Costume dramas fall into two categories: those true to the time period in which they are set, and those with clearly modern influences. You can tell the difference between something Charles Dickens wrote, for example, and something written by a modern author in a historical setting, because the worldview behind the material of Dickens is set in current events, whereas a modern author looks back on different periods through the aftermath. Hindsight gives wisdom, after all, and one trap modern writers often fall into is to have their characters speak, act, and think with a modern mindset rather than an authentic voice of the period.
Productions set in the Edwardian era are no exception. The most famous of all of these, Downton Abbey, does a credible job in some instances of keeping its characters true to the early nineteen hundreds (the family is scandalized when Mary’s lover winds up dead in her room) but not in others (when everyone accepts Thomas’ homosexuality without batting an eyelash, and are utterly tolerant of his lifestyle). Unfortunately, as wonderful as Edwardian productions can be, most are beset with modern ideals imposed on an earlier time period, or what is known in the historical community as “present-ism.”
Let’s begin with Titanic: Blood & Steel.
In spite of its flawed morality, it is a well-written, character-driven study of human nature, hubris, and history, and it paints a vivid Edwardian world full of colorful, rich historical figures… that aren’t always true to 1912. (Indeed, its inclusion of famous suffragettes, a young Winston Churchill, and the labor unionist movement alone make it worthwhile.) Yet, it is also written from a decidedly modern viewpoint, from its approach to the politics of the period to the behavior of its lovers. Its flawed “hero,” Marc Muir, is modern in all his facets: he’s a working middle-class man having arisen from impoverished upbringings with concern for the labor force, who isn’t afraid to confront and judge his employer for what he sees as any possible “selfish or cutting-corners” behavior. He is utterly unaware of and disregards social classes, is unapologetic about previous immorality, and trusts the women in his love life to look out for their own reputations.
In reality, a man such as Marc would not exist as we find him on screen nor would any number of other characters throughout – in a Catholic Italian corner of Belfast it’s unlikely you’d find two women of such “modern” sensibilities (including a disregard for their reputation and for the morals of the period) that one winds up pregnant out of wedlock and the other conducts a not-so-discreet love affair with her superior at Harland & Wolff.
It’s a common trap of modern authors to impose “foresight” on their characters, in an attempt to make them understandable to us, and to prove them superior to their “backward-thinking” historical peers. You’ll find this in the patriot who believes in future American ideals, in the suffragist who has leanings of racial equality, in the shipbuilder who worries about the impact icy water has on steel. Edwardian men should have Edwardian beliefs and if not, then they should be within the belief system of the more radical thinkers of the period. Why not have your hero flawed in that sense? Why not make him of the same beliefs as all others, until they are challenged? Why not have an unshakable faith in the unsinkable Titanic? There was no reason to have any concerns about her, since neither the building process nor the tests raised any concern.
James Cameron’s film is modernism at its finest: most of the secondary and historical figures adhere to Edwardian ideals, but his heroine and hero exist to point out to the audience the fallacy, old-fashioned ignorance of such beliefs. Everything about them, from their carefree desire to live a Bohemian lifestyle to their casual approach to sex, is modern. Rose is totally out of period. She reads “better” books than the men in her life (where they are stuck on business, she is reading Freud), she has better taste in art, she is more open-minded, she wants to throw off the “shackles” of her social upbringing, and she is more sexually liberated. Like Marc Muir, instead of crafting his character as a true Edwardian, Cameron simply pushed a modern teenager into 1912.
Great writers discover a balance between past and present, between writing an authentic story to the period and having it accessible enough to modern audiences. They take their approach not from other modern ideals but source material: authors who lived and wrote in that time period. Dickens wrote authentic Victorian England, with all its rigidity and injustices, because he lived it. His heroines are believable, his heroes flawed but likable. Leo Tolstoy does the same for War & Peace: he lived later than the period, but all his many characters are wholly authentic to the time, because he imposes no modern foresight on them.
Placing modern characters into period pieces is becoming more and more common. It doesn’t fully derail what are in many ways wonderful stories, but it is important to notice a modern approach, and not assume the details (such as a lack of religious influence, or casual sexual affairs) are true to life in the Edwardian Era.