The Return of Downton Abbey

DowntonAbbey2019PosterI went to see Downton Abbey, the film, last night. Well, I had to, didn’t I, given that I have written about it with enough seriousness that I am seriously considering including my article on the television programme as part of my REF submission slate? And yes, I enjoyed it, a couple of hours of beautiful costumes and historical and dramatic silliness.

But goodness me, what a shaggy dog story of a narrative! Branson alone had three different plots – a Boys’ Own Paper adventure, a Mills & Boon romance and an encounter with Princess Mary that was so underdeveloped that it’s origins and significance were completely obscure. Given that pretty much every one of the major characters, both upstairs and downstairs, had their own plot lines (sometimes multiple), encompassing pregnancy (wanted and unwanted), illness, power struggles, theft and sexual jealousy, there really was far too much going on. There was also, particularly towards the end, some extremely heavy-handed special pleading for the significance of the aristocracy to national life which felt out of time. It was, as David Cannadine has argued, ‘the period since the Second World War [which] has seen the almost total disintegratin of patrician high society’. [1] I don’t believe that Lady Mary would have needed telling by anyone that the Big House formed the centre of community life c.1927.

There were other moments where, as so often with Downton, I found it hard to sustain my suspension of historical disbelief. The relationship between Princess Mary and Lord Lascelles was one, principally because, for all the focus on the King and Queen’s anxiety about their daughter and her relationship, the characters were entirely undeveloped. I don’t know enough royal history to comment on how accurate even this superficial representation of their relationship might be in relation to the historical record. However, the dramatic arc made no sort of psychological sense purely in terms of the portrayal of the characters as human beings.

The storyline that really had me yelling at the screen (internally at least, so as not to spoil the enjoyment of my viewing companions who had kindly included me on their evening out), however, was that involving, yet again, Thomas Barrow. I have noted before how Barrow’s identity as a gay man in an era when sexual activity between men was illegal and subject to prosecution has been used by the programme to obscure more interesting histories of medicine and war disability. This time, this identity was given a social, rather than a medical, storyline to make a plea for tolerance of difference in sexuality that was framed as modern beyond the scope of 1920s imagination. Yet just because sex between men was illegal in interwar Britain does not mean that it was either unimaginable or unknown at the time. Barrow’s naive wonder at the all-male dance club that he is taken to suggests a life entirely sheltered from same-sex encounters. Yet we know that he served as a soldier during the war, when the sight of men dancing together would not have been either unknown or particular shocking in male dominated spaces of rest and relaxation. Nor, indeed, as Helen Smith has pointed out, would Barrow have had to have left Yorkshire to encounter the idea of sex between men as part of a range of expressions of sexual desire (although the club itself appears to be a less likely phenomenon to be found in a city like York). As Smith notes:

Encounters took place all over the region, and were not limited to large towns and cities. … Away from work, men met in pubs, cafes, toilets, urinals and the street, often with the purpose of sex in mind. However, the north differed from London, as well as from large American cities such as New York and San Francisco, in that these venues of sex and socialisation did not become linked to form a distinct and often visible subculture. These examples of sex between men still operated under the veil of discretion and privacy … and this ensured that venues where men could meet other men for sex remained part of the wider landscape of working-class social life and entertainment. [2]

Smith’s argument is mainly concerned with working-class men in industrial occupations in the region. Working in domestic service in a rural location may have isolated Barrow, but I can’t quite believe that, at his time of life, he would be as innocent as he is portrayed here.

None of which is to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the film, not least because one of the pleasures of watching Downton for me has always been the opportunity to pick historical holes in the plot and presentation. But there were also incidental pleasures: drooling over the costumes, particularly the hats and tiaras, the former of which has inspired me to branch out from my collection of cloches to search for a) something like Lady Mary’s feminine pseudo-Homburg and b) an a-symetrical number as modeled by the incomparable Dowager Duchess of Grantham; the joy of  Maggie Smith out-act everyone else on screen with the mere lift of an eyebrow; watching Smith, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton enjoying themselves doing what they love so well. And there were the cultural references, intended or not, which kept me amused throughout. From the visual reference of The Night Mail in the opening sequence through the BOP and Mills & Boon plots involving Branson already noted to the undeniable overtones of Bertie Wooster’s morning-after recollections in the raid on the nightclub, Julian Fellowes once again plundered the culture of interwar Britain for his ideas and images. There was even a bit of Laurel and Hardy slapstick in Mrs Patmore’s subversion of Mr Wilson.

So, yes, I enjoyed myself. The film ticks all the boxes I wanted it to – luscious visuals, good, comforting acting by familiar faces, some good, if rather obvious jokes, and just enough historical anachronism to keep me nicely irritated. I’m not sure I would recommend it as such, but I am glad to have seen it.

[1] David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), p.691.

[2] Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p.154.

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Doing History in Public Again

IMG_4460I was on television last night. If you follow me on Twitter, then you will probably have seen this already. Given that I was speaking to Daniel Radcliffe for Who Do You Think You Are?, both I and my department were quite keen to publicise this event.  Since the broadcast, there has been quite a lot more interest, and some very interesting discussions about historical research for factual television, letters from women to soldiers during the First World War, and the significance of the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Dud Corner. In other words, this bit of academic public engagement, me bringing my historical expertise to bear on a popular subject in a very public forum, went as well as I could have hoped when my meeting with Dan was filmed back in May.

What has made this experience slightly ironic, however, is the coincidence of the publication of an article in The Economist late last week. Entitled The study of history is in decline in Britain’, it argues that historians (by which the author, ‘Bagehot’, means academic historians) ‘increasingly devote themselves to subjects other than great matters of state: the history of the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than Parliament. These fashions were a valuable corrective to an old-school history that focused almost exclusively on the deeds of white men, particularly politicians. But they have gone too far. … What were once lively new ideas have degenerated into tired orthodoxies, while vital areas of the past, such as constitutional and military affairs, are all but ignored.’ While some historians, the author graciously acknowledges, do ‘demonstrate a genius for bringing their subject alive’, they are, he claims, either not in academic posts or ‘face brickbats and backbiting from their fellow professionals’. Military history, according to the author, is catered for entirely by non-academic historians. Academics he (an educated guess at the gender of the author) argues ‘need to escape from their intellectual caves and start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power and nation-states.’

Now, I make no claims to having a genius for bringing my subject to life but, like all my colleagues doing our best to work with the current impact agenda, I am fully aware of the dangers of ‘learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion.’ I don’t want to speak only to other historians, which is precisely why I jumped at the chance to appear on a nationally broadcast, BAFTA-winning programme which, for the first time in its history, was touching on a subject about which I had written a book.  I hope and believe that my enthusiasm for the subject and the relevance of the type of document I was exploring with Dan came across, even if there wasn’t time or space for our discussion of the references to the Easter Uprising that occur in one letter, or the contemporary political significance of separation allowances as a form of proto-welfare benefit. Similarly, I hope and believe that the public lectures I gave on the ranks and work of RAMC throughout the First World War centenary and the variety of resources I helped produce for schools on the medical history of the war helped to both nurture public interest in history as a subject and inform debate over the relevance of the past to the social challenges of the present.

The problem isn’t that academic historians don’t do public history. We do, in far more ways than publishing books or appearing on television, as I have noted previously. Nor is it that we ignore war, politics or power structures by focusing on ‘marginal’ subjects. Social and cultural histories simply provide another way of looking at war, politics, economics, diplomacy. Indeed, the interrogation power structures are their very fabric, not their antithesis. I would strongly recommend Dr Daniel Todman’s (QMUL) acclaimed two-volume social history of the Second World War to Bagehot’s attention to see what I mean.

Rather, the problem is that public history is a different discipline from academic history. Doing both well is possible for a single individual, but it is hard and time-consuming, especially when added to the other expectations of teaching, administration, pastoral care and grant capture that are expected of academics today.  I am becoming increasingly aware of just how different and difficult a discipline it is as I work to turn my academic research into a ‘trade’ book for wider public consumption (although even in its academic form it is free of charge to download, and I have been honoured to have it recommended as a useful resource for GCSE teacing). Even if I succeed in doing so, I doubt that the ultimate product will have anything like the breadth of impact that 5 minutes of speaking with the man who played Harry Potter about some of the work I did for my PhD and turned into an academic monograph has had. But that isn’t going to stop me trying because I am historian, even if one who happens to work in an academic job. And I believe from my experience in engaging with the public that people are interested in listening to these stories of those on the margins, including those on the margins in wartime, and hearing what they have to say about the world they lived in and how it shaped the world in which we live in today, even if Bagehot does not.

Looking back; looking forward

1868_LittleWomen_RobertsBros_tp copy

It has become a bit of a tradition with me that I start the new year with some form of comment, often grumpy, occasionally laudatory, about the one of the historically-based or costume dramas that has been shown on British television over Christmas. (I am including Sherlock in the ‘historically-based’ category here as, despite the modern setting, the raison d’etre of the series is its connection to its literary inspiration.)  This year is going to be a grumpy one, and my subject is, I am sorry to say, the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Little Women (BBC1).

I was really looking forward this programme. Emily Watson (who plays Marmee) is one of my favourite actresses, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March was an inspired bit of casting, and I always enjoy Call the Midwife (BBC1) created by adaptor Heidi Thomas. Above all, the original novels, Little Women (1868) and Good Wives (1869), were an enormous part of intellectual and cultural development as a child and young women and I continue to re-read them on a fairly regular basis. As with many other women raised in the Anglophone tradition, these novels, like those of L.M. Montgomery, E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgeson Burnett have, for better or worse, shaped the woman I am today.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of screen adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel, of which there have been a remarkable number (two silent versions, released in 1917 and 1918, three major Hollywood productions in 1933, 1949 and 1994, plus a 1978 television mini-series featuring William Shatner as Frederic Bhaer). In those that I have seen, the tendency has been to focus on the sentimentality of the novels (and Beth’s death in particular) at the expense of the acute reflections on Civil War-era New England society (and the gendering of that society) that forms the heart of the novels themselves.

To be fair, this is not something that this latest adaptation can be accused of. There are lingering shots of dying Civil War soldiers; the poverty of the Hummell children is depicted as deeply shocking, and Hannah, the Marches’ Irish maid is one of the more well-rounded characters in the drama. And yet these attempts at social realism seemed to miss so much of the complex social reality that Alcott was not merely depicting but actively critiquing in her novels.

Two things, I think, were at play here. The first was the attempt to fit as many of the multiple events that form the novel as possible into three hour-long episodes, rather than simply eliminating extraneous ones. As a result, some key episodes are seriously truncated, while others have their chronology muddled. Both adaptive strategies eliminate much of the subtext that Alcott inserts (not always subtly) into each of her stories within stories. Setting Amy’s valley of humiliation with the pickled limes after the departure of Marmee for the South to nurse her husband puts Jo in the role of the outraged maternal figure, rejecting corporal punishment, rather than Marmee, so that the episode no longer reflects on the polemical ideas about the appropriate way to raise and school young women that are so evident in the text.  The shortening of the ‘Camp Laurence’ episode, meanwhile, to Miss Vaughan’s snubbing of Meg and Beth’s self-sacrifice in talking to one of the twins (who is portrayed as temporarily incapacitated rather than crippled, as in the book), reduces a wider message about American self-reliance in comparison to European class consciousness to a caricature, while failing to fully capture the heroism of Beth’s actions. Most noticeably, the relationship between Beth, Jo and old peppery old Mr Lawrence is so underwritten as to have the emotion removed from it entirely, again reducing Beth’s characterization to a cypher, while criminally under-using Michael Gambon in the role of Mr Lawrence.

It is, of course, impossible to fit everything into a mini-series of this length, but these strategies, combined with shortening the overall trajectory from five years to less than three means that character development is seriously compromised. Amy and Beth are, as usual, cast far too old to begin with (they are 12 and 13 in the book), and all Beth’s ‘rosiness’ is eliminated in favour of portraying her as a permanently frail introvert. And this points to the second reason for my disappointment with this adaptation, namely the modernization of the characters to deliver a message about female agency which results in what felt like a series of mis-characterizations.  Jo’s independence becomes something to be celebrated rather than schooled; Marmee becomes a frustrated house-wife; even Aunt March gets an anachronistic feminist speech of regret in the final episode. Yet this, for me, misses the great joy of the book, which tackles head on the complexity of white womanhood, young and old, in mid-nineteenth century England. The process by which Jo goes from immaturity to adulthood, the challenges that Marmee faces in raising her children in a society increasingly defined by consumption, Meg’s failures at domesticity and the consequent negotiation of marital relations, Beth’s courage in facing loss of health and ultimately death, Amy’s search for a purpose that uses her skills but does not require genius, Aunt March’s loneliness and social isolation – all these plots have contemporary echoes which this programme, in its rush to tell so much about the limits of nineteenth century society for women, missed.

For me, the emblematic scene thus became the final one, with Marmee sitting surrounded by her surviving daughters in the orchard at Plumfield. The camera cuts to their menfolk – Mr March, John Brooke, Laurie and Professor Bhaer. In the book, this scene is one of mutual affection and endeavor, the statement of Alcott’s view that a successful life involves the mutual aid of family, with men and women both having roles, rather than personal independence.  Yet in the programme, the men have been so reduced (with Professor Bhaer in particular barely allowed time to develop at all, as well as being far too young), that the message appears to be that they have been sidelined in a manner that is profoundly a-historical. Misrepresenting historical reality in this way in a work of fiction is not in itself problematic, but this, for me, misrepresents the source text in ways that undermine the whole adaptation.

Alcott, it is worth noting, was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator, philosopher, reformer and member of the Transcendentalists. Her father’s progressive ideas about education and the raising of children are reflected in many of her novels, not only Little Women, but also Eight Cousins (1875), which articulates the case for women’s dress reform, its sequel, Rose in Bloom (1876) and An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870). These latter two, along with the sequels to Little Women, Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1876), are explicit in their exploration of the desirability for women’s independent labour outside the home, and the tensions that this raises with many women’s desires for marriage and family. The novels all end, in good sentimental Victorian tradition, with weddings. However, the portrayal of Jo’s ultimate success as a writer occurring well after her marriage in Jo’s Boys and the insistence on Rose Campbell’s independent philanthropy in Rose in Bloom and Polly Mason’s self-reliance even in face of her lover’s poverty, points to Alcott’s refusal to see women’s work and the achievement of domesticity as mutually exclusive.

The window into the past that Alcott’s work offers, therefore, is one that exhibits a nuanced and complex reality, a past populated by women and men attempting to negotiate tensions and contradictions and, more often than not, succeeding. Little Women draws its loyal readers back again and again not only because of its overt sentimentality (as comforting as that can, upon occasion be) or because we see ourselves reflected in it (although, as the commentary around the television programme demonstrated, many women do identify strongly with the four sisters, and Jo in particular), but also because it shows us a world at once very different from ours but nonetheless asking many familiar questions of women seeking find their own way in a world and suggesting that we may, in fact, be able to find it, but not without cost. In seeking to impose a narrative of frustrated modernity, rather than exploring how the March sisters successfully negotiated these oh-so-familiar challenges, this latest adaptation, as visually beautiful and beautifully acted as it was, was ultimately a missed opportunity.

Easing into the new year

Due to a teacher training day at my son’s school, today is my first day back at my desk since the Christmas holidays.  After two and a half weeks of combined childcare and hosting family, this comes as something of a relief, despite the fact that a misremembered date has left me with a book chapter to complete in less than a month.  In fact, January is going to be pretty writing intensive, with a couple of book reviews due at the same time, as well as my sole New Year’s resolution, to draft or redraft a chapter a month until I get my book completed and sent to a publisher.

SherlockOn the theory that writing breeds writing, I am going to embark on this rigorous schedule with a blog post about … the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock (BBC1). (Beware spoilers from here on in.) I don’t even really have the excuse of doing this with my historian’s hat on.  I make no pretensions to being a proper Victorianist, but I am, alongside my First World War expertise, a historian of popular culture with a specialism in detective fiction and it is as such that am going to make so bold as to comment.

I am also, of course, a gender historian so let me start off by saying that, as far as the ‘mansplaining’ debate which convulsed portions of Twitter in the wake of this episode, I agree entirely with Camilla Ulleland Hoel, who articulates why this is not an example of men silencing women far more eloquently than I can.  I do, however, take one slight issue with her reading of the episode, and that is in her comments on the ‘the pointy hats of Ku Klux Klan (in order to create an echo, I assume, to the orange pips story)’.  Because I am fairly sure that the entire set up to the scene was not a gratuitous KKK reference, but rather one to the 1985 film The Young Sherlock Holmes, directed by Barry Levinson, a film which, aged 12, frightened me into nightmares for months (no, I was not very sophisticated and rather too imaginative for my own good).

And that is what I loved about the episode.  Yes, there were the many, many references to the Sherlock canon.  But there were also the references to the much wider field of Sherlockiana, including Watson’s suggestion for ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ as a potential title for the episode, one that has already been used by Laurie R. King as the title for one of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, an explicitly feminist reworking of the tradition.  And then there was the plot, not simply a metafictional phantasmagoria but also a spoof on Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth (1970), itself part of a long line of spoofs on the detective fiction tradition, which Conan Doyle arguable founded, stretching back through the entire 20th century.

I picked up three references, but I am sure there were many, many more which I missed, given that it is some years since I have been properly involved with Sherlockiana and the field has developed hugely since then (a couple more can be found here).  My guess is that most of these conceits were the contribution of Mark Gatiss rather than Steven Moffat.  Gatiss’s writing, whether on Sherlock, Dr Who or the ridiculously clever clever and very funny Lucifer Box series, always gives me the disquieting if rather pleasing sense that here is a man who shares my somewhat obscure frame of reference when it comes to popular culture.  Which probably just means that my very limited and specialised frame of reference also happens to be a very small subset of his far, far larger one.  This is a man, after all, who, as Hoel points out, is as happy incorporating a Victorian music hall stage trick into his plots as he is with referencing semi-obscure mid-to-late 20th century plays and novels.

The delight of all this to me, beyond the comfortable smugness that comes from feeling that I am getting the joke, is the reinforcement it gives to my own belief in the importance of the history of popular culture, including low- and middle-brow material that is all to often dismissed as culturally worthless.  This is in part because it tells us something about the time in which such cultural production was created, always useful for a historian, but also, often, because if forms part of a much longer tradition, allowing us to read change and continuity across time.  Sherlock itself embodies this duality and, in this episode, made it the very conceit on which the plot was built. Itself a hugely popular element of contemporary popular culture, it nonetheless lays explicit claim to the timelessness of Conan Doyle’s creation.  By tipping its hat to the long tradition in Anglo-American culture of riffing on that creation in ways which illuminate different historical moments, it located itself within that linear tradition and made its own bid for immortality. Now there is metafiction and self-referentiality for you!

We need to talk about Arthur Shelby

Firstly, an apology.  This is not going to be a very seasonal or festive post, although hopefully there will be one of those next week.  Rather, this is something that, as is becoming increasingly common, I have been meaning to write for a long time, but have struggled to fit in with everything else going on.  Essentially, the teaching term opened up its maw in October and swallowed up anything that might conceivably have been blogging time.  But now my last bit of marking is completed (at least until the new year exams) and I have cleared my desk of all admin and (bar editing an article on the American Field Service Ambulance) I am free to consider series 2 of Peaky Blinders, the commemoration of the First World War and the problem of male violence.

These last two topics are something that, unsurprisingly perhaps, have been preoccupying me quite a bit this year.  The question of commemoration has haunted pretty much everything I have done or written in relation to work for at least 12 months, although there have been times when it has felt as if it has occupied every waking moment for a lot longer. (War fatigue hit with full force on 12th November in my case, although I think I am starting to get my second wind.)  The issue of male violence as a legacy of the First World, by contrast, has been a more intermittent concern.  It isn’t directly related to my current research (although it is likely to be an important issue for the project I have been hawking around to numerous potential funders for over a year now) but it has been popping up in all sorts of interesting places, including the British Academy’s War: An Emotional History Conference, my lecture at the Freud Museum in October and, finally, in Peaky Blinders, where Arthur Selby loses control in the boxing ring and beats a man to death.

As I posted on Twitter at the time, when I write about the ugliness of shell shock, that is, at least in part, what I mean.  Because the narrative of the programme clearly links Arthur’s violent outbursts to his emotional reaction to his war experience.  This is an interesting shift from series 1, in which Arthur’s violence was portrayed as more psychopathic, violence for the love of violence rather than as a form of emotional release.  An even more interesting shift is that it is Tommy, the man who suffered throughout series 1 from nightmares relating to his days as a tunneller on the Western Front, who voices the view that Arthur needs to get over whatever lingering trauma he may be suffering because the war is over and done with.  This particularly piece of characterisation sadly didn’t ring true for me.  Surely, of all people, Tommy should know that the war is never truely over for some men.  One definition of war trauma is that it condemns those who suffer from it to relive their experiences as the present rather than, as healthy psyches are capable of doing, render it into livable, if unhappy, memory.   By putting the ‘all in the past’ stance on war trauma into Tommy’s mouth, the drama, so much of which does emotional justice to the era it represents (even if it does so most successfully through anachronism), descends momentarily into the realm of cosy cliché, taking on the middlebrow narrative that war trauma can, ultimately be cured through the love of (possibly) good woman.

That being said, Peaky Blinders remains, from a historical viewpoint, a far more exciting dramatic exploration of the social and emotional legacies of the First World War than, for instance, Downton Abbey, the fifth series of which was broadcast at much the same time in Britain.  Downton set out much more explicitly to depict the legacy of the war through its preposterous and inaccurate memorial subplot which made me want to hurl the works of Alex King and Mark Connelly [1] (among many others) at the heads of the script writers.  Yet one of the most significant legacies, that most men who fought in the war returned but changed by their experiences, was completely ignored.  Thomas, the drama’s only surviving combat veteran now that Matthew Crawley has been killed off, is, indeed, troubled, but his drug use, unlike that of Arthur Shelby, is attributed to his emotional conflict over being gay (that again!) rather than any memory of his war service.  Even his physical wound, the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his hand which did miraculously little damage at the time, does not seem to bother him at all any more, at least based on the representation on screen.  Indeed, long-term physical disability is remarkably absent in Downton, although I think I caught sight of a man with a missing arm at the unveiling of the war memorial.

Which brings me to the subject of wider commemorations of the war in this centenary year.  Throughout the year we have, appropriately enough, talked a great deal about the reasons why the war broke out and carried on for as long as it did. We seem to currently be talking about the history of the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front.  This is not something that interests me a great deal, not simply because I don’t have any interest in football beyond the ways in which association with football (either as players or spectators) was used to construct ideas of patriotic masculinity (very negatively in the case of Sapper’s short stories, if you are wondering), but also because whatever happened on Christmas Day 1914 is not an overarching symbol of the war in its entirety, any more than 1st July, 1916 was.  To understand why men fought and continued fighting, we need to look at these individual days within the wider context of the 1,560 days of the conflict, all days in which, somewhere, men joined the army, killed and were killed, thought kindly of the enemy, rebelled against their commanders and reaffirmed their sense of duty to whatever they felt they were fighting for. So focussing on one particular day as a way of remembering the war risks losing our perspective (as I fear some of my colleagues may be running the risk of doing) about the full extent of what it is we are commemorating.

But the Christmas Truce has, at least, the redeeming factor of being, like the outbreak of the war, an appropriate moment this year to pause, think and discuss what happened 100 years ago.  I have struggled a great deal more with the focus this year upon the dead of the war, with any number of projects examining extant memorials and creating new ones.  The dead should, of course, be a hugely important part of our commemorations, but by making them the centre of the centenary from the outset runs the risk of recreating the struggles over commemoration of the interwar period when, as Dan Todman as noted, the interests of the bereaved came to take priority over those of the survivors,[2] a situation which had important and devestating implications for those who, like Arthur Selby, continued to suffer from the traumas of war experience long after it was all over and done with.

Which is why, as we come to the end of this first year of commemorations and gird our loins for the second, I reiterate a plea that I know I have made before, that we talk about men like Arthur Shelby, men like Robert Fentiman and men like the one cited by Michael Roper whose child recalled how he eschewed as violence in the wake of war, including corporal punishment, deeming it pointless and ineffective.  Only by talking about these men, and representing them in our popular cultural as much as we do the dead, can we ensure that they too are remembered.

[1] Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (London: Bloomsbury, 1998); Mark Connelly, The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London, 1916-1939 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002).

[2] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon and London, 2005), 53.

Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

Some more about footnotes

Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War finished its four-part broadcast on BBC 1 last week.  Billed as the BBC’s flagship centenary programme, and the starting point for its commemorative activities, which now appear to reaching fever pitch in advance of the launch of the regional and online World War One at Home project, despite it only being February, the programme was a bit of a curate’s egg, although one that, on the whole, I enjoyed.

Four hours to cover the entire course of the First World War, principally from the perspective of the British ‘home front’, although with bits and pieces about the Western Front tucked in as well, is not a lot, and many topics were, inevitably, simplified or simply omitted.  To some extent, this doesn’t matter.  The BBC has, as it keeps informing us, over 2,500 hours of programming devoted to the war planned for the centenary years and many of the topics, including the global reach of the war, the relationships between Britain and her allies and even straightforward military history will, doubtless, be dealt with elsewhere and in more detail.

Other aspects were more troubling.  Choosing to focus, often in some detail, on particular topics ended up giving an oddly skewed impression. Shell shock and facial disfigurement, currently vying for the status of symbolic wound of the war, were by no means the only life-altering medical conditions that men survived with, yet there was no mention of disease, amputation or the long-term affects of gas.  Fronts beyond the Western Front had little impact on this narrative of war, despite their impact on the consciousness of the British population at the time. And the limiting of the discussion of the importance of letters to a brief section on the postal system and the perspective of a single officer on the process of censoring letters was, for me as someone who has worked extensively on the letters men wrote home, extremely reductive.

Which brings me to the real problem I had with the programme, which has at its hearts a fairly fundamental contradiction.  Paxman has gained many plaudits for his authoritative and, on the whole, sensitive presentation of a range of material which was new to many viewers and which reflected many of the more cutting-edge and original arguments made in recent years by academic historians.  He also interviewed a number of people, most memorably the centenarian Violet Muers, whose eye-witness account of the German bombardment of Hartlepool made for powerful television.  But not one of these interviewees was a professional historian, a deliberate decision on the part of the producers who wanted to use the programme to emphasize familial connections between the war and their audience.

This in itself is not a problem.  As programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have shown, family connections to the past make for good television and are a powerful way of connecting contemporary audiences to history.  It is the attempt to combine cutting-edge historical arguments with the perspective of the interested descendent that creates issues.  Because the overall effect was to invest all the authority for the arguments made entirely in Paxman himself.  And while he is an authoritative figure, and I can well believe read widely around the subject and come to his own conclusions about what points to make, he is not, in fact, the historian who has undertaken the research that backs so many of the claims he made over the course of the programme.

Some of that research has been done by programme’s historical adviser, Adrian Gregory, who published The Last Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2008), an excellent piece of social history that is both scholarly and accessible and which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. Presumably the interested audience member would be able to pick Adrian’s name from the credits and track down his publications if they wanted to read more about the subject.  But Adrian’s is not the only original research to influence Paxman’s arguments.  David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon and London, 2005), Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2009) and, most recently of all, Laura Ugolini’s Civvies: Middle-Class Men on the English Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2013) all contributed to at least some part of the argument being made.  And these are simply the works that spring most immediately to mind, reflecting as they do my own particular research interests. With greater concentration (and rather more time at my disposal), I suspect I could compile a further reading list of recent scholarly research so extensive as to be potentially daunting to an undergraduate, let alone a curious but not obsessive Monday night television viewer.

The problem this highlights is the fact that, as there are no footnotes on television, how do professional historians (both academic and otherwise) working on the history of the First World War ensure that their work is properly acknowledged?  Many have spent a great deal of time and effort, not to mention funds, sourcing and interpreting the primary source material, as well as formulating the arguments that Paxman so authoritatively deploys.  For academic historians, this work forms the basis of their professional reputations and the intellectual capital that they deploy to make a living.  As such, that work needs to be recognised not simply by specialists but, if those arguments are going to be deployed more widely, then by all those who are making use of them.  This is not merely good manners; it is the very foundation of intellectual exchange and honesty.  But how to do this in a way that is both engaging to a broad non-specialist audience and is fair to researchers remains something that needs urgently to be discussed.  I have been mooting the idea of topic-specific further reading lists to be publicised alongside future programmes, but who compiles these and how their time is paid for remains an open question.  Equally problematic, from the perspective of engagement, is the ethics of recommending books that may have cover prices beyond not merely the interested individual but also the cash-strapped local library.  The Cambridge History of the First World War may be one of the most important recent publications on the subject, but at £90 a volume (£240 for all three), it is hardly going to have a wide circulation beyond university and other specialist libraries.

There is also the related problem in the BBC’s apparent fear of historians as specialist commentators, at least in relation to its most prominent offerings on the First World War.  While BBC 2 and BBC 4 television both seem willing to interview historians as specialists, BBC 1 so far prefers to use Paxman, Kate Adie and Dan Snow for almost all commentary related to the First World War.  Regional radio, working in partnership with the AHRC, has made extensive use of specialist historical knowledge in producing the World War One at Home project. It remains to be seen how the programme is received more widely, but as a researcher and contributor it has, to date, been a positive and highly informative experience.  Yet Woman’s Hour has run a number of features on First World War topics (including Edith Cavell and the aftermath of the war) with no input from historians, despite there being not merely experts but indeed female experts in these fields who might have added useful perspective.* And the major on-line offering, the interactive guides to various aspects of the war, are predominantly fronted by either media personalities or those with contemporary professional interests in the subject, with historical expertise usually tucked away at the end.**  This is the most public and accessible display of historical knowledge of the war that the BBC is providing, yet the role of the historian in all of this is too often hidden and unacknowledged.  This is troubling given that most historians are fundamentally communicators, interested in ensuring that other people know about the work they do and the stories that they uncover.  And many are not only presentable but are capable of learning the skills necessary to engage with a popular audience.  Indeed, in the current academic climate, with its emphasis on impact and engagement, many are not merely willing but feel compelled to do so, whether through formal media training or less formal practices including blogging.

None of this, of course, is new or specific to the centenary of the First World War, or even to the popular media.  Recent impassioned blogs by Matt Houlbrook and Lesley Hall point to the pervasiveness of the potential for mistreatment and exploitation of academics, particularly early-career researchers, by both the media and well-known established historians (and their publishers).  For historians of the First World War, however, this centenary moment presents both a challenge and an opportunity, to ensure not only that our research, in all its originality, is made accessible to a wide audience, but that we gain due credit for we have done and are doing, both those of us who choose to work directly with media outlets and those who do not.  There are no easy answers as to how we do this, but the moment to have the discussions is too opportune to be missed.

In the meantime, I will start compiling my further reading list, to be posted on here at a later date.  Please do get in touch if there is a particular volume that you think should have been cited in relation to Paxman’s programme (preferably with a note as to the bit it relates to) and I will make sure it is included.

*The special extended programme on 5th February made excellent use of Professor Joanna Bourke and Professor Maggie Andrews as commentators, but again, Kate Adie and Baroness Shirley Williams were the guests who names featured most prominently in the publicity.

**Honourable exceptions here are Gary Sheffield and Sam Willis.