Historical Fatigue Redux – and I find myself agreeing with Bertolt Brecht

I’ve been thinking a bit more about my current historical fatigue.

It seems to me as if way too many historicals, whether written or filmed, are focussed mainly on the absolute upper echelons of society. Downton Abbey – the much lauded historical TV drama which started this train of thought – is basically a drama about the inheritance issues of a very aristocratic family. At stake is an earldom. Now earls are at the highest level of British aristocracy, there’s not a whole lot above them (marquesses, dukes and the royal family). And frankly, these days I’m not very interested in the travails of overly rich and aristocratic people. Never mind, that dukes and earls are dime a dozen in today’s regency historical romances (not marquesses, though, probably because the title is awkward). And today’s average regency historical is as much fantasy as anything Tolkien and Lewis ever wrote.

But there’s another aspect. The sort of historicals that interest me least are also the ones that are very sanitized. And nowadays, I prefer my stories, my films and my TV with a bit more realism and a bit more grit. Now gritty doesn’t have to mean dark and depressing all the time. I don’t like relentlessly depressing stuff at all – I grew out of that phase by my mid twenties. But I prefer a world that’s not just an upper class fairytale. I want a world that’s not all clean all the time, a world where people sweat and have to go to the toilet, where – in reference to two memorable lines of dialogue in two TV shows I enjoyed a lot – semen leaves stains. These days, I’m more likely to find that in contemporary set rather than historical fiction, in urban rather than epic fantasy, in British TV shows rather than American. That’s also why I am going to watch my DVD boxset of the Sharpe series or Garrow’s Law or even the rather gentle Lark Rise to Candleford before I’m going to watch Downton Abbey – because all of those shows strike me as more realistic.

It also ties in to this article about the film The King’s Speech from an American perspective that I referenced lately. The upper class fantasies offered by costume dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs or Gosford Park or The King’s Speech or any Jane Austen adaption ever (and I like several of them) is what Hollywood wants Britain to be. But what I see in Misfits or Skins or Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes or the Red Riding trilogy or Waking the Dead or Silent Witness or any East End gangster film ever (and yes, I know that several are either period pieces or fantasy) strikes me as closer to the Britain that actually exists.

As for the gritty and nasty side of the Victorian era, here’s a lovely article from The Spectator about the lurid Victorian interest in murders and the cottage industry it spawned. This certainly puts all of those complaints about media violence into much needed perspective and also paints a very different picture from the upper class fantasies provided by much historical fiction.

And isn’t it just like me to suddenly find myself agreeing with Bertolt Brecht’s Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters (Questions of a reading worker) in my advancing age, considering I vehemently hated that particular poem in my schooldays?

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5 Responses to Historical Fatigue Redux – and I find myself agreeing with Bertolt Brecht

  1. Fla says:

    Very interesting post!

    I love historical tv dramas, and historical movies. I love historical fiction (mainstream historicals, historical romances, historical misteries).
    I fell in love with historical fiction when I read Three Musketeers (I was about 8 years old), because I realized that the protagonists of history were not some static and boring statues, but they laughed, cried, fell in love, got angry… in a few words, they lived. To me it felt somehow similar to the stories my beloved grandfather used to tell me about his wartime boyhood. It wasn’t just “cold” history, it was real life, and it was fascinating, and funny, and even scaring sometimes! Of course I couldn’t have grandfathers from other centuries, but I could have books telling me stories from other times!
    Since then, the more I have studied and loved History, the more I have enjoyed historical fiction.
    And I also found out that reading historical fiction improved my knowledge of History.

    I have to say, actually historical fiction focusing on the working class is not necessarily more “realistic” than fiction focusing on the upper class: both were real part of history.
    And in both classes you can describe characters dealing with serious problems: especially the female characters, if you think how much genre inequality was widespread between the classes; but also how much diseases were spread and child mortality was high even in the upper class until just a century ago; and I think also of political intrigues, or casualties of war.
    But I agree that often American historical fiction about European upper class (mainly British) describes a fantasy world of glitter and expensive clothes and dancing; I find it quite funny, because in most of popular fiction about American history, the main characters are pioneers, ranchers and sheriffs (not upper class at all!).
    But I think is just a part of a general problem with all popular fiction: some is good and entertaining, some is bad and sterotyped. You have to choose carefully. But you can really find good stuff out there.

    I really suggest you to watch “Sharpe” soon! The hero is a working class officer promoted from ranks, and Sean Bean has a strong Northern accent, very unusual in British dramas (but it forced me to watch the episodes with English subtitles, because it was more difficult to me to understand). His best friend is a Catholic Irish sergeant with independentist ideas. And many French characters (the enemies) are portrayed in a complex and even sympathetic view.
    The best part of the show is actually the screenplay (the setting and costumes are very good, but I’m afraid some scenes of battle show the low budget they had)
    I think you might enjoy it much more than other historical dramas.

    Ps: Sorry if my writing is not impeccable, but my mother tongue is Italian and my English is not as good as yours, and I had a short time to write.

    PS 2: Why did you hate Brecht’s poem? I read it when I was about 11 years old and I loved it so much that I wanted to open the window and to scream to all the world “Yes! Yes! He’s right!”. Probably it was a thought I had been ruminating for long time, and finally I found out he was saying just that, and he was saying better than I would have done.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting, Fla. And don’t worry, your English is perfectly fine. Much better than my Italian.

      I agree that historicals focusing on the upper classes are not necessarily less realistic, since upper classes did exist and did have problems and issues and stories of their own. But the problem with many historical romance writers as well as with the sort of costume drama popular in the US is that they focus exclusively on the aristocracy and that particularly the romances play fast and loose with historical accuracy. There are excellent writers of historical romances, e.g. Laura Kinsale or Carla Kelly. But you have to go looking for them.

      Very good point on the American historicals which focus on pioneers and the like, that is working class characters. I suspect that this has to do the fact that the American self-image is still very much tied to the frontier myth and the idea of the self-made pioneer. Though I wonder why there isn’t more popular historical fiction about immigrants making their luck in New York, Chicago, Boston, etc… There’s such a great potential for historical romance there and yet very few writers exploit it. I recall a historical romance by Kate Rothwell set in 1890s New York where the hero was a policeman with an Irish immigrant background, but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

      Regarding Sharpe, I saw some of the series as a university student in Britain and loved them very much. So I was overjoyed to find the reduced boxset, only to find that for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to watch it. Though I’ll probably get around to it, once I’ve caught up with the backlog of newer films/shows that I have lying around.

      Regarding the Brecht poem, I suspect my initial negative reaction was mainly due to some very bad history teaching. When I was at school, history focused on the lower classes and the lower classes only. Most of the time, we had to compare the situation of an ancient slave, medieval serf, 19th century industrial worker to that of a modern worker with the foregone conclusion that while conditions used to be worse, they weren’t that much better today. Being a teenaged girl, I was interested in historical fashions, architecture, pretty things, etc… – an interest which teachers ignored at best and ridiculed at worst. That Brecht poem sums up everything I hated about history teaching in school and so my teenaged self hated it. My adult self, however, concedes that it’s actually pretty good, though we can still take a look at the pretty gowns from time to time.

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