Wednesday, 5 October 2011

WAM: N M Browne



Back in the day, long ago when the world was younger and I was a girl, I studied Philosophy and Theology because for me the most interesting thing about the world is that it is perceived so differently by different people. What fascinates me most in writing history, or indeed fantasy, is trying to make those other views clear. I am unlikely to notice the wrong kind of buttons on a waistcoat, the wrong colour wallpaper on a wall, or even the wrong technology in an artefact but I do tend to notice the wrong kind of attitude or belief system in a novel or a drama.
(Well that is my particular delusion anyway.)
Which brings me to Downton Abbey. It’s great in many ways - interesting storyline, good pace, some nice little historical references to make the viewer feel clever, but somehow it feels to me like a costume drama in which contemporary people are dressed up to look old fashioned rather than a truly historical drama. I am not an expert - not my period, darling - but would a respectable, unaccompanied woman really have walked into a pub back then? My grandmother wouldn’t have dreamed of it even in the early eighties any more than she would have offered a guest a shop bought cake. Would the lady of a house really be prepared to have her senior servants ordered around by a former junior servant? Such things get my WAM: World-view Anachronism Meter buzzing. To me these kind of details matter more than hairstyles or hems. They are the hardest thing to get right and to convey to the reader; the attitudes and beliefs that constrain and restrict, that might have a woman give away a child from shame in 1950 while her single daughter gets pregnant by artificial donor insemination just forty years later.
It is not just about technology. I’m sure history is full of such shifts: Catholic to Protestant in the space of a King’s reign, worshipper of Thor to worshipper of Christ in another, believer in creationism to advocated of evolution. These things matter - you have only to see an old episode of ‘On the Buses’, or ‘Rising Damp’ to see how much. These shifts change the way the world is for those who live in it. The world is different if it is seen as flat, if it is a precursor to another, or an illusion caused by desire.
I would like costume drama more if it made the past a stranger, less comfortable place,if it shocked me sometimes by saying what could not now be said, believing what is no longer universally believed. Mind you it would probably never get commissioned...

11 comments:

Book Maven said...

I had EXACTLY the same thought about Anna walking into that pub, Nicky! It was hard fr a woman to do that in Cambridge in the sixties.

I also don't think people talked about "the moral high ground" in 1917. My WAM was buzzing but I still enjoyed it.

Nicky said...

Yeah - it was full of twenty first century thinking. I enjoyed it too, but I couldn't suspend disbelief.

JO said...

So that's why I just couldn't get into it. I knew something wasn't working for me, so switched it off and read a book. Now I know - don't think I'll bother switching it on again.

K.M.Grant said...

In Scotland, we didn't have the first series. Perhaps the Powers That Be at ITV thought the Scots simply wouldn't go for an English toff drama. I watched it sneakily online and enjoyed it. Its faults were apparent - everybody explaining everything to everybody - but fine, really. Good Sunday evening easy viewing. But I've found this new series beyond easy. It's lazy, with the characters sliding slowly into insipidity (is there such a word?). One thing sums it up: the ridiculous Persil whiteness of the nurses' caps and aprons. Downton Abbey has become rather silly white noise. I may still watch it, though. I watch lots of silly things!

Linda B-A said...

"I would like costume drama more if it made the past a stranger, less comfortable place..." Fanatastic observation - you've just inspired my morning's writing. Thank you.

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post! I haven't watched Downton Abbey (don't watch much tv at all) but have encountered various similar things in fiction. I enjoyed Laurie R King's detective stories with Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell (The Beekeeper's Apprentice' etc. Tehy are set in the twenties, and great fun: but in one of those, Mary Russell walks alone into a London pub, sits down and orders a beer and a sandwich. Clearly King, an Anglophile American, supposes the ploughman's lunch and cheese platter to be an old British public house institution...

michelle lovric said...

And would a respectable, unaccompanied woman really have walked into a pub back then wearing eyeliner, mascara and foundation?

Totally agree with you about more more thought-provoking discomfort being a duty of proper historical fiction. We want the past to be another country, not this one with bustles.

Sue Purkiss said...

Had the same thought about the girl in the pub, and indeed lots of other things! It's just Sunday evening easy viewing.

It's a very difficult dividing line, isn't it? It's like the feisty heroine thing. Of course we want heroines to be tough and independent and proactive - but sometimes when you put such a heroine into the context of the past, it can be a bit of a stretch to believe that yes, our heroine could accomplish all that despite the customs and expectations of her time... there is no easy answer, I think!

adele said...

Jolly good post! I turn my WAM off when watching Downton...it's much more fun that way, though I did blench when Mrs Bates said: "As if!" Mind you, Julian Fellowes is quite clever enough to have looked the phrase up and found an example used in 1901, or some such! Agree about pub. I wouldn't feel that comfortable going into one on my own even now, unless I were meeting someone there. But then I've never been a pub person in any way, so I'm not typical, clearly!

Nicky said...

The most striking one was when - one of the nursing servants said something to the effect that she could 'tuck' better than most ! It is primarily an entertainment of course but Fellowes seems to have drawn his line between realism and crowd pleasing in a different place this series.

Philip Ardagh said...

I agree. The whole series has the feel of 21st century people in an early-20th-century setting. So much of it feels wrong -- particularly much of the 'hospital' thread -- but, funnily enough, although it registered, I didn't think the entering-the-pub-alone part was inconceivable. The establishment is out of the way and quiet, and she's there to see her beloved Mr. Bates (rather than going in for a drink alone). It's beautiful-looking guff.