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…’