I finished reading C.J. Sansom’s Lamentation last week. It’s the sixth in a series of mysteries set in Tudor England, during the reign of Henry VIII. Lots of political intrigue and religious persecution. Good stuff —um, you know, in fiction.
Full disclosure: I loved it. I love the whole series. But when I checked out the comments posted on Goodreads, I saw some complaints about anachronistic words. Prime offenders seemed to be “lunch,” “sadistic” and “propaganda.” Which, okay, weren’t in use at that time.
Those complaints got me thinking. Overall, I lean toward Sansom on this. It’s hard to write a work of historical fiction in contemporary English without resorting to anachronisms. Especially if you’re going back as far as the Tudor period. Yes, Tudor English is “modern” English—but, for these books, we’re talking about a couple of generations before Shakespeare. It might be technically the same language we speak today, but it’s evolved a lot since then.
And what kind of bar do we set? I don’t think anyone expects Sansom to write in Tudor English, complete with obscure expressions, the familiar pronoun we’ve abandoned (thou was still in use), plus non-standard spellings and capitalizations.
So, yeah. Let’s assume that most readers aren’t saying, “Tudor English or bust.”
But once we eliminate trying to mimic the exact English of the time period—well, I’m still not sure where to set that bar. I think the most important thing is to be clear; don’t leave readers groping for your meaning. If Sansom wants to convey that Matthew Shardlake partook of a light meal around noon, the easiest word to use is “lunch,” even if that word didn’t exist at the time.
On the other hand, I’m glad Matthew never bursts out with dialogue like, “Okay, sure. Let’s get right on that, Jack.” There are limits.
But those limits vary from reader to reader. So I’m curious—what are yours? How do you feel about anachronisms in historical fiction? (Or fantasy fiction with an historical flavor.) What works for you and what makes you cringe?