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?