Once upon a time I came across an interview or an article – I wish I could remember – in which a historical novelist gleefully told about placing in his latest novel’s prologue a handful of elements that could easily pass for anachronisms. He gleefully anticipated the mails, weblogs and reviews pointing out his “blunders”, and the joys of answering back that, in fact, a lack of written record for some thing before a certain date could not be taken as proof that the same thing did not exist…
I remember thinking that it seemed all a little far-fetched and also a little petty – but the author had some very stinging things to say about the anachronism hunters, so I supposed that he must have had some truly horrid experience, and never thought about it again, except in very general terms.
So much so that, when yesterday I began reading a historical novel I’d had on my Kindle for some time, I recognised not the title or the author’s name, but the non-anachronisms in the prologue.
“Oh, so there it is,” I thought, with a slight impression that the author must have gone to some lengths to shoehorn at least the most obvious example in the story. But after all he was trying to make a point, wasn’t he? His novel, his point… Until the antics of two little cousins put the young hero in mind of the plays at the nearby Rose Playhouse.
Wait a minute… The Rose? In… what was the year again? I went back to check the year, and there was no helping it: the prologue was set in 1558, when the Rose wasn’t there – and wouldn’t be for several decades yet. And this is no matter of a possible lack or loss of written records, because we know for a well-documented certainty that Philip Henslowe began building the playhouse in 1587. Just as we know that the Theatre, also mentioned in the same sentence, wasn’t around in 1558 either – and would never be anywhere nearby, but in Shoreditch, all the way across London…
So I had to wonder. What was this exactly? More bait for the anachronism hunters, just to see whether they’d jump on the false blunder and miss the genuine one – so to be better laughed at? Or was it a real slip – most awkward, you’ll agree, in the circumstances? Because I’m a bad person (and an occasional anachronism hunter myself), it even occurred me to wonder whether the interview had been a disingenuous attempt to paper over the real blunders in, say, a hastily added prologue… But, as I said, that’s just because I’m a bad person. Whatever the case, though, there is no denying that the author’s stance on the matter has lost some edge, hasn’t it?
At the very least, I’m reading the rest of the novel with an especial wariness and a less than charitable mind. … Now when I find anything that seems doubtful I think of that interview and can’t help cringing. Is he still trying to make a fool of me? Or did he just blunder – again – after calling me a nitwits for obsessing over anachronisms?
Well, I think I’m learning from this story that crusading is not a safe sport. Anachronisms set my teeth very much on edge – but I’m uncomfortably aware that, no matter how narrowly one combs one’s research, accidents just happen. In fact, I live in a certain amount of fear of blundering, and I dare say I’m not the only one… Let us say that, while there is a definite difference between sloppy research and the occasional accident, I’d rather not be caught at it while crusading.