What can I say? Ancient Greeks using quills or Carthaginians mentioning the prodigal son give me headaches – all the more because I’ve been there, and know how easily this kind of thing can slip under one’s radar.
I once had a character admire the skyline of Mantua silhouetted against the sunset sky, with special mention of a dome that wouldn’t be built of a century and a half. Of course, nobody noticed until the book was out – and years later, I still can’t watch the darn dome without cringing. So yes, I know how it feels.
And of course there is a huge difference between sloppy research and accidents. Sloppy research is a sin against the deities of historical fiction, while accidents… well, happen.
But there is, to my mind, ad worse, worse, much worse sin than sloppiness, and it is the Intentional Psychological Anachronism.
Please notice the capitals: it is that bad. It is the unconventional heroine who will sport 21st Century sensibilities and notions, wear men’s garb because it is comfortable, despise the conventions, mores and beliefs of her time, refuse to conceive the notion of marrying for anything but love, and, because of all this, be depicted as immeasurably superior to all the other characters who act, think and behave in a manner fitting their century.
I say heroine, because this kind of pest mostly prospers in the female variety – but this isn’t to say there aren’t heroes of this ilk. I even have a not especially affectionate nickname for the phenomenon: the French Nanny Syndrome, after Bianca Pitzorno’s retelling of Jane Eyre, in which all the good guys are modern people in disguise, confronted by cardboard baddies* who hold to the views and beliefs of their time.
And this, Gentle Reader, I call a sin and a crime. It gives a distorted view of the past as a time when the good ones thought like us, while the mindset of the era was consistently unhuman and evil. It stifles any sense of historical perspective. It anesthetizes the all-important fact that right and wrong have changed across the centuries, that what we believe today has not always been around. It builds a false percetpion of history. It is wrong. It is ugly. It is dishonest. It is not, but not historical fiction.
And if you think I’m quite vocal about it – well, you may be right. Fiction is fiction, yes – but why bother setting your fiction in another century, only to falsify the setting like that? So, it is both a sin against history, and a corner-cutting, audience-winking strategy when it comes to storytelling.
I’m afraid that, to me, it hardly gets worse than that.
* And yes, Jane-the-English-Governess is one of them. Or, if not totally bad, a silly woman incapable of human warmth, and slavishly besotted with the cruel, heartless Mr. Rochester. Does it show how much I loathe this book?