by Emily Rutherford
When the World War I-era miniseries Parade’s End, based on the novels of Ford Madox Ford, was being broadcast on the BBC, a British friend asked me, “Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian?” It’s true: the narrative of Edwardian innocence lost in the trenches of France and the slow disintegration of the Empire has captivated audiences for decades, from Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, to ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, to Merchant Ivory’s 1980s and ’90s films of E.M. Forster novels, to today’s hits. The film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, released in the UK last month, has proved surprisingly popular, enough to secure a US release later this year. The main UK television networks currently feature lavish shows set in an Edwardian department store and (albeit stepping slightly later, to the interwar period) the end of British rule in India. It’s not as if the rest of the English-speaking world is immune to this form of historical romance: just look at the success that Downton Abbey has had in the US and Canada.
What’s a tour of period dramas doing on a serious blog like this one? I want to suggest, speculatively and inexpertly, that the Edwardian era (the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910, and usually lumping in the years leading up to the First World War) has an outsize place in popular understandings of the British national story, in part because of how Edwardian and interwar writers themselves defined a particular sense of their national culture. We’re bequeathed that story now through lavish television adaptations of Waugh and Forster, Brittain and Flora Thompson, and I think it’s done a lot to obscure a more nuanced understanding of continuity and change in an English/British national history.
I was set on this train of thought by reading academic histories of the early modern British Empire—what’s often called the “first” British Empire, in contrast to the “second” that takes shape after the Napoleonic Wars. The latter is characterized, the usual story goes, by a strong metropolitan government that enacted powerful political authority over colonies across the world, by a strong culture of imperial pageantry, by an economic policy of free trade, and by a cultural experience of empire that touched the lives of everyone in the British Isles as well as those native populations whom the Empire subjugated. This, understandably, is what we think of when we think “British Empire”: after all, we’re not so temporally distant from it. People our parents’ or grandparents’ age celebrated Empire Day across the globe. Historians of the “first” British empire, therefore, have often had to clarify and explain how the ideology and the practice of imperial politics, economics, and lived social experience worked in a time before the nation-state (and indeed before Britain) and before capitalism. To what extent was the British Empire a system of political governance, and to what extent was it a trading network? What were the power relations between British settlers and native populations, and between settlers and the metropole? Does it make sense to conceive of the whole empire as a single entity? How were imperial politics and economics affected by the great political upheavals in seventeenth-century England? As I read this scholarship I’m struck by its need to overcome the sense that “the British Empire” wasn’t always already the concept Benjamin Disraeli invented when, in 1877, he got Parliament to pass a bill declaring Queen Victoria Empress of India.
Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and his biography of Queen Victoria (1921) gave us the Victorian age we remember today: war, duty, muscular Christianity, sexual repression, stiff upper lips, all rendered colorfully with the irreverent tone of a child rebelling against his parents. Indeed, as psychoanalysis came to be a powerful backdrop to the explorations of the Bloomsbury set to which Strachey belonged, other writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster helped to solidify that sense of a generational break. “On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” The old social conventions no longer applied; the generation that grew up amid the Great War had to ascertain new ways of relating to each other. Downton Abbey, actually, dramatizes vividly this perception of a generational divide, showing it being worked out among groups other than one too-clever set of young London literati. I’m not convinced, though: my own research suggests that the concerns of affect, sociability, and interiority that preoccupied writers like Woolf and Forster had their origins in discussions about democratization, urbanization, educational reform, and, yes, sexuality that interested many upper-middle-class, educated people of their parents’ generation, too. Here, again, the psychological interest of the loss-of-innocence story that attracted literary writers since the Great War itself may be a distraction from what the evidence shows.
In order to engage with an audience wider than field-specific specialists, historians must constantly interact with received popular narratives and oral traditions about the past, narratives which as they’re repeated can seem to acquire a shinier veneer of truth than anything that appears between the covers of books published by Oxford or Cambridge University Press. If there’s a gulf between the truth that drives television ratings and the truth that gets a scholar tenure, it comes to matter: witness politicians’ attempts to redefine school history curricula on both sides of the pond, most recently an attempt in the Oklahoma state legislature to ban the revised Advanced Placement US History curriculum from state schools because, essentially, its themes and questions, crafted by professional historians, don’t conform to the rather different received popular narrative those legislators have internalized. Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian? Because they sell a dramatically seductive narrative and evoke a time when Britain still had significant world political power. But when, for instance, these narratives shape how politicians observe the centenary of the First World War and perceptions of foreign conflict going forward, the work they do to comfort and to entertain assumes serious importance.