Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Past Not Quite Recaptured

I started reading a review copy of a historical novel that's coming out this fall, which was ballyhooed as a sexy page-turner, rife with period details. Hah! The action takes place in late 17c northern Europe, yet one character wears "bloomers" (invented ca 1850); another speaks of his master's "gift for sadism" (de Sade was in late 18c & the word "sadism" wasn't in use till at least 1885); the heroine is imprisoned in a shabby room, where there's an old cotton coverlet on her bed (not then, there wasn't!). I threw in the towel at page 170, as I no longer believed in the world the author created; nor, for that matter, the plot and characters.

In other novels I've reviewed, one author placed kerosene lanterns in 17c Salem, Mass. (kerosene was invented in 1852); another had characters in 1850s London using such words as "claustrophobic" (introduced 1875), "slow motion" (1925-30) and "loner" (1945-50), plus had roses blooming outside at Christmas; yet another had her heroine in the mountains of North Carolina in the late 18c making raisins from wild grapes (no way: pits are too big, skins too tough, berries too small & climate too damp) and giving sugar cookies to one and all at Christmas (as if! sugar would have been way too expensive & hard to come by to dispense so freely).

Why don't writers do their homework? Why don't editors and copy editors (assuming there are any of the latter left) catch these errors--and many, many more--before they make their way into print? Am I the only one who notices or cares?

P.S. Alas, even my childhood love, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, suffers from inaccuracy. Heroine Kit swims, something no proper English girl would have known how to do in 17c Barbados. I did research on Barbados for my as-yet unwritten Great American Novel, and in those days only the native Caribs and Africans swam. In fact, the latter are credited with inventing the freestyle stroke.

P.P.S. There are some authors who get the details right. (By odd coincidence, they also write compellingly. Hmm...) Specifically: Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal & the White), Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus), Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Virgin Blue, etc.), Louis Bayard (Mr. Timothy), Edmund White (Fanny).


Anonymous said...

I thought the whole point of Kit was that she wasn't proper?


Bella Stander said...

Kit wasn't proper, which also was atypical of the Barbados planter class. I should have been clearer: Almost no English people swam then; it just wasn't done. Sailors made it a point of not knowing how to swim; they thought it would only prolong the agony of drowning if their ship went down.

Katharine Weber said...

As I go into revisions of my new novel, which has a lot of 1911 elements, this is a good reminder to get it all right!

spymum said...

Wow, I grew up in Barbados from the age of four (St. Gabriels School and Queen's College) and I have never heard of this book. I'm going off to get it right away - thanks!

I was writing a book about 1950's/1960's Barbados and put it away after 30,000 words (the research was killing me). I'm so lazy! I'd love to read yours when you finish it!