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.