Historically Inaccurate

Next up, stay tuned for the series premier of Masters, Slaves.


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Why is it that every half-way educated person I know is into Downton Abbey, the PBS Masterpiece Theater series that just ended its third season? If I go out to dinner with friends on a Sunday, the evening invariably begins with the colloquy: Will we be home in time for Downton Abbey? Did you remember to TiVo Downton Abbey? You’d think the show was a Presidential debate or an early episode of Lost for the anticipation it elicits.

That said, do I watch the show? Yes.

The reason: I love Lady Mary’s wardrobe — all those filmy tea dresses and embroidered wraps. And the house — my heart leaps up every time they go to a long shot showing its obscene proportions. I’m a sucker for all the Ralph Lauren-style furnishings, and I can’t get enough of the accents: the clipped Oxonian of Lord Grantham, the languid American-ese of Lady Grantham, the pungent Cockney of Mrs. Patmore. I love it all.

But clothes, a baronial pile, Edwardian bric-a-brac, and accents, plummy and otherwise, are not the only reasons I watch the show. I’m also intrigued by it philosophically — or rather, by what it represents in the rapidly evolving sphere of postmodern culture. Here, I have to say, I am more appalled than charmed.

But let’s get to the root of things.

At the beginning was Jane Austen. Austen’s narratives are both literate and light, deep and shallow. The mid 20th century critic, Lionel Trilling, was the first to note this. He described a divide between the frivolous fans of Jane Austen — “Janeites,” he called them — who read her for her balls, visits, and romantic flirtations, and the serious fans (like himself), who read her for her stylistic grace, wit, and moral profundity.

Trilling mapped out a division that would begin to be bridged as the 20th century progressed. We see the first major step in The Masterpiece Theater mini-series, The Forsyte Saga, that debuted in 1967. The Forsyte Saga was based on a group of John Galsworthy novels by that name, second-tier contributions to the English literary tradition. Galsworthy wrote well enough, but his plots and characters had a comforting predictability. He was, in short, no Jane Austen. But that was precisely his value for television adaptation. Adapting Jane Austen took work. Galsworthy was a kind of Jane Austen lite, so that an adaptation could be “liter” still, while maintaining a veneer of seriousness.

The Forsyte Saga was followed by the true progenitor of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs. Upstairs, Downstairs was an imitation of The Forsyte Saga, but with no novelistic antecedent to bog it down. At the time these series debuted there had, as yet, been no television depiction of the class system in English society. It took these shows to represent this to a mass market while also, paradoxically, showcasing the houses, clothes, furniture, and lifestyle of the rich and famous.

The Forsyte Saga provided a glimpse of the downstairs labor needed to support the privileged class in Edwardian England. Upstairs, Downstairs took this further and made class hierarchy its premise. Peeking around the margins of what was once out of sight has continued in period adaptations ever since. In a 1999 adaptation of Austen’s Mansfied Park, for example, the filmmaker shows a character traumatized by the slave trade his father is engaged in, in the West Indies. Needless to say, this plot point does not appear in Jane Austen’s novel. “So what?” you may respond. “The filmmaker is exercising a social conscience in adding this material.” But the representation that results is a strange hybrid. We get to finger-wag at social exploitation at one moment and to gawk at Empire dresses and delightful luncheons on the lawn the next. Where, moreover, does fiction end and history begin in such cases? When representation of ostensibly real historical events (slavery in the West Indies) and the representation of fictional ones (the adaptation of a Jane Austen novel) are mixed in this way, the idea of fidelity, and with it, the idea of history as a meaningful entity, begins to break down.

The postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard has discussed the proliferation of simulated elements in the narratives that make up our world. We have now arrived, he notes, at a point of “perfect simulation,” where history becomes a representational grab-bag from which we can cobble together the narratives we please. Certainly, this has happened in movies. Oliver Stone makes no bones about playing fast and loose with historical facts to achieve a desired effect. But Stone’s methods have now penetrated historical representation, without Stone’s forthrightness to temper them. Zero Dark Thirty uses the drama of waterboarding in what has been hailed as a bravely accurate depiction. In fact, we know that the technique, though authentically re-created in the film, was not actually useful in locating Bin Laden. One might conclude that the film has a political agenda in suggesting otherwise, but that’s not really so. The cause and effect simply makes for better drama. The same happens in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The movie takes pains to replicate the timbre of Lincoln’s voice and the ticking of his watch, but has no compunction about having the Congressmen from Connecticut vote “nay” on the 13th amendment when the historical record has them vote “yay.” It’s a minor detail, argued screenwriter Tony Kushner. But what makes it minor is not its place in history but its place in the drama that the simulation requires. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this trend occurs in Argo, a film that has the highest profile, having been named Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Argo recreates with great care the chaotic atmosphere of the Iranian revolution, then doctors the events at the end of the film, making it seem that a mistake with plane tickets could have derailed the hostage rescue operation. This fictionalization, as well as others in the film, has been waved aside as unimportant. What matters are the dramatic needs of the narrative, not the facts themselves, which are always subject to revision. Who knows but that some creative researcher might find that there was a problem with the plane tickets after all.

Downton Abbey is a re-creation, not so much of history, which now seems a slippery, unreachable place, as of our recollection of previous dramas like it. This includes the many adaptations of Jane Austen (no matter that her novels are set in an earlier period — that most viewers don’t register this supports my point). It also includes dramas of the same period and type, like Upstairs, Downstairs, which, incidentally, was also remade for PBS in 2010. That’s simulacra with a vengeance.

Movies and TV series of this sort are pastiches that can be taken tongue and cheek, if we want simple entertainment, or in earnest, if we want to laud or denounce a particular practice or idea. Indeed, the way the simulations are calibrated — sometimes delivered with a wink and sometimes in deadly earnest (e.g., the sequence involving the homosexual footman-valet-under butler Thomas Barrow, for example, suddenly turns the reactionary Lord Grantham into an amusingly tolerant fellow — “If I’d screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me [at Eton], I’d have been hoarse within a month…”). This may feel like the insertion of a gay rights agenda into the narrative, but that’s not the case either. What is really going on is an effort to exploit a subject in the news for dramatic purposes. It’s the simulation that counts here, the chance to grab the viewers’ attention at all costs. As a result, we move from one narrative context to another, inured to the cognitive dissonance once associated with genre inconsistency or the fictionalization of fact.

A postmodern simulacrum is self-proliferating. It penetrates further and further into narrative, dividing up what we once expected of a coherent fiction into a multiplicity of mini-fictions. In a recent review of the movie, Les Miserables, I made the point that each scene generates its own self-contained drama. We move from scene to scene, without caring whether there is continuity in the narrative or the characters, willing to be manipulated into whatever transient emotional response the scene requires of us.

What will be next? I postulate a series entitled Masters, Slaves or, perhaps, Downtown Plantation, set in the Old South with house and field slaves portrayed as distinct and lovable personalities, devoted to Southern gentlemen and ladies, regal in their privilege, who oversee them. Some of the slaves will want freedom and will earn it from their more liberal-minded masters — the disapproval of the old-guard matriarch (played by Maggie Smith with a Southern accent) notwithstanding. There might even be a love affair between one of the young masters and one of the more fetching house slaves, followed by the requisite heartbreak as the baby is sent North to be raised by a free relative. (If light-skinned enough, said baby may be brought back in season three in the guise of a Yankee cousin.) I can see it unfurling in my mind’s eye. Everyone will TiVo it and perhaps have Master, Slave parties. It will put us in mind not of some actual historical past but of the adaptation of that beloved novel, Gone with the Wind, and that beloved original, if derivative, series, Downton Abbey.

The debut of Masters, Slaves could mean that we have finally arrived at a post-racial world or, at least, a world where history has been quietly strangled in the embrace of “literate” television. • 6 March 2013 


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.