Last week I read a short article in Radio Times about how television shows such as Poldark are needed escapism in these modern times. The exact title is “We need romance on TV in these times of turmoil.” It was such a strange little piece that I thought it was satire at first – but it’s not. I’ve already written extensively about the 18th century novels-turned-tv of Poldark and Outlander on this blog, but what got me about the piece in Radio Times was not the reference to the modern television hits, but rather the concept that our modern (Western) times could possibly be referred to as tumultuous in comparison to the social unrest of the 18th century. These decades have been victim to romanticism for ages, which is rampant even in the television shows in question, but the author of the article seemed blind to the historical backdrop of both novels-turned-shows.
This article got me thinking about why so many young girls, and the author of this piece, find this part of history so romantic, and how so much of history is misrepresented to us. I was never very romantic about the past because I was so fascinated, and frankly scared, by history. And there have been several books which were wake-up calls to me in particular about what life was really like to live, especially as a woman or the lower class, during these times in question. In a thick history book that I had as a child, there was a small illustration of an impoverished British man in the streets of London being bludgeoned to death by a Red Coat on a horse. It was illustrating the Jacobin unrest in England of the late 18th Century, following the French Revolution. The Landed were getting worried, the un-landed were getting ideas. Those times were tumultuous.
I am a woman and a nerd, so naturally I would sell my soul to be fitted in a Versailles gown. But the ignorance of the historical and political settings of Poldark by Radio Times is damaging when allowed to run unchecked through pop culture. The belief that losing your husband to a war prison during the Reign of Terror (a current Poldark storyline) in an era without technology is a sign of a “simpler time,” and less tumultuous than the “now,” is damaging. Romanticizing these simpler times with bigger dresses and without having a firm understanding of what was going on then is keeps us from fully appreciating the gifts we have today. So here are four books that taught me about the real goings-on in our beloved 18th and 19th Century history, behind the romance novels.
Waverley (1814 about 1745), Sir Walter Scott
I read Ivanhoe as a child, and maybe because my mom introduced it to me too young, I never took to it. Two years ago, after visiting Scotland for the first time, I decided to try the epic Waverley, known as one of the first works of historical fiction. It is 500 pages of dense but hilarious narration, a vivid and fascinating novel about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. It follows the story of young Edward Waverley from south England, who visits a family friend in the Scottish lowlands and gets accidentally caught up in a rebellion.
Being an American, I love stories of revolution, even aborted or defeated ones. Scottish history is something I was not very familiar with until recently, and I loved learning about the ways that traditional Scottish culture differed from the English, and from what we view as “British” today. Waverley is incredibly educational, and in it’s own way a bit romanticized. There is something very honest about that. It is simultaneously a detailed historical novel that teaches me more about how shitty life was, and also gives me perspective into how someone in 1814 could romanticize their own past. It’s one of those “big books.” It’s filled with Latin and French and can be very politically confusing. It took me six weeks to read. But it was worth it.
Madame Bovary (1857), Gustave Flaubert
Every girl who wants more out of life, whose “more” is a small chateau in France, a lady’s maid, and a bunch of fluffy dresses, needs to read Madame Bovary. It is the story of a girl who, from the perspective of the author of that Radio Times article, has it all. She has a house, a husband, a wardrobe. But she is miserable. And it ruins her. There is a lot you can say against Madame Bovary, and it is a novel I would never want to read again, but it was eye-opening to the way that modern people always romanticize the past at the present’s sake, and I could not put it down. It is a study of provincial life. Emma’s life was full of so many things we might envy, yet at the same time she is trapped in a loveless marriage without interesting books or music or opportunities. She did not own anything of her own – she had no way of making money or being useful. Emma did, essentially, belong to her husband. It’s humbling and an important reminder of how far women have come.
A few chapters in, there is a scene where Emma (in her pretty French chateau which all teenage girls long for) thinks, “It seemed to her that certain portions of the earth must produce happiness — as though it were a plant native only to those soils and doomed to languish elsewhere. Why couldn’t she be leaning over the balcony of some Swiss chalet? Or nursing her melancholy in a cottage in Scotland, with a husband clad in a long black velvet coat and wearing soft leather shoes, a high-crowned hat and fancy cuffs?” It was then that I knew that I was reading a masterpiece.
Little Dorrit (1852), Charles Dickens
Ok, let’s talk about Dickens. I haven’t spoken much about him on this blog, but it makes me very annoyed when modern people romanticize Dickens characters. He lived the hell he writes about. He saw it first hand – the poverty, the injustice, the social unrest, the economic divide. It seems like a slap in the face if we romanticize his stories. Much like Walter Scott, I did not like Oliver Twist as a child so I did not read Dickens for a long time, but I made my peace with him later in life. Little Dorrit is my favorite of his, mostly because of, or possible in spite of, the infuriatingly confusing ending. It’s a very middle class story about a family down on their luck because of their father’s poor choices. It takes place in factories, prisons, on the streets. Dickens’ settings are dynamic, with less focus on the proper or stately.
It’s difficult to read a book like Little Dorrit and imagine a young Dickens, experiencing what his characters go through. It is hard to reconcile the dark and disgusting injustice of England in a time that we love to love, but that’s what Dickens was trying to do, to show that inequality, and to expose the abuse. I couldn’t help but feel that the novel, compared to the recent BBC miniseries, spent much more time on the lives of the minor characters and poor characters, more time in the poor house, and less time cultivating a romance. I love a romance, but Dickens is one of the few places where we see real anger and truth, he wrote to work out childhood demons, to expose waste and abuse in his world. We shouldn’t try to cover that up.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791), Benjamin Franklin
Nothing wakes you up to the realities of a time period like an autobiography. This is a very long and very strange book, written by a man we all think we know well. With July 4th right behind us, I think it’s a good a time as any to reevaluate our perceptions of the birth of our country, of the men who created it, and of the world they lived in. As an inventor, Benjamin Franklin talks at length about the inconveniences of daily life in his Colonial America. This book may lead you to dislike the man of Benjamin, but it will leave you with a rich and personal understanding of that world.
Things like the treatment of women or slaves, as well as Ben’s odd take on religion (where everything is Providence and Capitalized, but nothing is actually God) are eye opening to the culture of that time. Quotes like these remind us that though men like Ben were against slavery, they still suffered from backwards and cruel presumptions about race. “I have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race than I had ever before entertained.” Or when he talks about education for women, he commends it, but only so women could run the family business until a son was old enough to take over. Franklin’s little details of daily life also bring Colonial America to life. He talks about food and drink, fashion, travel methods – all more antiquated and foreign than we would assume. He didn’t live in a romantic world. Franklin might have thought much of himself, but he is grounded in how he writes his world, completely ignorant of what it might teach us, in the future.
There are others, but these four were especially interesting to read as an adult, after growing up with the fun costumes and unrealistic expectations of 19th century romance. In the most recent episode of Poldark, a mining community is starving to death because the harvest failed. The upper class was artificially increasing the price of corn in order to make a profit off the starving. I’m sorry if I don’t find that comforting in today’s trying times.
Sarah V Diehl