Tuesday, 15 November 2016

History & Mystery: Anachronisms Ahoy



The Tuesday Night Club has chosen history as this month’sTuesday Night Bloggers History & Mystery theme, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.


Bev at My Reader’s Block has, as ever, produced a great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.





 
 
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These are fascinators!
 
 
In a recent History & Mystery piece I said
the whole question of inauthenticity, anachronisms and mistakes in crime fiction set in the past is too big to take on in this blogpost – in other words don’t start me on that particular topic.
But that just got me thinking about the subject, and so of course I’ve ended up doing a piece on them. (In fact I’m usually even more interested in non-anachronisms – see this piece I did for the Guardian – items from books that surprise you for their date.)

But this week I will give some examples of the mistakes that really annoy me. I know, I am pedantic and picky, but these things trip me up, stop me from believing in the book, and in some cases fool me into thinking I’ve spotted a clue.

My first set of items concern

British life in the first 60 or so years of the 20th century

and the books with that setting. I will not name the guilty parties, but all of these are from relatively recent, well-thought-of, historical crime books.

- Ploughman’s lunch – an informal pub meal of cheese pickle and bread. This was invented by marketing men in the 1960s, it is not a traditional English dish, it was not offered at wayside inns in the 1920s through the 1950s. Authors trying to give your sleuths a historical meal as they set off for the murder village – you have failed. (this picture – credit Clothahump (talk) on Wikipedia – is a spectacularly good example as the plate is pure 70s, and the whole dish looks quite unappetizing but convincing with all that raw onion)


Anachronisms 3


- A very good author of historicals, whose research is usually impeccable, has someone paying a penny for something in London, offering a shilling, and being given fourpence back (with careful use of halfpennies and farthings). Nowadays shillings are almost forgotten, but theoretically they would comprise five pennies. But back in the 1920s, when the book was set, there were 12 pennies in a shilling.


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- A vicar would not be on the inquest jury in a village mystery: clerics were not called to any jury.


- A fascinator was not (as it is now) a headpiece for a wedding consisting of flowers and feathers. It was a long, light lacy scarf wrapped around head and shoulders to keep a woman warm without disturbing her hair.

- Break the mould’ did not mean to change the way the world worked or thought. It was used in this context: ‘they broke the mould when they made him’, meaning 'that person is a one-off'. The usage changed I would say in the early 1980s when a new political party in the UK claimed to have ‘broken the mould’ of British politics. They didn’t succeed in much politically, but they certainly changed forever how we use that phrase.

Next, more recent history. 

I remember the 1970s to some extent and the 1980s very clearly, and I’m astonished that so many authors either don’t, or don’t have editors to remember for them. Just to take a handful of examples from books I have read in the recent past:

- In the 70s pregnant women did not routinely know the sex of the baby

- In the 70s a liberal arts academic would not have a computer on his desk (or even access to a big one)

- Photocopying was at a rudimentary stage: a photocopied photograph was useless as an image and could not be used for ID-ing someone.

- In the UK neither phone answering machines nor TV video recorders were in common use.

And finallyin the 1930s in America (and really no-one would care but me) frozen peas came in a box, not a bag.

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OK, I like my random list, and I’m sure many readers will be able to add their own examples.

But actually there are worse sins that writers commit, less factual.

They get etiquette wrong – making me wince all the time (Ianachronisms 1 once wrote a book on etiquette so I am particularly fussy).

- Writers find titles sadly difficult – Lady Mary is the daughter of a Duke, Lady Peter is married to Lord Peter, the younger son of a Duke.

- The oldest unmarried daughter is addressed as Miss Bennett, her sisters are Miss Elizabeth, Miss Mary and so on.

- ‘How do you do?’ ‘How do you do?’ are the only correct greetings in polite society.

- Men stand up when women arrive at a table or in a room, and when they leave.

- Everyone wears hats outside, all the time, and it would not be proper for a good woman to be bare-beaded outside in any circs. There was a complicated set of rules for men to remove their hats, or just tip them, as a sign of respect.

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‘How much did my bonnet cost?’


Writers bandy prices and costs around, guessing how much things might have cost, and coming up with ludicrous mis-estimates, often out by a factor of at least ten. It’s not that hard to find out, for example, how much someone would have been paid (a governess, a working man) or how much rents were, and that gives you a clue for other costs. Also, I have tremendous joy in my currency converter (an online tool for comparing the value of money now with dates in the past), and wish other people would use it – it might warn writers if the sum they are quoting is outrageously wrong.

And worst of all, many modern writers give to their historical characters attitudes which just don’t ring true – do all historical sleuths HAVE to have wonderfully modern and very proper feelings about mental health, gay rights and pacifism? This drives me mad, and is wholly unconvincing.

That’s my lot for today, but I look forward to others’ thoughts on this – whether to castigate me for worrying about nothing, or to add their own pet hates. Please comment below…

































52 comments:

  1. I admire your restraint in not naming names Moira (but I really wish you would)

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    1. Ha - perhaps I should have offered a censored version and an uncensored version! names supplied in a spoiler special...

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  2. Oh, I couldn't agree with you more, Moira, about getting those details right! There were some on your list that I wasn't as clear on (like the origin of the Ploughman's Lunch). But I've seen some of the others, and I don't care for them any more than you do. This is where a good editor can be so helpful. The results of not being careful about those things is that the reader is pulled right out of the story, and there it all goes. It's one reason that I have so much respect for people who 'do their homework' when they write historical novels.

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    1. Yes exactly Margot: it doesn't seem too much to ask does it? And, like you, I have even more respect for those who take the trouble and get it right.

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    2. It asks the salary of an editor!

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    3. Presumably no commercial justification these days...

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  3. Oh, SO well said, Moira! The 'title' thing in particular bugs me, and it's very often used wrongly on TV, as well. If Ethel Pifflesnoot is the daughter of a duke, she's 'Lady Ethel'. If merely married to a knight or baronet, she's 'Lady Pifflesnoot'.

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    1. Lovejoy consistently got it wrong about Lady Jane/Lady Felsham.

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    2. I know, it's not that hard is it? You probably both remember that either Lord Peter or Harriet remarks in Busman's Honeymoon that a character is 'educated', because she gets Harriet's title right...

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  4. I'm kind of boggled because I hadn't realised "broke the mould" had changed that much in meaning.... I always saw it as meaning that someone was an unique or individual, and also, if I saw it used as it is now per your post, I think I would read it as "we've given birth to something completely different and unique."

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    1. Yes, it has adapted its meaning and that's fine. I'm all for language changing, actually, I'm not bothered about a new usage. But if someone is writing a book set in the past they should try to match usage to the times...

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  5. I am so much with you on this, Moira! This kind of thing annoys me no end. The etiquette is something I constantly pick up on particularly in the way people talk to servants or men and women behave towards each other.

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    1. Yes it's wince-making isn't it, and does spoil enjoyment of books, films and TV...

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  6. Really enjoyed your post. I'm always bothered by an author giving 20/21 century sensibilities to their historical creations. I remember frozen veggies all coming in a box until probably the 90's.

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    1. Thanks - and yes, their 'sensibilities' is a good way of describing what I mean. And I'm glad you're backing me on the frozen peas!

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  7. Great post! Yes to all of these (well I didn't know about the peas...). The etiquette and modern attitudes grate particularly and IMO the currency is plain sloppy, it is so easy to check.

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    1. I know - I think it shows a lack of respect for the reader not to even try to get it right.

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  8. I absolutely agree! The anachronism jolts you out of the story and reminds you that the author's world isn't real. I have recently spotted a ploughman's in a 1950s-set novel too. The same book had a barman making a Cosmopolitan, which seems to have been invented in the 1970s/80s. Another book with a ww2 setting had a) heroine owning several biros; b) a housewife wearing a nylon overall; c) WAAF uniform described as khaki. I was born in 1978 and I only have GCSE history, but I know that's not right!

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    1. Good for you! So many of us (I'm glad to see from the comments) have a feel for this: publishers should be employing us as consultants.

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  9. "it would not be proper for a good woman to be bare-beaded outside in any circs. " This is my pet peeve about old TV westerns. Not only was going without a hat unladylike, it was courting sunstroke (not to mention the ruin of what complexion you might have after daily ablutions in hard or alkaline water).

    In the US, the producers of Birdseye frozen vegetables still put them in a box. Feel free to use this information in any way you choose.

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    1. Well well, I am intrigued by the vegetables. So what do you use to put on a black eye or a sore foot ;-)?
      Yes, it just looks wrong to see them without hats, for all those reasons.

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    2. Since the two of us get injured a lot, several years ago we purchased an ice wrap made just for that purpose.

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    3. Such a simple solution hadn't occurred to me!

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  10. Guilty admission -- I was part of a fanfic round robin a few years ago and made one of my chief characters British -- sort of a cross between Bertie Wooster and Sir Walter Elliot.

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    1. But I'm sure he was authentic in every detail! that's a promising combo...

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    2. Reading lots of Jane Austen helped.

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    3. ....as it does in every situation....

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  11. Prevailing opinions are often quite difficult for modern popular writers to deal with. Their period detectives are often very liberal in their opinions about things like homosexuality, but if you read something like LONDON AFTER DARK which was written by 'Fabian of Scotland Yard' you'll find a whole chapter about how gays are a public menace and need to be locked up! It couldn't be more different to today, but it's within living memory!

    One of the things that I notice is the way that the 'small change' of history is often forgotten. Literally in the case of pay phones. I can remember always trying to make sure that I had enough coins to ring home if I needed to. With mobiles it's something that nobody even needs to think about anymore, and you don't often seem to find it mentioned in stuff written about the '70s. Equally, the stultifying boredom of Sundays in the '70s. Nowadays it's pretty much another day of the week, but in those days everything ground to a halt on Sunday, and it was difficult to find any shops that were open. Writers often concentrate on stuff like music and television in order to convince you, but it's the small details that sell it to me. I remember reading a book of diary entries from history, and one of the bits that I particularly remember is a diarist from the 18th century. He starts off writing about how he is involved in some litigation, but his lawyers seem to be taking his money and not doing anything, but then he says that he has taken to wearing a dead spider around his neck to ward off the ague. The first bit could be written now, but the other bit suddenly tugs you back into history.

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    1. Yes to all! In a 50s book I read of a lady reducing the tip to the waitress because she needed the pennies for a callbox. I would be most impressed if a modern writer put that in a 50s book, but they never would.
      I was reading a 90s set mystery and wondering if the author was Brit or American: then she mentioned (very casually) that the van driven by a character had a red nose on the front, and knew she must be Brit, and it was the right authtentic touch for that character. But no-one who didn't live her in the era would know that. Anymore than they could imagine those dire Sundays of the 70s.
      It is the joy of history to read about side-by-sides like the ones you mention.

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    2. I often read historical fiction thinking how cell phones would have completely changed the plot! But speaking of trying to guess the nationality of the author...I was reading a book that I first guessed was written by an English author, but there were some Americanisms that were throwing me. Turns out she was Australian!

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    3. Yes, those pesky phones changed everything. And I like to think I can guess the nationality of an author, but do sometimes slip up...

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  12. Wonderful post. I loathe having anachronisms pop out to remind me I'm not really in 1952 or whenever.

    About the Ploughman's... Did ploughmen perhaps take such a lunch with them into the fields, I wonder. Of course, it would just be his lunch, with no label attached.

    In D.E.Stevenson's books (NOT mysteries, but comfortable reads, written and set from 1930s to 1970) she so often sends a character off on a walk over the fields, down by the river, climbing a local hill, with a "packet of sandwiches" and usually a thermos of tea as well. Sounds like just the thing for any author trying to give their mid-century sleuth a casual lunch on the go.

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    1. Yes, that would be so much more convincing, and has that ring of authenticity. I keep meaning to read more DE Stevenson...
      I guess it is a fair enough name for what probably was what the ploughman ate...

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  13. "But this week I will give some examples of the mistakes that really annoy me. I know, I am pedantic and picky, but these things trip me up, stop me from believing in the book, and in some cases fool me into thinking I’ve spotted a clue. "

    This is me. Anachronisms drive me crazy. I also like to spot things that non-American writers get wrong about American details. I never knew the Ploughman's Lunch was so recent. But I did have a wonderful one in the little town of Bellton...great crusty bread, perfectly pickled onions and Camembert. Yum.

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    1. Sounds delicious! And yes, non-Americans most certainly get things wrong. One book by a very highly-regarded literary author shows Thanksgiving on a Friday or Saturday... she seems to have misunderstood a reference to Thanksgiving weekend maybe?

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    2. Well, since many employers now include the Friday after Thanksgiving as a day off, it is almost a weekend. But Thanksgiving itself is always celebrated on Thursday. I always figured it was for the alliteration that they picked that day of the week.

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    3. Indeed, but this author had the children of the family going out to do their shopping on the Thursday, ready for the T/Giving weekend, so I really don't think she got it! When we lived in the US I thought it was a brilliant holiday for many reasons, but particularly because we always had the Friday off too.

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    4. The best part of Thanksgiving was introducing "newbies" to the holiday! Once my younger sister and I brought a Canadian nurse she worked with to Thanksgiving dinner at our mom's in Arizona (where she'd retired). We were driving through the Coachella Valley (waaaaay before the music festival), and there was a billboard proclaiming Indio the date capital of world. Sheila was really confused. This dusty desert farming community the date capital of the world? Of course, they meant the FRUIT.

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    5. Oh what a great story! It would make a good romcom, with singles turning up, all hopeful - get enough of them and it could be the (other) date capital.

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  14. Good for you! Many readers find these details decrease the ability to suspend disbelief. I have an editor friend who suffers from "potato rage," as when someone in King Arthur's time is eating potatoes or Italians in the 14th century are preparing tomato sauce.

    I'm on a one-woman crusade to teach America the difference between high tea and afternoon tea.

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    1. I know it took me a while, especially when I was a kid, to understand the difference. I still find it a little weird to read, as I just did the other day, the phrase "to eat tea." Tea is a beverage. Don't you drink it? :-)

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    2. Potato rage! That's my favourite new phrase of the week.
      It isn't confusing if you're born to it, but - just to help - there are huge regional differences here, and class differences. In the Northern working class you always have your dinner at lunchtime and your tea in the evening. And then you go and mix with posh southerners, and there's endless room for misunderstandings...

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    3. We have the same problem on this side of the Atlantic. People in the rural South and Midwest refer to the noon meal as dinner and the evening meal as supper. City slickers call them lunch and dinner.

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    4. Supper as evening meal is pretty posh here - implying faux-informal, 'we don't have servants any more'. But where I come from, supper was toast and cocoa before you went to bed. Oh the nuances...

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  15. I've just found a real doozey, and it's Clothes in Books related. All the more disappointing given that I've loved the author's work so far and felt it was all really well researched. But then she gives her 1920s heroine sleuth a suit by Dior. Even specifying that one could not run in a Dior suit. Oh dear. Very, very unfortunate.

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    1. Ooh, wince-making. It's an internal eye that should prevent those mistakes, because you can't visualize a Dior 20s suit, and there's a reason for that.

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  16. There are some historical mystery series that I stopped reading because the heroine was just too modern in behavior and ideas. Maybe that did happen, but too hard to believe in. Otherwise, especially if I am reading something set in the UK, I don't usually notice. Even in the US, there were and are so many differences (in some things) between different areas that I don't pay that much attention. Big things yes, but small things just pass me by.

    But such things make a case for reading mysteries actually written in the time vs. historical fiction, as you have pointed out on Clothes in Books.

    One thing that always bothers me is to call something knitted when it is obvious crocheted, which happens more than the other way around. Probably happens more in TV or movies, because if you cannot see the piece you can't say for sure.

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    1. Ha! I crochet, so this resonates with me, as well. Worse? When they say crochet NEEDLE. Argh.

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    2. I remember years ago hearing a radio news item - on the BBC - which involved knotting, and they got everything wrong. In those days it would have been almost all men in the newsroom, and it was so disrespectful and slapdash and sexist not to even try to get it right. (Same thing in an item on make-up once.)

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    3. Crochet-knit - aargh! Usually means lace knitting.

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    4. In French Captain Hook is Capitaine Crochet!

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    5. Capitaine Crochet is the best thing I've heard today.

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