The following bit of advertising feels a bit awkward, as it is for my own paper, but the next meeting of the University of Leeds Legacies of War Seminar will take place on Thursday, 25th April at 5:15 in Room 3.11 Michael Sadler Building. I will be talking about the conflicts between a desire for masculine adventure and religious principles among the founders of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. All welcome.
About a month ago, I added my profile to The Women’s Room, an on-line resource connecting women’s expertise with the media. I also started following them on Twitter where guest tweeters host the account at different times each day. The result has been a number of interesting questions being asked, ranging from experiences of sexism in the workplace (and how it was handled) to favourite female singer/songwriter, questions which encouraged me (along with many other followers) to engage in conversation.
The result was interesting. Since I have started following the account I have not only picked up several new Twitter followers but also engaged in long discussions about both my current research and other subjects/passions/areas of expertise. I have sent an article I wrote to two people who would not have otherwise come across it and have been invited to contribute to a blog. And I have learned an awful lot – about intersectionality, media representations of women and female singer/songwriters, among other topics. Basically, my horizons have been broadened in a number of ways: this is social media networking at its best.
What really got me thinking, however, was the fact that all the people I was making direct connections with (although not all the people involved in the more general discussions) were women. And this is also true of another community I belong to, this one within Facebook, which is one of mothers of young children. Here too I have engaged in a number of horizon-broadening debates and discussions. It has also provided immense support at moments of parenting crisis and a space in which to discuss the bodily functions of small children that no one but another mother wants to hear about – ever.
Now, not all my networks are so dominantly (or indeed, exclusively) female. Both on line and in real life I interact regularly with men who challenge, engage and advise me. Yet is the predominantly female networks (again, in real life as well as on line) that have inspired my best ideas, helped me forge the most useful connections and, ultimately, been the greatest assistance in my construction (so far) of both my personal and professional identities.
In one way, this is encouraging. I am enough of a feminist to believe in the ability of the sisterhood to empower women, so to see practical application in my own life feels like vindication. At the same time, I worry about the potential for self-segregation. Yes, as a woman I need and am grateful for the support and the challenge of other women in a male-dominated world. But I am the mother of a son; I write about historical constructions of masculinity in the context of war. I need the expertise and engagement of men as well, and hopefully I can offer a unique perspective in return.
So here is my challenge to myself as I develop my networks, on line and in person, personal and professional: to keep on engaging successfully with networks like the Women’s Room and my parenting forum while working to ensure that my engagement with other communities is as fruitful. If I can succeed, I might just get this whole social media thing cracked.
So I started watching The Village last night, Peter Moffat’s new drama about a northern rural village over the course of the twentieth century. It began, when else, in the summer of 1914 (I am waiting for a course-of-the-twentieth-century drama that has the courage to begin with either the death of Victoria or the end of the Boer War!) although it managed to avoid most of the First World War clichés by the simple expedient of ending the episode with the departure of the first draft of volunteers.
There were some lovely moments. John Simm’s shame at the generosity (or patronage) of his neighbour in face of his drunken aggression, the dismissal of the unpleasant schoolmaster from the recruitment station for being too short, the use of a recruiting poster that was not the (anachronistic) Kitchener. The implication that Bert’s older brother enlists in order to escape from a life of subservience and drudgery, rather than from war enthusiasm was a particular pleasure. But overall the whole left me feeling uncomfortable. It has been sold as the anti-Downton Abbey, a dose of working-class reality in opposition to Julian Fellowes’s soft focus nostalgia for the upper classes and noblesse oblige. And there were certainly very few positive views of the upper classes, although the middle class (as represented by the nicer, taller schoolmaster and the vicar’s suffragette daughter) came off best. But in making the daughter of the local squire a sexually predatory halfwit, her mother a vicious snob and promoter of (literally) Victorian gender values and the squire himself a physically damaged recluse who forces his staff to turn their back on him when he passes, the caricature seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Nor did the working classes come off as any more real. Even with the skills of actors such as Simm and Maxine Peake, they never really gained more depth than ‘violent, drunken failed farmer’, ‘put-upon wife’ and ‘naive country girl’.
And then there was the focus on sex. Yes, the story is being told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, so such a focus can be justified. But did we really need quite so many scenes of voyeurism and sexual innuendo, culminating in a scene straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? The whole thing felt extremely Lawrentian, in fact, which coming from me is not particularly high praise. I do like some of Lawrence’s poetry (Snake is something of a favourite) but as a portrayer of class and sexual relationships in his fiction, I have always found him unconvincing. Or at least no more convincing than Fellowes’s historical world view.
Can there, then, be no middle way in how the past is portrayed in contemporary television drama? Are we condemned to see history either in terms of soft-focus nostalgia or sex-and-violence grimness? Parade’s End might point in another direction, having a satirical bite to its vision of the upper and upper-middle classes at war, although Ford’s portrayal of working class characters verges on the sentimental. And it was, of course, an adaptation of contemporaneous fiction rather than a contemporary fictionalization of history, a point which rather supports my on-going argument that the fictions of the past have as much to teach us about the times they were created in as any facts.
In short, I don’t know. I will carry on watching The Village, at least for the moment, but I will need a lot more convincing that this is the correct and necessary riposte to national and international obsession with Downton.