Writing Historical Fiction (10): Geoff Nunberg

A while back, when I was reading one of those modern retellings of The Ramayana, I saw  a sentence which mentioned Rama walking through the Diwan-i-Khas and found that anachronism irritating. The Immortals of Meluha was  a collection of such anachronisms. Sometimes we need the Internet to find such oddities, but sometimes it just stands out due to lazy writing and poor editing. On NPR, Geoff Nunberg talks about this issue as well the question of historical characters speaking about modern issues instead of issues of their period.

But I give a pass to anachronisms if they don’t jump out at me. No, Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn’t have said “when push comes to shove,” and Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to “step on it,” but that isn’t what’s problematic about “Downton”‘s vision of the past. Even when the characters are speaking authentic period words, they aren’t using them to express authentic period thoughts.

The earl who frets over his duties as a job creator, the servants grappling with their own homophobia, those are comfortable modern reveries. Drop any of them into a period drawing room comedy by Shaw or Pinero, and they’d be as out of place as a flat-screen TV.

Equality, prejudice, race itself. How can you have mid-19th-century characters use words like those without anachronistically evoking the connotations they have for us? To many of Lincoln’s contemporaries, and even his allies, equality still evoked alarming echoes of the French Revolution. To speak of race equality implied not just that people should all be treated alike, but that the races really were morally and intellectually equivalent.

That was an extreme and dubious proposition to all but a few radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln himself almost certainly didn’t believe it, nor did the prominent scientists of the age. In fact, race equality was the phrase the defenders of slavery used to charge that the Republicans wanted to raise Negroes to the same status as whites and encourage miscegenation, charges that most Republicans indignantly and sincerely denied. It’s discomfiting to read the accounts of those debates in Michael Vorenberg’s “Final Freedom,” the book that Kushner chiefly drew on in depicting them.

It’s hard for us to adapt our understanding of words like equality to a 19th-century moral frame. And it’s to Kushner’s credit that there are some overtones of those attitudes in his screenplay. [Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?]

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