Out of time

This really annoys me – when you’re reading an otherwise gripping novel or watching an absorbing film, and you’re suddenly yanked out of the moment by a glaring anachronism.

Maybe it’s just me, and I’m overburdened with information. I don’t mean to be glib but sometimes I wonder if too much knowledge is indeed the marvellous thing it’s purported to be. Would it be better not to know? Is ignorance really bliss?

Let me explain. Last night I was watching ‘Atonement’, the film of the book by Ian McEwan. I’ve read the book and seen the film before, and although I thoroughly enjoyed both, there’s always been a little itch, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, that prevented me from enjoying them as much as I should. Last night it finally clicked. My problem hinges on the use of one little word.

For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the film, a little background: the story begins in England in the mid 1930s and concerns an upper-middle class family of some means.  One of the characters, Briony, is 13 years old. She is asked to deliver a note, which she reads. She shouldn’t have read it; it wasn’t meant for her eyes. In fact, this version of the note was sent by mistake. But Briony does read the note and thereby hangs the rest of the tale. She is appalled by one of the words it contains and her perception of the note’s author is thereafter completely distorted. The word is ‘cunt’.

Sorry if you weren’t expecting that. It’s a word that still manages to offend, but I’m not complaining about its use in the book.  My problem is one of perception. Would a well brought up 13 year old girl in 1930’s England have known what that word meant? I’m sure it was in common usage in some segments of society at that time, but Briony would have had a very protected upbringing and would certainly have been a lot younger in terms of knowledge and experience than girls of a similar age today. Would she have even recognised the word?

I was born in 1952. I was 13 in 1965 and considered myself pretty grown up at the time. Didn’t we all?  It’s a long time ago, but at that age I don’t recall ever come across this word in any context. Not in my reading – and I read a lot – or in any conversation (even those feverish heart-to-hearts teenage girls have all the time). I had to wait until the thrill of reading ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ many years later before I came across it.

Time skews my memory, that’s for sure, but I’m certain I would have remembered. So, the question is, was this an anachronism, or is my memory at fault? McEwan’s not alone by any means, though it seems to be more common these days. How often, particularly when you’re watching something historical on television, do you think to yourself, ‘no one would have said that twenty years ago’?

I’m not talking about something as glaring as Queen Elizabeth I wearing a watch or someone admiring the Empire State Building in 1913. Many of us wouldn’t realise that a character was driving round in a model of car that hadn’t actually been invented yet. It’s often the use of slang expressions – using today’s idioms in a time when they hadn’t yet been coined – that spoils the effect. Comments like ‘easy for you to say’ and ‘couch potato’ are of their time. They wouldn’t have been uttered fifty years ago.

Has a certain laziness crept in while we were looking the other way? Do we even care about accuracy as much as we used to, or ought to? The issue is about being true to the subject matter, to history, and to our readers.On a similar theme,  conversationalwordsmith has a lot to say on the subject of breaking trust with readers.

How can we expect them to have faith in us if we can’t get the basic facts right?






8 thoughts on “Out of time

  1. There’s one I remember from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” There’s a reference to the clock striking. There were certainly no striking clocks in ancient Rome!

    I would bet today’s younger viewers wouldn’t pick up on current slang being used in something that is “historic.” But they’d probably be the first to recognize if a young character in a current novel was using “old-fashioned” words that were “in” when the author was young.

    Slang is quickly dated, and today’s hot word can be gone tomorrow. I try to avoid them as much as I can to avoid “dating” my works.

    • I couldn’t write for young adults – slang moves too quickly for me. It’s left me behind, which is why my next novel will be about women my age. More about that later. 🙂

  2. I HATED that movie! I counted how many seconds the camera man held each shot. The rule is something like 3 seconds. I had to stare at each face for 20 or more. I wanted to slit my wrists. The “C” word distracted me from suicide for a moment and I was grateful for it.

    • I enjoyed it, but you’re right, the whole thing could have been a lot shorter! Looking back, the thing I remember most, apart from the ‘c’ word, was that fabulous green silk dress that Keira Knightley wore. Not sure that’s what the director intended. 🙂

  3. That does grind my teeth. I have come across a few and I think, how can that be. For the rest of the book, I am stuck on that one thing.

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