Well, Downton Abbey is back on our screens. No, I haven’t watched the opening episode yet. My daughter has taken to waking up at 5:45 in the morning so I am currently retiring no later than 10 pm in self-defence. (You will probably start to notice a pattern in the interface between my home life and work revolving around the theme of sleep. Ah, the joys of motherhood!) Anyway, a review of the new season will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, I thought I would write a bit more about why I think Parade’s End is such a superb representation of the First World War.
After a great deal of thought, my primary conclusion is that the drama has had the good sense to stay out of the trenches for so long. Other than the glimpse at the end of the second episode (and arguably the brief scene in the slightly too quiet Casualty Clearing Station), all the action has been set firmly behind the lines, whether in England or Rouen. This is not to say that the war hasn’t been evident, but it has been beautifully subtle – the presence of a lorry of soldiers in the background, uniforms mingling with civilian dress, the female railway porter. Yes, the clichés are there – the clueless civilians for whom horses matter more than the lives of men, the general in his chateau behind the lines (although all the men are behind the lines as well at this point), the dangers of bombardment (with air raids substituting for artillery) – but shown in such a way as to demonstrate why they have become clichés. The myth of the war has its basis in reality. By allowing the mythic elements of the war narrative to emerge organically as the background to the story, rather than bludgeoning us over the head with them, this dramatization of a work of fiction demonstrates the complexity of the historical truth that First World War historians have been uncovering for a while now. Yes, there is a strong sense of disenchantment with the pettifogging rules and obsessions of the military with cleanliness (a theme that is very familiar from the numerous letters and memoirs that have formed the bulk of my research to date). And there is horror and pity and fear, particularly in evidence in the death of Oh Nine Morgan, but such emotions are only part of Christopher’s story. There is no disillusionment, at least not disillusionment with why he is fighting. Groby and Michael and above all Valentine, even the formal propriety of his marriage are still implicitly worth fighting for. And if they are not it is because they have already been undermined by social hypocrisy that predates the war, not simply because of his experience of warfare.
Much of this, of course, is inherent to the narrative. In my Everyman copy of the tetralogy the entire time in the trenches takes up 110 pages out of a total of 906. The focus of the novels is on the sense of continuity that Christopher embodies and the stresses that modern life place on his seventeenth-century rectitude. It is in choosing to remain loyal to this theme rather than attempting to shoe-horn the books into a more familiar understanding of what makes a First World War novel that this production is such a triumph.
All of which made me think of the BBC’s other big First World War adaptation this year. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel about the war, was adapted by Abi Morgan and broadcast in January to a good deal of acclaim. As with any television adaptation, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed to the time scale, here two hour-and-a-half long episodes. Morgan removed an entire subplot concerning a young woman researching her family history, an editorial decision that worked well in creating narrative coherence. However, she also chose to seriously underplay another subplot concerning the relationship between the sapper Jack Firebrace and his son, John, who dies of diphtheria during the course of the novel. It does get a brief mention but has nowhere near the emotional impact that it has in the novel where it beautifully illustrates the continuing relationship between home and fighting fronts that was so powerful a motivation for men to fight and continue fighting. Instead, the television play’s narrative chooses to focus on the disjunction between a golden idyll of passion in prewar France and the mud, blood and horror of the trenches in the same geographic area six years later. The war is a space solely of horror and disillusion and the only motive for fighting is the sense that the protagonist has nothing left to live for. This is the more traditional view of the war dramatized by many modern war novels, yet as a narrative it is much less powerful than that of Parade’s End. So while I enjoyed Birdsong (and thought that Joseph Mawle was excellent as Firebrace), it had nothing like the effect on me that Parade’s End is having. Whether that will continue to be true next week, when Tietjens actually enters the trenches, remains to be seen.
(I do realise that I got a little ahead of myself in my last post in saying that this past week’s episode dramatises A Man Could Stand Up -. It was, of course the second half of No More Parades, which means we are going to get very little, or a highly truncated version, of Last Post, which is a pity. As I say, there are always sacrifices to be made in adapting for television.)