The BBC is currently screening a new costume drama about the Pre-Raphaelites called Desperate Romantics. It seems a useful peg on which to hang a few observations about the contemporary digimodernist conception of the past. Desperate Romantics is symptomatic of a trend in historical drama, and the points I am going to make apply just as easily to other recent TV series such as Rome, The Tudors, and Life on Mars as well as Hollywood productions like The Mummy or Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
Fredric Jameson famously identified the nostalgia film as one of the central instances of 1970s-80s postmodernism. In a world where “history”, or the sense of the past feeding into the present in a continuous cycle, is lost, it can only be evoked as something fossilized, stylized, and mourned: as frozen in aspic, transformed into fashion, and suffused with melancholic longing for what is now irretrievable. Desperate Romantics, on the other hand, could scarcely be more different in its approach to the past. It’s self-consciously tongue-in-cheek, as its joky title and nod to the series Desperate Housewives attests; a disclaimer at the start of each episode warns us that certain fanciful liberties have been taken with the historical record. But inaccuracy is not the issue here.
In short, Desperate Romantics recreates the 1850s as the 2000s in vintage clothing. As Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt stride heartily along London streets with their long hair flowing and their youthful eyes ablaze, they do look, as one reviewer commented, like a contemporary boy band about to burst into song. But whereas postmodernism might have richly played past and present off each other, as Blackadder or Back to the Future did, Desperate Romantics swamps its nominal past with the actual present. The cast move and talk like present-day Oxbridge graduates dressed in old-style clothes; no attempt is made to mimic the stiffness or formality portrayed in Victorian novels. The average viewer is given the impression that the painters were no more interested in or informed about art history and literature than s/he is. Their speech foregrounds present-day sexual frankness: they openly discuss their “virginity”, Effie Ruskin casually reminds her husband of when he “cupped my breast” – genteel characters have an easy sexual discourse that in 1850s’ England would only have been voiced by a prostitute. In a reversal of actual dominant ideology, Victorian repression is depicted as peripheral or as a joke: Tom Hollander’s Ruskin is uptight and anguished, but also ludicrous and marginal. The implication, as conceited as it is historically untrue, is that interesting and worthwhile people in the past were tolerant (open to other classes, genders, races), free (in sex and discourse), and indistinguishable from ourselves. Anyone else is comic relief.
Similarly, in Life on Mars a 2006 policeman travelled back to 1973 to discover that he was more knowledgeable (he knew everything they knew, but they didn’t know, for instance, that Britain would soon have a woman Prime Minister), more tolerant (towards women and ethnic minorities), and less technologically advanced (in forensic science) than his parents’ generation. They and their world are uglier, their food is worse, and so on. This assumption of unearned temporal superiority is partly explained as a product of the brain of a particularly self-confident individual lying in a coma; and though it cannot be articulated, the lost qualities of 1973 are finally inchoately felt in the show’s conclusion. On the whole, the present strides through Life on Mars’s 1973 like a messiah of knowledge, tolerance, and taste come to redeem the benighted heathen.
Some of the superiority of the present day here is well founded, of course, especially the advances in forensics and equality. Moreover, it is as long-standing a human trait to feel that one’s generation is better than its predecessors as it is to imagine one’s culture better than foreign ones. Since the early 19th century people have complacently enjoyed the myth that all pre-Colombian Europeans believed the earth was flat: if humans like to construct other societies as “backward”, they relish setting their invidious constructions in distant times as well as in remote lands. Life on Mars’s temporal superiority complex becomes limiting and unsatisfactory, while Desperate Romantics – which would like to see itself as a “romp” – displays a general indifference to the pastness of the past.
Essentially, it assumes that if 1850s Victorians are not like us, they are of no value or interest – they are, like Ruskin, cartoonish, grotesque, screwed-up. They need people like us to come among them and save them – real people, good people, normal people. This missionary premise was memorably dramatized as long ago as 1998 by the film Pleasantville, where the present day magically invests the 1950s with sexual fulfilment, personal freedom, and racial and gender equality. Pleasantville is closer to postmodernism in its treatment of the past, but the move beyond nostalgia, beyond fossilization and mourning, was already apparent. The present is here become arrogant, imperialistic, totalizing, and deluded: be as us, it proclaims, or be wrong, stupid, dull, unhappy or wicked. Such films and TV series are, then, morality plays in which, by living now, we are guaranteed to be the goodies: it is time that tells.