’m less concerned about anachronisms than about proper language usage. Misspellings, typos, incorrect use of homonyms — that kind of thing. if language is used properly I can more easily forgive anachronisms. (Anyway, an author or filmmaker could always claim it was part of a mash-up! LOL!)

  5. I call it more like a blooper in the 1981 BBC DVD of Sense and Sensibility. It is the scene where the Dashwood ladies are coming down the lane in their carriage toward their new home Barton Cottage. If you look closely in the far back ground, you will see a modern truck whiz by the opening to the lane.

    In the 1986 Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s brother laments that he cannot wear his uniform for her to see … that it is some sort of rule and yet many movies have him in uniform away from port.

    In the 2007 Persuasion, Sally Hawkins used a steel nib for writing in her journal.

  6. In Becoming Jane, there are several errors in time.
    For me, the most prominent was the use of steel nibs for writing. In 1795, when the movie is set, Jane would be using a quill.
    There are errors in the actual story as to when Tom Lefroy was in Hampshire, but the average viewer would not catch those. I guess that is more an error in facts, than an anachronism.
    Anne says that the words “country dance” came from the French “contradanse.” Actually, it was reversed.
    There were several incidents where boons, cranes, etc., are seen in the shots.
    A British officer would not wear “breast plates” when at a social function, only when on duty.

    • Thanks, Regina. Wow, it’s terrible that you can actually see booms and cranes in the shots! I’ll have to watch it again and look for those.

  7. Can’t think of anything off the top of my head but I know I’ve read books or watched films where I’ve gone ‘oh really’! I read the Time Baroness and LOVED it. Time travel is my favourite genre.

    • Thank you, Teresa! It’s so good to hear that! Time travel is still my favorite genre too, I have to confess 🙂

  8. Haven’t caught anachronisms in movies, but I have in books. I run across the use of angst (1942) in numerous Regency/P&P variations. Also, the word alright (latter 1800’s) keeps showing up. I have used chortle (1870) and still will use it occasionally because I love the word. Friendly fire (1970-75) showed up in one book. My rule of thumb is if it’s within 15-20 years of the time period in my book, I will use certain words. Why? Because, they were probably in use for a number of years before they showed up in print unlike today when something new hits the internet right off the bat. I get surprised with some words that I swear would be an anachronism but find that they’ve been around since the 15th century. So, when in doubt, I check them all. Thanks, Georgina. I find anachronisms fascinating.

    • I used the word “scenario” before I learned that it came into use in the 1840s. “Friendly fire” would have me screaming at the book in my hand!!!!
      As to “Angst,” it has been around since the 8th Century, first in the Germanic and then the French language. It is pre-cognate with the Latin angustia. Keeping in mind the influence of these languages in early England, I would think it could have been used, but perhaps not in a written form or in the form we know now. It can be found in some English translations in the 19th Century, especially those of Kierkegaard and Freud. Needless to say, that is not our Regency period, but it provides some possibility of the use a bit earlier.

      • I had used two sources for angst, but it looks like I need to use even more. They both had 1940’s, but apparently that was usage of the English word angst. Incomplete or incorrect info on the internet is a hazard even with checking out anachronisms. Thanks for the correction, Regina. 🙂

    • I think ‘alright’ has slipped into my books, Gianna. I have to be more careful of that. I like your rule of thumb though – that really makes sense!

      • I don’t know if you good folks in the US would be able to access it but the Oxford English Dictionary website is an amazing resource for dating word usage. It’s the site I use the most for checking word origins and usage for the proof/beta reading I do for some, mainly US, JAFF authors. Here’s the link to the website:

        http://www.oed.com/;jsessionid=73402BC58A0185B5ADD249B61CBC29FE?showLogin=false

        If you click on the box called “Sign in”, it gives you two options: “Subscriber login” and “Library card login”. I can access it by inputting my library card number into the latter box. Again, I don’t know what your library cards are like over there, but where I live in the UK, our library cards are credit card sized plastic with a barcode and a number. It’s that number that I’ve found gives me access to the full site.

        Hope this may be of use!

        • Thank you for the link, Anji. My library card did work, thank goodness. A subscription in North and South America is $300 per year or $29.95 per month. I ordinarily use Etymonline.com, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and The Free Dictionary. Also Wikipedia.org for general info. I find that they don’t always agree, and that’s why I check more than one. LOL

          • I know what you mean about sources disagreeing, Gianna. I also use etymonline.com and dictionary.com but, to the mind of this Brit, they do seem slightly skewed towards the US. If in doubt, I tend to go with the OED. Glad you were able to access their website. It’s rather expensive otherwise!

  9. Anachronistic language in Regency-set novels irritates me out of all proportion. “Are you OK?” is one I’ve come across several times – not from any AuAu authors that I can remember I hasten to add!

    In film adaptations, I personally think that the entire 1940 version of P&P was an anachronism. But I’ll always have a soft spot for it, because after seeing it on TV one wet Sunday afternoon in around 1966/67, I checked the book out of my school library and the rest is history, as the saying goes.

  10. Without going and looking for myself, I think I read somewhere that in the 1995 BBC version of P&P, when Mr. Darcy is at the Hunsford parsonage, there is a doorbell next to the front door. Research indicates “a precursor to the electric doorbell, specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, was invented by Joseph Henry around 1831.”

    • In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth is at Hunsford, mention is made of the door-bell ringing to announce the arrival of Mr. Collins bringing Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam to the parsonage for the first time. It’s in Chapter 30. The only reason I know this is because the door bell subject was raised in comments on a WIP on another site.

      • Doorbell: what about a system similar to the servant/staff call bells, where a chain, rope, or string is pulled to activate a bell(s) inside, thus alerting the house of visitor(s)? I was trying to find the earliest notation of something like this and finally gave up.

    • This is an interesting discussion, both your comment, Linda, and the comments of Anji and J. W. below. I’ve found these kinds of conversations help make our own writing more accurate!

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