Friday, October 21, 2011

Historical Goofs

A Facebook friend sent me a very interesting link today to an article about Downton Abbey--remember the TV series about the stately home in the 1930s?

The second series is now airing in the UK and all sorts of complaints are coming in about the anachronistic language that jerks viewers out of the period. Apparently characters say thinks like "get knotted" which really come from the Sixties. 
Here's the link:

Correct language for the period is always a high priority for me when I'm writing both my series of historical mysteries. I want the reader to feel he or she is in New York in 1903, or having fun with Lady Georgie in 1930s England. If a word sounds too modern, I have broken the spell. The funny thing is that some slang I know was in use in 1900 I simply can't use because readers would find it too modern. Phrases like "far out" for example were in use then.

So how do I make sure that I keep my readers in the period, when obviously I wasn't alive at either time? Well, for Molly I try to remember how my great-aunts spoke. They were born in the late 1800s and several things were different about their language:
They were horribly formal. Only close family was addressed by our first names. Other friends were Mrs. this and Miss that.
They had huge vocabularies as a result of all that reading as young women. They'd never use filler words like "you know".
They didn't use any kind of swear word, or any word that might seem delicate--a body part, the bathroom etc.
A lady really remained quiet in the presence of gentlemen.
So I channel them when I'm in Edwardian times--although I can't keep Molly quiet too often!

For Georgie--well, I knew older people who were young in the Thirties. I remember their slang. I had friends who called each other "Old Bean" or "Old Fruit." I also adore P.G Wodehouse and channel Bertie Wooster for my young male characters. I watch Thirties movies. And for the grandfather in the series, who is an old Cockney, I only have to remember the way my father spoke. Actually the grandfather is a re-creation of my father.  Because my family background spanned the classes--father self-educated to become a research engineer, mother from a professional and artistic family--her father was an orchestra conductor. Then I married into a family in which Georgie would have been right at home with the cousins with silly nicknames and butlers and stately homes. So I get Georgie right because I have been an observer in all these worlds.  I'm only surprised that Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey and also part of that upper crust, has slipped up in his efforts to get it right.

So watch the new series then tell me what you think.


  1. I absolutely love this series and Meggie Smith is splendid in it, she even got an Emmy for her performance! It's sad that this great production faces such silly mistakes...

  2. I agree. Maggie Smith is brilliant and so completely true to time and rank.I'll still watch!

  3. I enjoyed hearing what you think of (or who you think of) as you strive to get the language just right. It is certainly true that a carelessly chosen expression can crumble the whole edifice of a fictional world. Thanks for a little window into your thoughts as you create these characters I'm so fond of!

  4. I am confused about why you state that Downton Abbey is set in the 1930's. The first series began with the Titanic in 1912 and the notes for the second series says it takes place from from 1916-1918.