I pity anyone out there who happened to come across the BBC's serialisation of Death Comes to Pemberley without first having read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. This dreary adaptation of P.D.James's murder mystery sequel to the much loved novel is Regency plot colouring by numbers. It lacks any of the charm of the original being more long-winded and boring than Mr Collins on a bad day. There is no sense that anyone involved with the series has read anything more than a plot synopsis, while Austen's charming and memorable characters have become completely snooze inducing (dangerous for the stupefied post-Christmas audience).
It is the programme's bludgeoning of its viewers with history, however, which is most at odds with Miss Austen. Ironically, her novels are famous for ignoring the context in which they were written, giving them in some ways a strangely timeless quality; readers unfamiliar with the period can skate through them without constantly flicking to the footnotes like they might need to if it was an Eliot or a Dickens. By contrast this programme sought to establish its Regency credentials by reference to radical political movements and the French revolution. It is preoccupied with the harsh penal system and the consequences of extramarital sex. The sort of stuff that we would be interested in if we were a timetraveller to those ye olde times; the sort of things that we would get in a social history lesson of the period; not the sort of subject matter Austen ever concerned herself with. Next thing we know it'll be all using leeches and the ending of the slave trade.
Shows which take history as a backdrop often feel the need to include everything that popular culture assumes took place in that period. We end up with an un-ironic Forrest Gump approach to history. If you have a drama with an Edwardian background for example, one of the female characters will inevitably turn out to be a feisty suffragette. My grandmother pours scorn on portrayals of the so-called 'swinging sixties' in which characters are all high, sexually loose and listening to pop music as if this was all everyone did for those ten years. Not so much in the Northeast of Scotland.
Part of this preoccupation with 'issues' of the period is an attempt to redress the historical balance. It would be horrible to watch a film or a TV show in which disgusting racist or sexist views were happily endorsed by the characters without even a whimper of resistance. Yet sometimes this comes across as plainly unhistorical. Georgiana of Devonshire's character in the 2008 film The Duchess came out with some truly bizarre things. Like a Disney princess, she believed that the Duke of Devonshire, after one meeting, was choosing to marry her for true love, rather than as a commitment to the social system to which they belonged.
Making characters in a historical context have the same moral quandaries and values as a modern viewer means it is easier for us to empathise with them, but puts us in danger of losing a sense of reality. Automatically making the heroes and heroines believe in current day values like marriage for love or democratic government increases our tendency to assume that the principles of our society are universal. This is both untrue and complacent. It reinforces the belief that 'history' is a march of continual progress to the present which is seen as the peak of evolution, the absolute pinnacle of civilised man. The past becomes a way of justifying ourselves, ignoring all the very real problems that occur under liberty, equality and democracy.
As a result we may neglect a critique of our own era, sitting back smugly on our sofas. We fail to learn from the past and, in the process, to realise that the views and values we hold dear are not inevitable but the product of our society. And, whatever else you might say about Austen, she was excellent at observing people in their society. Although her works may not name-check historical events and her characters appear deceptively like us, Austen's novels are preoccupied with the effect of a particular society on a group of people. After all, it is by no means a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.