“Prochronism” – and does it matter?

As a reader, are you disappointed by anything less than accurate historical detail, or are you content for the writer to use artistic licence?  

There is a well-known old joke (it may be a Woody Allen line?) that runs: ‘Dear Diary, today the Hundred Years’ War started…’ Another humorous use of an archly inappropriate time reference is from a French and Saunders sketch, a parody of period drama set in the 1930s, in which one character reminds the other: ‘Don’t forget we’re between the wars here, Evie!‘ And this is nearly as good as the ‘Uptown Downstairs Abbey‘ sketch in which the narrator intones that ‘real historical events are happening…’ before we segue into all-too knowing comments on the demise of the Titanic.

These are, of course, examples of consciously using prochronism. Or some form of it, at least. Prochronism is a chronological inconsistency, a form of anachronism. More specifically, as Collins Dictionary tells us, it is an error in dating that places an event earlier than it actually occurred.

Other art forms, too, play with ideas of prochronism. It is common for Shakespeare to be staged using the original text but in a contemporary setting, for example, to engage audiences and perhaps to highlight parallels between the play’s themes and modern cultural and socio-political events. Director and producer Baz Luhrmann used the original words for Romeo and Juliet but took it for a contemporary spin – not to mention his keeping the 1920s setting for his movie of The Great Gatsby but set to a range of musical genres that included hip-hop.

Used in humour and in art-house cinema, we, in general, have accepted chronological inconsistency as a creative device. However, in literature, it seems readers can still be variously amused, dissatisfied, or irritated when spotting prochronistic ‘errors’. Recent examples are the numbers of people pointing out inaccuracies in Julia Quinn’s Regency-set Bridgerton novels (though a lot of that appears focused on the Netflix series, particularly around its inclusive cast), and in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series – even though those books are intended as fantasy/historical novels in which any supposed reality is undercut by time travel.  

If a book claims to be a historically accurate account, I can understand how prochronism can kill it. But if a novel is, say, primarily romance, or fantasy, then does it matter? What is ‘historical accuracy’, anyway? In terms of language alone, I don’t think I want to read a novel penned in 18th-century language, never mind 16th-century. And is it even possible to view the past unless it’s through the lens of current knowledge? Could you write about, say, the late Edwardian era without communicating awareness of the Great War hanging over events? Or about the women’s suffrage movement without knowing how seminal it proved?

We accept Steampunk, as one example, as a subgenre of Science Fiction, creating worlds where modern technologies meet Victorian and Edwardian style and aesthetic. Along with fantasy, this lies at one end of a spectrum of ‘re-imagining’ rather than ‘reproducing’ historical events.

The concept of ‘re-imagining’ has also given ‘literary’ authors freedom when writing historical fiction – Hilary Mantel, for instance, or Zadie Smith, who is due to publish The Fraud, set in the 1800s. This has not only helped to revive the historical novel, it focuses our attention on good writing and story-telling over nit-picking historical detail.

As Mantel said herself, on winning the Walter Scott Prize in 2019: ‘Historical fiction is flourishing and increasingly writers see it as the arena to display their talents, and a genre that takes us into unexplored areas of human experience…’

Image thanks
Main image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Smaller photo by Rusty Watson on Unsplash

23 thoughts on ““Prochronism” – and does it matter?

  1. Oh I love this topic. It depends on if they label the book historical fiction for one. If you label it that, I want really accurate descriptions of time and place. I must admit I’ve been really annoyed by books that take place in the past yet try to rewrite history having characters say and act in ways that just would not have happened. I don’t want to see a 19th century character with 21st century ideaLs. Now, I read a book recently that took place in the past, but the whole situation was surreal, so it worked as such…well, to a point…I didn’t love the book, but I applauded the authors idea and take

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a tricky one. Unless there’s a clearly stated fantasy element, there are factual elements that fiction set in the past needs to observe, agreed. I think this is sometimes a struggle when writers are seeking a strong, adventurous female character set in the past – there were certainly strong intelligent women, but in the main, they would have quickly been suppressed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly. And this annoys me because these books don’t show the struggles these women had to endure on the daily. And as no one reads history any more…😆

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How very interesting. I Ducked it (the Duck Duck Go version of Google it) and realize why I’ve never heard it. Enjoyed your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think (hope) a discerning reader can tell the difference between creative licence and a mistake due to lack of research. Mantel knows her stuff and can do whatever she wants! I can’t wait to see what Zadie Smith does with historical fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Smith should be an interesting one – seems to have been delayed? I agree about the discerning reader. I wonder if sometimes people just want to show off their knowledge a little when they criticize ‘mistakes’.

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  4. A sound reflection. However, we stopped watching The Crown which seems to be claiming historical accuracy yet spreading inaccuracy about people, living and dead, who cannot defend themselves. It seems to need the Fact Check service which I understand is available.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point. I was going to say it’s a risk of writing something about the recent past, including people still alive and still remembered. But writing should always think carefully when writing about real people, to consider their reputations. I am not saying don’t write about real historical figures or biography, simply to do so from a position of fairness.

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  5. my personal opinion its depends on the genre: historical nonfiction – is (and should be) the most accurate; of coz if the book is a historical romance or, let’s say, a historical satire – there’s a possibility of the small shift in time, actions, dates… depends on purpose of that literary work.

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    1. I agree, genre and the claims the writer makes are key – as long as objectivity is taken where historical figures are real.

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  6. When I read a book that mentions a historical event that I’m not sure of (but am intrigued about), I ask Mr. Google, and – if it exists – have a quick lesson from Mrs. Wikipedia. Considering what I read is mostly fiction, I don’t mind inconsistencies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t mind a few inaccuracies either, for the sake of a good character and story – though within reason. It’s too easy to focus on the detail and lose the bigger picture. I can understand why historical fantasy seems more popular as it can throw off the confines of historical fact.

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  7. Prochronism. Well I learned a new word today and seeing as I ‘wing it’ lol here on WP the French and Saunders sketch explained all 🙂 . Interesting posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As in real life, most of us probably feel we’re winging it on WP! The F & S sketches where they took off historical dramas were some of the funniest.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s important for historical fiction to be accurate with dates, events, etc. The only reason I think so is because we have such an uninformed citizenry, and I don’t think we can afford for someone to get creative about the time period, unless perhaps, they have a big ole disclaimer at the beginning and end.

    By the way, I presented on Baz L.’s rendition of Gatsby a few years ago, so I appreciated that reference.

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  9. Your tops are always so unique. Loved this. If I may, the advent of internet as further added to the misery, you trust sources which often falters with timelines

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true – now my children are taught not to over-rely on Wikipedia and the like but to discriminate amongst their sources. Still, on the Internet we often see the same errors perpetuated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So, true. Your posts are always so intriguing

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  10. Humour can get away with many things. And since humour is under heavy attack lately, I will support any such initiative.
    (We might well be between two wars right now, my dear, thought THAT is not funny).
    Now, it a Kikipedia note on just about any subject varies greatly from one language to the other. I’ve tried the same topic in English, Frog and Spanish. Miles apart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Common themes include sarcasm, insults, self-deprecation, taboo subjects, puns​, innuendo, wit, and the British class system…’ I have to largely agree, though think at least some of this characterises humour everywhere. We’re possibly bigger on the sarcasm.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The British class system? Haha. french actually has two words: “humour” which is directed at oneself. And “esprit” which directed at others. The latter is of course soooo much easier than the former.😉

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