Last week I wrote a post about some nautically derived, somewhat racy jargon, and found myself making the following comment regarding an attempt to make this jargon seem less naughty:
The people telling us the story are probably just laughing at our desperate need to believe that people in olden days were a whole lot more innocent than we are today.
Since writers can rarely let anything go, this idea stuck in my head and turned into its very own discussion topic. History is big news, with new historical fiction published all the time, movie and TV costume dramas never going out of style, and historical reenactment groups spending their weekends staging battles and otherwise getting their hey nonny nonny on. (Including crazy people like this.) But sometimes I wonder about our fascination with history. Is it really because we want to think those were more innocent times? Or are we doing everything we can to rewrite history and make it look just like our world?
On the one hand, I’m looking at the current Jane Austen revival. I’ve heard it said that the endless re-reading of six two-hundred-year-old books about manners and conversations in drawing rooms is a sign of our dissatisfaction with modern life, and – since Austen’s readers are primarily women, of course – the failure of feminism. What we really want, after all, is for a gentleman to hold the door for us, tip his hat to us, and pledge us his undying love. Or something like that. I like a Regency Ball as much as the next science fiction fan, and it is rather charming to see a man in a frock coat, but you have to admit that part of what’s propelling the Austen revival isn’t just any man in a frock coat but a specific man out of his frock coat. Yeah, this one.
Which brings me to another example from the same era, in this case a 20th-century novel series set in 1812, and its miniseries adaptation, To the Ends of the Earth. I just watched this on Netflix (sorry, they pulled it down from streaming, and I had to watch it in a big hurry before they did), which made for an interesting coincidence in the context of that “innocent” comment I made earlier. To the Ends was produced by the BBC and aired in this country on Masterpiece Theatre. I used to complain that Masterpiece Theatre aired so late on Sunday nights that I rarely had a chance to watch it. Between To the Ends and the David Tennant Casanova, I understand why they did that, at least if these programs aired uncut. I’m not sure when, exactly, PBS took a turn toward the racy; I first noticed it in a ballet that I caught part of while flipping channels, involving people in 18th-century costume on a giant swing pretending to have sex, while the richly dressed audience applauded politely. That’s a very special kind of self-delusion, like pretentious people reading The Story of O and saying it’s because of its literary merit.
I’m not sure To the Ends required quite so many shots of Benedict Cumberbatch’s ass (not that it was terrible to look at, but I generally don’t require an ass in my entertainment), or such a long and Surprisingly Noisy sex scene in the first episode. The impression I was left with was that someone was trying very hard to make it look like people in 1812 had sex just the way we do now, and isn’t that exciting?! It reminded me of the one and only episode of The Tudors that I watched, including another Surprisingly Noisy sex scene, and a scene of playing tennis. In the latter, the tennis players had taken off their doublets, and when the camera was focused tightly enough that it didn’t show the funny pants they were wearing, it just was a lot of guys in white shirts shouting and slamming a ball around with rackets. It looked almost identical to a modern game. See! Those olden-days folks were just like us!
Does it really make us that uncomfortable to watch people who aren’t just like us? I’ve had some history professors go too far in the other direction and claim that no one had a psychological life until Freud invented it, and we can’t possibly imagine or relate to how people in history thought or felt. I’ve read plenty of books written long before Freud, and plenty of them feature characters undergoing mental and emotional turmoil, experiencing things that are very relatable once you get past the layers of everything that was different about their lives. Because that’s okay, right? We can use historical fiction – any fiction, in fact – to open us up to things that are new, different, unlike us. And we don’t need the crutches of our assumptions (“people were much more innocent back then”) or our modifications (“people were just like us”). We might learn something that way.