fbook icon 60Attack of the Anachronisms


It’s become quite a fad (albeit a pedantic one) to hunt for anachronisms in historical dramas such as ‘Downton Abbey’. There are bloggers out there who scour Julian Fellowes' dialogue, phrase by phrase, checking for chronological and cultural correctness. My own impression is that he gets it right most of the time. In three seasons of 'Downton Abbey' I can only recall a few snatches of dialogue that didn't seem to match the historical setting - Matthew Crawley's  'steep learning curve' being the most notable. But we can forgive Julian Fellowes the occasional linguistic inconsistency. After all, he’s created a wonderful show to which we’re all addicted, secretly or otherwise.

To tell you the truth, this current fervour for hunting anachronisms is something that makes a historical novelist like me very nervous. As a consequence, I pore over my manuscripts, searching anxiously for clangers. I wake up at night in a cold sweat because I’ve had a dream about readers finding a ghastly mistake in one of my novels. I enlist friends who are History teachers to proofread my text. But in the end, the buck stops with me.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are some of my own anachronisms, which have almost made it into print. Fortunately we spotted them first. But one day . . .


When I needed a rousing patriotic song for a scene in the forthcoming JADE WIDOW, the first thing I thought of was Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Suddenly I could hear it playing loudly in my head like the ‘Last Night at the Proms’. What a stirring piece of music, I thought to myself. Perfect for my book. Fortunately I checked the date of composition before I submitted the manuscript to my publisher. Wikipedia told me that Elgar wrote his ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ in 1902, while my scene was set in 1885! Can you guess which song I chose instead? The answer is at the bottom of this article.


In an early version of MR CHEN I wrote a scene in which Angie, the modern-day heroine, discovers a photo of Amy, the mysterious girl from the past, in an 1870s newspaper. It was only later that I realised my mistake. Not just an ordinary mistake, but a major clanger. You see, nineteenth-century newspapers didn’t have photographs, only engravings. Although photography had existed for decades, the images couldn’t be reproduced on a printing press. The technology wasn’t invented until the 1880s. The Sydney Morning Herald published its first photograph (as opposed to an engraving of a photograph) in 1908. To read more, I recommend ‘Two Hundred Years of Sydney Newspapers: A Short History’ by Victor Isaacs and Rod Kirkpatrick, available online.


Here’s another anachronism involving newspapers, which almost made it into THE JADE WIDOW. I only picked it up at first proofs. I’d written a scene where the characters were reading the latest news on the front page of the paper. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Well, the front and back pages were used for advertising. The news stories were inside! I really should have known better, considering that I spend hours reading nineteenth-century papers online at Trove, the National Library of Australia’s magnificent resource of digitised newspapers.


Another mistake from THE JADE WIDOW, spotted by my wonderful copy editor. It’s 1885, and Eliza is comparing one of the male characters to Count Vronsky from Tolstoy’s novel, ‘Anna Karenina’. Should be okay, shouldn’t it? After all, ‘Anna Karenina’ was published in 1877. But what I didn’t take into account was that the first English translation didn’t appear until 1886! And although Eliza speaks enough French to get by and understands a bit of Cantonese, she doesn't know any Russian! So I had to quickly rewrite that particular paragraph and find someone else for Eliza to use as a comparison. It turned out to be Jane Austen’s Mr Willoughby. 


Finally, here’s a linguistic anachronism for you. In an early version of THE JADE WIDOW, Joseph refers to Eliza as ‘a loose cannon’. Yes, of course there were cannons in 1885 – in fact, they’d been around for a couple of centuries – but nobody had used the expression figuratively. Not until a few years later, and that was in America when a politician (I think it was Teddy Roosevelt) referred to an opponent as a 'loose cannon'. Three of my lovely test readers, including my husband, rightly queried it. The answer was confirmed at Gary Martin’s outstanding website, ‘The Phrase Finder’  which deals with phrases, sayings and idioms in the most entertaining and informative way. Have a look. You’ll find it hard to leave.


The anthem I substituted for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ was an equally patriotic one – ‘Rule Britannia’, written in the mid-18th century.


Deborah O’Brien

May, 2013