Historical Accuracy vs. Storytellers: The Case of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has gotten a lot of flak this season, not the least of which centers on the violent rape of a main character. I don’t want to go into the whys and why nots of depicting a rape on television. What I want to address is a very specific concern viewers were having and what that concern means for writers. Some spoilers ahead in case you haven’t watched it yet.

Many people were outraged (here in the US, at least) that Anna didn’t report the rape, that she was more concerned about her husband finding out and going ballistic (on the guy, not her), and that the rape eventually became an emotional plot line for her husband, rather than an exploration of the recovery of a rape victim (a tactic apparently known as fridging as shown in this article). There is also some concern with the double standard pictured when a male is raped around the same time frame. He gets the woman fired and moves on with his life, seemingly unharmed. There are many, many, many more concerns out there, but these seem to be the most prominent.

As I said, I have a specific concern I want to address, and that is the issue of historical accuracy. 

As storytellers, we have the obligation to immerse ourselves into the worlds that we describe. The world in question here happens to be the 1920s English countryside, a much different place than 2014’s America. Now, we have ideas about how someone should handle a rape, and that mostly involves telling the police at the very least, or beating the crap out of the guy at the most. Historically, women, especially servants, were expected to deal with sexual assaults; it was a part of life for them. While unfortunate, it’s the truth. Women simply didn’t have the rights we have today.

Viewers of DA wish Anna would’ve known more self defense, would’ve told everyone immediately, would’ve called the police. She didn’t. Because that’s what most women would’ve done at that time. The problem with assuming Anna should’ve done these things is that we’re looking at the issue through 21st century goggles.

Is Anna’s reaction a how-to on handling a rape in 2014? Of course not.

Could the story line have concentrated more on her and less about sending her husband in to be the hero? Probably.

Could the writers have done a better job showing the emotional turmoil Anna experienced after the rape? Definitely.

But the writers ran with a story line that they probably knew would get some backlash, and portrayed their characters in a way that their historical advisers deemed accurate.

So, my question to you is should we, as storytellers, construe historical accuracy in order to please today’s viewers/readers/listeners? Should we have all our characters react in a progressive way? Should we make our conflict resolutions into a syllabus on how to behave in today’s world?

I have a BA in history. I’m one of those annoying people you hear complaining when the movie ends about how historically inaccurate it was. Given that, I like my historical drama to have historical characteristics. I want my historical characters to behave in a way that a real historical person would’ve behaved. I want history in my history.

Therefore, my reaction to Anna’s rape was as follows: the feminist in me freaked out and got extremely angry, while the historian in me was calm, realizing the reaction was historically accurate.

I don’t think that historical accuracy should be left by the wayside in order to keep from offending our delicate sensibilities. Learning about historical injustices is how we keep them from happening again. It’s how we measure how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got to go. It’s how we appreciate our past and how we honor the people who came before us, who were forced to live in conditions we would now deem deplorable. It’s how we remember. And sometimes it’s how we mourn.

I think it’s important when creating any kind of historical art to be as representative of the time period as you can possibly be, no matter how controversial the subject or how upset the consumer is with the outcome.

What do you think? Would you change historical details in order to keep your readers happy?

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