Tuesday Thoughts–Authenticity

tuesday thoughts

Not too long ago, I saw a post on Facebook which claimed a specific period drama production was inferior to another because it wasn’t authentic to the era. The original poster based her opinion on matters of costuming and smiling. I’m not joking. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion. However, what upset me was that she claimed, without citing sources, that certain behaviors in the production were inappropriate for the era and productions should be more than dress up.

Well, I would agree with that. What I struggle with is the notion that because one or even five contemporary books mention a behavior as inappropriate for the era that it is conclusive proof.

As a trained historian, I would suggest people start with primary documents. Hopefully, any general information guide to whatever historical era one reads contains well-documented sources and possibly a further reading list. Such books should include many documents which discuss the matter first hand. An example of a primary versus secondary document would be a conduct book from the Regency era stating ladies riding in carriages unchaperoned was scandalous. A secondary document would quote another book (which might very well quote the primary material). The concern is that the middleman might be squeezing something to fit their argument.

The debate doesn’t end once one looks at primary documents, though. For example, the conduct book which says a lady shouldn’t ride alone with a man in a carriage is only one clue to the standards of the era. Consider in nearly ever Jane Austen novel, a lady (even the heroine) does so, and her reputation is not destroyed, and no one presumes an engagement or compromise has happened. Jane Austen was not bandied about as a scandalous author of the era. It can be assumed that society, in general, was not as rigid as the conduct book would appear to make it seem. The work doesn’t stop there either. Add other works of fiction and non-fiction to your research list. Add personal accounts and newspapers. Look at art from the era. Understand the artist and the context. Just because it was painted does not mean it was portrayed in a good light. Consider and consider again and again.

Once you have done so, remember that you have only researched to your own best abilities. Someone else might have spent twenty years in the Cambridge library and uncover documents which point in a different direction. Remember that there is an entire field of study called historiography, which is about the changing ways historians study and discuss history. Even historians can’t agree on things let alone for all eternity.

History is a living thing. It is shaped by those in the past, present, and future. If you want authenticity in history, you had better build a time machine and even then, it might vary wildly based on your own experience. For example, I have always lived in an area where there were few vegetarians and organic produce is hard to come by. However, other regions have an entirely different experience. If someone would write a book in the future about a heroine who enjoyed meat and never had organic produce, someone might scoff, but it’s quite accurate.

Now, consider what the book is attempting to tell the readers by making the heroine a carnivore with tainted produce. Does she not care about her health? Or is it part of a health regimen? Does she not believe in all the research? Is it a financial concern? Is availability a factor?

By the same token, consider that no one could have gone around and studied every single person of the gentry class and record if they smiled with their teeth. On the other hand, stays (not called corsets) and fashion prints from the era have survived, and while I am entirely sure some women likely modified them to enhance their ahem, attributes, that was not the original intent for them. One might consider why a lady would change them and what it would mean about her personality and character. What would it say about a gentleman who is attracted to a lady who does such? For that matter, if smiling with your teeth “bared” is indeed so bad, under what conditions would a person do so? What would it signal about their feelings? How might others react?

It’s important when you are considering a piece of media, whether it be film or book, and its representation of history to understand its attempt at authenticity. The first step is to educate yourself. After you have investigated history, you must evaluate your source of media. Only then can you begin to unveil the authenticity of the work in question.

6 thoughts on “Tuesday Thoughts–Authenticity

  1. I can’t come close to claiming any knowledge about that history but sometimes the inaccuracy just pops out, i.e., the costumes in the 1940’s P&P movie seeming to be leftovers from the Gone With the Wind production. I bow to your superior knowledge.

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    1. I too thought they were leftovers from GWTW but it turns out that because of the great popularity of the early film, that production of P&P was greatly influenced by Gone With the Wind – in hopes of duplicating that film’s success. I say this based on an article in JASNA’s Persuasion on the making of the 1940s P&P.

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      1. Yes, my understanding is that maybe a few of the minor characters wore leftovers but the major roles had new costuming because of the popularity of GWTW. It was an aesthetic that the era enjoyed.

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    2. You are correct, the costumes from the 1940 film would be anachronistic if they were setting the film during the Regency era. However, in the film they specifically reference the Battle of Waterloo as a past event (1816) and there are other indicators that they intentionally set it during the Victorian era. This goes to the second half of investigative work I mentioned. Why would they do this? As Beatrice mentioned, because the era liked Victorian costuming. They were trying to capitalize on the success of Gone with the Wind (but as Beatrice mentions most of the costumes were new). I think it works because Jane Austen is timeless. She never mentions anything from the Regency era in such detail that it can’t work in other eras. In many past eras it can be adapted word for word and nothing change. In the present day, I think one would need to make some changes where phone calls or texts could change things, societal pressures are different now etc. However, those are really quite circumstantial to the book and can be altered accordingly.

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  2. I am going to shock you, Rose, but I once adapted Austen’s Lady Susan into a play, and part of the time I employed cell phones to get around the use of letters in the original. Everyone – audience and cast – knew these were anachronistic, but it was all in fun, as was the entire production. Originally I’d wanted to do the production using a stuffed toy red fox as Lady Susan, but settled for a human actor instead. Fortunately the cell phones added the touch of whimsy I was seeking.
    We cannot all be historians.

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