In yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, reviewer Mark Lawson called for the makers of television programmes to “stop horrendously airbrushing history”, to “stop the madness” of producing period dramas featuring “characters with laughably liberal values for their day.” Lawson was responding particularly to Jamestown, a new series focusing on a group of young women who were sent across the Atlantic in 1619 to be the wives of men they’d never met, part of the first great wave of British colonialism in the Americas. He took umbrage with how they were presented as “feisty, cheeky, and rebellious”—personality traits which a woman of the twenty-first century might possess, but never one from the seventeenth.
It is true that the best historical fiction—whether in TV, movie, or book form—doesn’t content itself with using the past as set dressing. It’s wonderful to be able to encounter the differences of past ways of seeing the world, to grapple with what was once mundane but now seems surpassingly strange. (Although as historical consultant Greg Jenner has pointed out, no drama is ever able to be wholly accurate in its reconstruction of a lost world. Period dramas inevitably reshape the past to fit the present’s interests to some extent, because otherwise they would not be made.) I’ve not seen Jamestown, so I can’t speak to any of the show’s particular merits (or lack thereof). It may well be that it won’t rank at the top of anyone’s listing of great period drama series.
Yet what has frustrated me and many other historians about this article is the way that Lawson seems oblivious to the fact that just as the writer of a TV show may imbue their writing with anachronistic values, so too can the viewer watch that TV show through the lens of anachronistic assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are relatively minor. For instance, my students are generally pleasantly surprised to learn that medieval castles were not all dark stone masonry, but were often lime-washed in bright colours like peach, pink and yellow. (The actor Jeremy Irons’ Irish neighbours were also surprised to discover this, though perhaps less pleased.) Sometimes our assumptions about the past carry more weight.
Lawson dismisses the female characters of Jamestown based, it seems, on no stronger evidence than the fact that they’re not what he thinks they should be. He seems unaware of the inherent subjectivity he brings to what he watches. (Lawson has past form in this area. In a 2007 Guardian article he fretted that attempting to reclaim past women’s artistic and cultural contributions was somehow “falsifying history”, that it is somehow a lowering of standards to “pretend that Aphra Benn and Shelagh Delaney were the equals of Shakespeare and Harold Pinter.” Standards of excellence being, of course, unchanging and objective and applied neutrally to all works no matter who their creator.)
On Twitter, historian Suzannah Lipscomb has succinctly taken Lawson to task, drawing on her archival research on early modern French women to show that these women were anything but passive. (In fact, given the language that women hurled at one another, best not to click through to that Twitter thread if you’re in the work place or come over a bit queasy at the thought of people doing untoward things with farmyard animals.) Court records show that women could be bawdy, rowdy, and earthy with quick tempers and sharp tongues; paging through some Jacobean comedies demonstrate that sex was definitely invented before 1963. True, this kind of behaviour wouldn’t have been held up as a model for genteel young women, but it existed. Where, for instance, would the frank wit of Nell Gwyn fit into Lawson’s conception of the past? (“Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore”).
And the seventeenth century was hardly a statistical blip. Women agitating for and exercising their rights has a long history, even though women were not on an equal footing with men and even though their conception of what was possible for themselves would have been trammelled by internalised misogyny. Lawson implies that he would see “a story of women willingly accepting sexual and social submission” as more historical, more truthful, than the one told in Jamestown. Yet this is not the past that I recognise from, for instance, my research into the women of the Middle Ages. The weight of patriarchy could crush, but it also inspired rebellions, whether small and symbolic or larger scale; it could restrict women’s conceptions of themselves, but there were always women who chose to bend or break societal prescriptions.
For example, in Berkshire in 1248, Margery daughter of Emma de la Hulle faced her rapist in open court and offered “to prove this [charge] against him as the court [saw] fit.” Impotence cases brought before medieval English courts often involved women mocking and goading the men in question: “show yourself for shame a man”. The early medieval princess Brunhilda of Austrasia, like many noble and royal women during the Merovingian period, showed no hesitation in participating in the acts of often brutally violent vengeance which marred the politics of the time. (Those who live by the sword die by the sword: Brunhilda’s death was apparently a gruesome one, rended limb from limb by wild horses.) Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies (1405) is a prose allegory full of vision for what women could achieve. To these examples I could add many others. Did these women represent the norm? Perhaps not. But it does a disservice to their contemporaries and to the complexity of their world to dismiss them as statistical anomalies.
Lawson writes that
the 17th-century shipped women in Jamestown were in some ways a Jacobean version of the jihadi brides flown out to Islamic State soldiers today, or the arranged marriages that still exist in some communities. It’s easy to see why programme-makers would feel queasy about not having such female submissiveness strongly contested within the storyline, just as in slave dramas such as Roots (of which Jamestown can be seen as a gender equivalent), the dramatic emphasis is, in the proper pursuit of a positive political message, on those who resisted and challenged their captors, whether or not that is generally representative. But however well intentioned, this tilting of the actual power relationships risks making the historical situations seem more palatable than they were.
Even setting aside the racist thinking underpinning this paragraph (Lawson’s binary gender vs race opposition of Jamestown and Roots shows that he’s never cracked the pages of All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men), I am compelled to point out that however well-intentioned, Lawson’s misconceptions of the actual power relationships in play risk making the women of the past seem more passive, and the circumstances of gendered oppression more inevitable, than they actually were.
A better issue to ponder might be why is it that so many (male) commentators in popular media are confident in dismissing representations of women’s history based on their assumptions of what women probably did and thought in the past.