Anachronism

I’ve been reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King for the first time. I grew up watching Disney’s Sword in the Stone, of course, and I’ve had a soft spot for Arthurian legend (and chivalric romance in general) since studying Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene during my master’s program.

What has stood out most strongly so far is all of the anachronism in White’s novel. He often uses it for humor, whether it’s Neptune showing up in medieval England like a nineteenth-century sailor with tattoos on his arms and chest, or the blustery old knights saying “What ho, what?” or “Pass the port” all of the time. Since I studied twentieth-century British literature in grad school, it’s especially interesting to me because White is both critiquing and gazing nostalgically at the same generation of Britain that authors like Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster wrote about.

I remember being in some grand art museum, I think in New York, looking at wall-sized pieces from the Renaissance. Many of them were biblical scenes, and I commented to my brother (who was with me) how funny it was that all of the characters in the portrait were dressed in clothes and plate armor that were contemporary to the sixteenth century. There seemed to be no embarrassment on the artist’s part about the anachronism, and at least from our perspective, the anachronism actually added a layer of meaning and interest: we were not simply looking at a picture of the beheading of John the Baptist, say, but a specific interpretation of that scene from another historical time.

Somehow when we’re the ones committing anachronisms, though, they do feel embarrassing. In a recent acquisitions meeting at the publishing house where I work, we were considering a historical fiction novel set in ancient Rome. The characters were fun, the plotting was fast-paced—but the world building wasn’t immersive enough for the committee. One committee member said, “It’s like they’re playing dress up. The characters are wearing togas, but they feel too modern in the way they act and talk.”

I remembered that comment a few weeks later when I was reading an article in The New York Times and came across this quote from Salvador Dali: “Don’t bother about being modern. Unfortunately it is the one thing that, whatever you do, you cannot avoid.”

I think Dali was on to something. I’m currently shopping around a World War II novel—and I’m writing a colonial-era Caribbean novel—and I did my share of research because I want my books to be historically accurate. But even if I spent years conducting exhaustive research, at the end of the day the characters’ psyches and word choice and motivations will necessarily reflect my time and my beliefs and my interpretation of World War II and early-modern colonialism in the Americas.

There probably is some happy medium somewhere, though. I like it best when the world of the novel feels immersive and internally consistent, even if it is a part of the “picture” itself that the story is a product of one time looking back at an earlier time.

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