I was once asked, “Why do you like period dramas so much? Don’t you find the chauvinistic attitudes tiresome?” Naturally. So why keep watching? Because of the pretty gowns, the emphasis on morality, and the insight it provides into eras before my time, which are often difficult to fathom by modern standards.
My “hobby” is co-editing an online literary magazine with an emphasis on costume dramas. Our latest issue centers around the works of Jane Austen (issue out Dec 1st!). Reading through the submissions brought to mind a lot of changes, both for good and bad, in our society between now and when Miss Austen was penning her satires. Many of her novels follow a similar formula in which the villain attempts to run away with and compromise the virtue of a young woman. Now, society takes such a casual approach to such things that this does not seem too problematic, but in the 1800’s, not only would her reputation be ruined by such behavior, her sisters’ reputations would suffer as well. This is why the Bennet family is so distraught in Pride & Prejudice when Lydia runs away with Wickham, since she has ruined all her sisters’ prospects, as no one will want to associate with a family known to have girls of “loose” morals. And given their limited income, this makes their situation even more dire. Sense & Sensibility’s Elinor and Marianne’s poverty to our modern eyes is not much of an issue, but in that time period, women could not seek employment but were dependant on the charity of male relatives and lived on an income that might only allow them to have one servant! (That was considered “very poor.”) Marriage was their best and most profitable chance to remain respectable, and as the heroine of Emma tells Harriet, only “rich” women could remain unmarried and still be considered respectable.
Even the novels themselves tell us a great deal about the author and the age. Jane Austen’s men are interesting but limited in scope. We never encounter them outside the presence of her heroines and in most cases, rarely see them at all! This seems strange until we remember that as an unmarried woman, Miss Austen would have had no interaction with men outside her father, male cousins, and occasional suitors. She would not know what men did with their time or what conversations were held outside the presence of women. She could not write male characters because men were a mystery to her and indeed, every other woman.
One can tell in a perusal of costume dramas or novels which were written during the time period in which they are set and which are attempts by modern authors to represent historical settings. One mistake many writers make is the use of modern behavior, language, or opinions not common to the era (such as having strong “feminist” or progressive-thinking characters). The more a writer knows the morality, politics, and social issues of the age, the fewer faux pas. One good example of a new series by a modern author that both succeeds and fails in this regard is Downton Abbey, coming to the United States on Masterpiece Theatre after Christmas. British writer Julian Fellowes created a complicated and interesting set of characters in the year 1912, underlining the changing social and political climate in England. There are the working class people “downstairs” in the great old house, including an ambitious footmen, a maid who wants to become a secretary, a butler attempting to contend with “new-fangled” things like telephones, and a host of cooks, housekeepers, valets, and kitchen maids. And there are the wealthy aristocrats “upstairs”—the daughter who cannot inherit the estate, her younger sister who is involved in the suffragette movement, the cousin who has recently come into wealth and is unhappy that he may have to give up his legal profession (for gentlemen do not work!), and the grandmother, a Countess, who is accustomed to having her way.
For the most part, Fellowes succeeds in writing a reasonably accurate account of the attitudes of the age but does make occasional errors (one use of the word “boyfriend” raised a few brows, as it was not commonly used until the 1930’s). Many of them stem from appeasing and appealing to modern audiences, who expect things to be done or said in a certain way. That’s just how we are. If we think it, we say it, and then we act on it. But in 1912, it was not said or acted on. It was implied, hinted at, even assumed, but never said. We “get” the housemaid Anna bursting out with, “I love you, Mr. Bates!” because that’s what we would do, but in reality that would never have happened. It would have been thought inappropriate for a woman to tell a man she loved him without him saying it first. She would have waited and hoped he would reveal his intentions instead. One plot twist involves the eldest sister’s reputation falling into question after her involvement with a foreign dignitary. We learn later on that the story is circulating in London because of one of her sisters. When it comes to the attention of her grandmother, the Countess chooses to turn a blind eye and hopes to have her married off as soon as possible to avoid a scandal. Her sister would not have told, even in an act of revenge, as it would have also reflected on her. And the Countess’ reaction is far more modern in its empathy than would have been expected of a woman of such high social standing and rigid moral standards. Today, we promote love over “honor,” when in previous eras, it was quite frequently the opposite, and Mary likely would have been disinherited.
I love many things about our age. I appreciate having the freedom to choose a profession over marriage, or marriage over a profession, or do both. I am allowed to vote, hold public office, run a business, express my opinion, even have a shorter hairstyle if I wish it. I think that it’s a good thing that we are encouraged and taught to love first and condemn second. I appreciate society’s emphasis on equality and compassion, even “tolerance” (when it is used the right way, and not as an excuse for bad behavior). But part of me thinks our society has lost many of its virtues. It is lacking an emphasis on honesty, honor, life, patriotism, preserving good virtues and values, rewarding integrity and reverence for religious beliefs.
An adaptation, a truly good one, of a classic novel can serve to remind us not only of how fortunate we are, and how far we have come as a society, but also cause us to reflect on our lives and discern what we as a society lack that previous generations possessed. I rather think our world is in need of a few more honorable men and polite but spirited women. ♥