I know I can become quite obsessed with things: films, series, actors, books… It is something my friends and family have to endure – me talking about nothing else but a series I have just watched and started to watch again and again. But how enchanting it is to recognize sometimes that I am not alone with these obsessions.
When I first started to watch Downton Abbey it was already a big success in Britain and the US. Not in Germany, though. The first series had only been broadcasted on a pay TV channel no one watches and the DVD I bought I had found on a table with junk DVDs the shop wanted to sell as fast and for the lowest price as possible.
I am not sure when and how that changed, but shortly before the third series started in Britain even friends I had never told about my obsession suddenly started to quote The Dowager Countess on Facebook – it was a real burst of excitement. Over the Christmas holidays 2012 the ZDF, a public broadcaster in Germany, finally broadcasted the first series of Downton Abbey – a mediocre success, with a viewing rate of approximately ten per cent. Not a surprise considering that the series was shown at 4 pm and bearing in mind that the DVD had been released before. ITV at the same time broadcasted the second Christmas Special, only days later Downton Abbey Series 3 was rated the eighths best TV series in 2012 in the Radiotimes Top 40 panel.
It is not only Downton Abbey that has such devoted followers. Only a few years ago a series like Parade’s End would never have created such hype like it did when it was released – and it was only partly because of Benedict Cumberbatch playing the main character Christopher Tietjens. People even started to create fan art or to produce fan videos on Youtube. What causes this sudden revival of the 1920s not only in film but in fashion, art and literature as well? Is this created and constructed by media or do the years between 1910 and 1930 perhaps touch something deeper in our souls? Why this interest in WWI?
Painful changes in society
“I think our fascination with this period is a rich and complex one. Part of it has to do with the fact that it is an era on the edge of change and that it’s such a forcibly painful birth into a modern era”, actor Benedict Cumberbatch said in a documentary about Ford Madox Ford, the Author of Parade’s End. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4Bg5oLPG6c)
Painful changes that have a counterpart in our modern world, a world that is on the move, changing so fast, that many people cannot follow – with new technologies developed every day, with social networks that connect us to the whole world and news that travel so fast people can’t keep up to check their validity. Whether these changes are for the better or the worst – only future can tell. Our days might be a continuity of the past or maybe another painful birth of something new.
Fact is: In Ford Madox Ford’s writing or example you can find a deeper truth that still appeals to modern readers. “We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.” (The Good Soldier)
The 1920’s authors have seen so much pain, blood and death and perhaps that made them realize the virtue of life, allowed them an insight into the human soul, into their own being. It is something we often deny ourselves out of fear what we might detect. Writers like Ford Madox Ford or the German author Erich Maria Remarque, both war veterans suffering from PTSD, were in more than one way broken men and not ashamed to be so, to write about their suffering. They did no longer hide behind the facade of manhood. It is this display of vulnerability that touches readers, a vulnerability many of us feel but dare not to show openly.
Remarque, best known for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, portrayed the German post-war era like no other author before or after him. Later in his life he wrote about refugees of the Nazis and concentration camps, none of these novels are as heart breaking and breath taking as those about the Republic of Weimar. Sometimes funny, like scenes in The Black Obelisk, parodies of the soldier’s devotion to the Kaiser that goes further than his trust in god, sometimes cruel like Three Comrades – a tale of men coming back from war, building a new life. The story follows them throughout the 1920s and 1930s and into new destruction and despair, a book that has you – without telling too much – in tears in the end and is, in my consideration, Remarque’s best work.
You find a counterpart to men’s perspectives in women writers like Virginia Woolf, whose mental health shall not be discussed since she gave quite an impressive description about the state of society shortly after the war. People tried to connect to their past lives, to go on like nothing has ever happened – no war, no destruction of society and moral codes. And they often failed bitterly. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing allows the reader to look into the character’s mind, witness their thinking and feelings. And their failure.
The last eyewitnesses
Those authors are in some way the last WWI eyewitnesses that still talk to us through their writing. One might say: Dead men are far better heroes then the living. But it’s not only that: The generation of our parents and grandparents still knew people who had fought in WWI or had suffered at home. Especially in Germany many elderly people remember the tales of their parents and grandparents about the hunger winter in the last years of the war, describing how they survived on potatoes and cabbage alone, freezing because all the coal was used in the war machineries. The blockade from the sea took its toll – men were suffering at the front, women and children at home. And when the war finally was over the men coming back had nothing in common with those who had left years before. It was the same in all the countries who had fought in the first industrialised war with all its new horrors. There are few who lived to tell the tale and even fewer who wanted to be reminded and dared to tell. And even that is lost to us nowadays, since there are only a few left who could tell these stories. In combination with the fact that nearly a hundred years part us from the wartime and the fact that it was already a modern time that is not completely foreign to us, a time we could emphasize with this means the blossom of legends and myth.
And there is something else that appeals to us: Many people today feel that the rules and times are changing again but no one knows to what end. And that can be quite frightening, it connects us to all eras of change.
Feeling lost is something that unites many characters of the stories playing in the 1920s era. As for Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End: He is a man who does not belong into the time he lives in. He clings onto rules society no longer accepts. Tietjens is a virtuous man, a character you can only fall in love with and want to slap in the same time: He is ridiculed, lied to, lied about, treated badly by his wife and so called friends. But he endures, keeps to his moral code. Christopher Tietjens is lost in a time he does not understand and does not appreciate. He is a deeply complex character.
We can find this same feeling of being forlorn in Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey. Already during WWI Lord Grantham is losing his position: Too old to fight in the war, he is banned into a representative position in the army. In his own house he is overruled by women. He is lost. And it is not getting better after the war because he soon has to realize there is no way back into their old lives. In his old ways he still understands his position as landowner in a way of being a caretaker of his people. For hundreds of years families like the Granthams have lived on the income of their estates, refused to modernise or to abandon unprofitable farms. But when after the war all fortune is lost, Lord Grantham has to face capitalism and modern agriculture that in some ways is the complete counterpart to his self-conception that as a landowner he is some kind of father to his tenants.
He has to face, not unlike Christopher Tietjens, that the old moral guidelines no longer exist. Something people might feel today as well, sometimes feeling ruled by banks instead of elected parliaments, by economic necessities and not by humane reasons. Being afraid of change is a deep rooted fear, especially since we cannot look into the future to see if this change is for the best or the worst.
Idealizing the 1920s era
Of course there is not only this quite philosophical connection to the 1920s. You can find a lot of romanticism about this era in today’s reception as well. It is something that originally started in the 1920s itself: The denial of cruelty, the ignorance of the just passed war. While expressionist painters or writers like the above mentioned explored the quite shocking reality, others simply refused to let themselves being pulled into such despair. The 1920s were not only the time when inflation again caused hunger and poverty, especially big cities like London or Berlin were famous for the most roaring parties of a whole century. It is not by chance those years are still called the Roaring Twenties.
Costume, fashion, parties – all this had a revival in the last two years. Downton inspired fashion was the highlight of the fall and winter collection 2012 – including the time from the belle époque to the 1920s – Ralph Lauren even used the film theme of Downton Abbey for his runway show in February 2012 and declared in September 2012 to become a national sponsor of PBS Masterpieces which next to Downton Abbey airs the BBC production Upstairs Donwstairs in the US – it is the company’s first TV sponsorship.
Others followed this example. “marie claire” explained how to get the Downton Style for under 100 Pounds (http://www.marieclaire.com/fashion/trends/bargain-downton-abbey-style#slide-1), Tumblr fanpages and Pinterest boards like this http://pinterest.com/hollyrenee01/downton-abbey-inspired-fashion/ are dedicated to the style and fashion of Downton explaining where to get the modern equivalent to period dresses, hats, shoes or bags. There is a whole community reinventing the style in self-made dresses, like a friend of mine who is currently sewing dresses for a party I am organizing in March 2013, featuring the time between 1910 and 1930.
I always loved period dramas, had my first 1920s party about ten years ago, went to a renaissance ball once and own some dresses from the time of Jane Austen. And now I have to confess I completely fell in love with Lady Mary’s dresses – until I saw Parade’s End. No one dresses as beautiful and as daring as Silvia Tietjens.
During the broadcasting of the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas Special on Christmas day fashion magazines wrote on Twitter that they already got some inspirations for their next fashion shootings, asking their followers which dress they would favour, the styling of which character they would prefer and why. While being broadcasted the episode had a real time impact on modern fashion.
Longing to be a princess
Especially women long for this feeling of being a princess in a fancy period dress without recognizing or in simply ignoring what it meant to live in a time when women were still constricted to a life at home, were denied education and work and whose boredom sometimes led them into depression.
WWI and the following years were also the time when women’s position in society changed. It was the time when women started to fight for their own rights: In the years 1914 till 1918 women filled in the vacant positions of men fighting in the war. Many women started to work in factories, ran the shops of their husbands and were suddenly the ruler of their houses. But when men came home after the war they demanded back their old positions. An impossible demand.
Throughout the late 19th century and the early 20th century the suffragette movement in England, Europe and abroad fought for the women’s right to vote. In 1918 with the “Representation of the People Act” 8.4 million women in Britain gained the vote – but only those over the age of 30 who were a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register. With the “Eligibility of Women Act” since November 1918 women could be elected into Parliament. But it would take ten more years until in 1928 women received the vote on the same terms as men.
In many countries women’s right to vote was linked with the abolition of the census voting system for men. Census voting meant that the vote was linked to the amount of money men earned resulting in the fact that rich industrials had more impact on the vote than for example an ordinary factory worker. As a rule women had to fight harder for their right to vote in countries where men gained an equal vote quite early: One man one vote, not one woman one vote was the rule.
In 1904 the „Weltbund für Frauenstimmrecht“, the „International Alliance of Women“ was founded in Berlin. But none the less Germany needed the total destruction of society after WWI before women were allowed to vote. And even then the picture of the devoted housewife caring for man and children, whose main purpose was to give birth to children remained and had its sad revival under the rule of Hitler.
It is a topic that has its impact in most historic dramas: Christopher Tietjens falls in love with a little suffragette, Lady Edith Crawley against the protest of her father and grandmother starts a career as a journalist and without spoiling too much chooses the men she loves without her father approving. But most time this is only a side aspect of another tragic story that unfolds in front of the audience. A side aspect that appeals to viewers and modern women: A good story needs a strong heroine.
Drama and humour, lost loves and passion found, death and birth – all these are part of nearly every period drama. Especially Downton Abbey is an on going story where a happy end might tragically be spoiled through unforeseen events – and even if some of them might be a bit over the top, a well written story is as much to blame for our current obsession with period dramas as the appeal of the time itself.