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 It’s great in many ways - interesting storyline, good pace, some nice little historical references to make the viewer feel clever, but somehow it feels to me like a costume drama in which contemporary people are dressed up to look old fashioned rather than a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...