As literary scholars, book lovers, and participants in popular culture, we are conditioned to become “well-read”. But what weight does the established canon really hold? What is the reward for pursuing literature that is widely lauded as a “great book”?
The arguments against the Western literary canon are well-rehearsed. The Canon is dominated by the Dead White Male, with a smattering of token female authors, authors of colour, authors with disabilities. It’s a gatekeeper: people who aren’t familiar with the Canon are excluded from our cultural conversations, because they don’t really know about books. It trains us to extend endless sympathy to angry white men and none at all to … anyone else.
The Canon is the guy at the party who won’t stop talking about Dude Books, but has never read Pride and Prejudice (and yet has an argument about why it’s not a great literary work). The Canon makes you read everything he thought was good when he was fourteen, but leaves every book you lend him on his bedside table, untouched. Every time you struggle through one of his Dude Books, two more appear, like the heads of the Hydra. Admittedly, sometimes they’re good, but they’re not Zadie Smith good.
The Canon is inside my head, like the Phantom of the Opera, if the Phantom of the Opera did not offer singing advice but instead just exhorted you to read Dostoyevsky.
The Canon is a bad boyfriend, so why is it so hard to break up with it?
I know, intellectually, that these Lists are restrictive, limiting the stories we read and talk about and write, that they arise from power structures I don’t want to uphold. But letting go of the Great Books is more frightening than liberating. If I admit that I think Restoration drama is uniformly terrible* and will never like Wordsworth, then who will present me with a great big trophy and universal approbation for finally being a Well-Read Individual?
There are the stories in the Canon, and then there’s the story of the Canon: the lie that running on the hamster wheel of European thought makes you some kind of literary Ubermensch, that there is only one way to cultural competence and only one culture worth being competent in.
I know this, and yet a set of leatherbound classics still makes my pupils dilate in a Pavlovian reaction. There is no prize for being ‘well-read’, but so much of my early formation, as a reader, a critic, a person, was staked on the premise that there might be.
Is it enough to see the Canon for the arbitrary racket it is, to choose instead the company of authors I love, who speak to me? To catch myself before I ask someone else, with reflexive incredulity, “You haven’t read any Auden?” Or do I need to delete the Canon’s number from my phone and start again, building my own Great Books from scratch? Can I finally ghost on The Faerie Queene?
Historical advisors make sure the era-specific details of television and film are portrayed authentically. Using Downton Abbey as a case study, we examine the various aspects they consider when recreating a time period.
The approach of fall, and later winter, inevitably means one thing: More time indoors = more television = more period dramas.
In mainstream media, historical television has gained traction in recent years, with shows like Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders, Poldark, Mad Men, and The Crown gaining cult followings. As a historian, I love a good period drama, since watching a fictional recreation of an era is one of the best ways to learn about it. Of course, being a historian means I’m also hung up on accuracy.
Did you know there’s a specific job in which people ensure period dramas are accurate? Those magical people are called historical advisors.
Not every show has one, but I’d like to argue the importance of such a role. In the most miniscule ways, historical dramas give viewers a vivid impression of life in a specific era. The details simply provide a backdrop for the overarching narrative, but if incorrect, they undermine the story and realism of the series. I’ve highlighted five key elements a historical advisor must oversee to help interpret history for television and produce a credible period drama. In the interest of time, all examples come from Downton Abbey, whose historical advisor Alastair Bruce has spoken publicly about his role.
Setting, set design, and technology
Set in Edwardian England, Downton Abbey follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the eponymous great house. We’re treated with an (albeit rose-tinted) illustration of British society and its evolution from 1912 through 1926. It’s important that these shows capture setting in a way that transports viewers while avoiding anachronisms. Sets must be dressed with care, including items such as telephones, musical instruments, and furniture to highlight technological advances of the time.
Costuming, dress codes, and wardrobe etiquette
Perhaps the most universally enjoyed element of historical drama is the fashion. Historical advisors should ideally work with costume designers for accuracy, since clothing leaves a lasting overall impression. In an upstairs-downstairs series like Downton, the frequent act of the staff dressing their employers demonstrates how garments were worn. Alastair Bruce famously intervened in a scene in which newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle shakes hands with Cora Crawley with his glove on. According to Bruce, gentlemen would always remove a glove before shaking hands.
Mannerisms, accents, and speech
Downton Abbey is located in Yorkshire, but you won’t hear the upper-crust Crawleys speaking with northern accents. Actress Michelle Dockery, who normally speaks with an Essex accent, had to adopt a measured drawl to convincingly play the aloof Lady Mary. Conversely, you’ll find the belowstairs staff using coarser dialects. Historical advisors must ensure consistency as well as monitor word choice in scripts, as some words weren’t commonly used yet. Physical mannerisms likewise illustrate character; the Crawleys and their peers would walk rigidly upright while the working class characters have a different gait, especially when relaxing “off-duty”. These details may seem insignificant to viewers, but when employed they can help teach us the nuances of how our forebears lived.
Gender, race, sexual orientation, and class politics
Often, dynamics between people from different stations in life drive the tension in period dramas. Any good period drama will highlight change, usually in the form of innovation, social causes, and cultural shifts. It’s essential that historical advisors allow writers to capitalize on these changes without sacrificing legitimacy. In a series like Downton Abbey, where men and women of varying status and motivations interact in a large house, there are specific protocols which historically would have been followed – and which Alastair Bruce had to emphasize during filming.
Society, nationalism, trends, and overarching historical context
The wider historical backdrop is the linchpin. It shapes the characters’ outlook, values, and knowledge (How do they understand the world? What has happened at this point, and what is yet to come? Are they racist? Probably). National context, such as British sentiment during World War I, was crucial to understand while writing Downton. This is one area I feel Bruce and writer Julian Fellowes falter – not in the overall context, but in the mindsets of their characters. The Crawleys are astonishingly progressive for conservative landowners; certain characters exhibit a surprising lack of prejudice, which at times breaks the carefully crafted personas from their vantage point of a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, the motivation was undoubtedly to foster empathy, which in a television series is understandable.
With prior knowledge of Fellowes’ planned storylines before each season, Bruce conducted preliminary research using specific case studies – in this case, country houses in England – to determine the aspects of life in a country estate like the fictional Downton Abbey. He then advised on the finer elements of the story’s execution.
As someone who writes historical fiction, I can relate. I’ve always found the storyline to be the core of a project – the steering wheel, so to speak – while the research, the actual historical facts, are the engine. The creator is the driver. In period television, the writer and historical advisor must copilot the vehicle if they are to arrive smoothly at their destination: a polished, realistic period drama that will appeal to laymen and historians alike.* Granted, Downton Abbey is certainly not without its critics (myself included when it comes to the later seasons), but the showrunners’ meticulous attention to detail does it credit.
*Fans of Downton Abbey will hopefully forgive me for my tactless use of a car metaphor – it just came to me as I went. Trust me, I know it’s a sore spot, as I myself haven’t quite gotten over The Incident from the 2012 Christmas special…
Period dramas often fudge the accuracy of historical costumes, resulting in possible misconceptions and a flawed feel. But what happens when a series puts the work into capturing period-specific attire?
Let’s talk about a trope I am resentfully fascinated by: inaccurate fashion in historical films. Many such films reflect the standards of attractiveness at the time they were made, often at the expense of historical accuracy.
Let’s start off our look at film examples with Disney. Snow White (1937) has a tidily-curled bob; the accentuated waists of Cinderella’s (1950) gowns evoke Christian Dior’s “New Look”; Ariel (1989) sports voluminous bangs and a wedding dress with sleeves that Princess Diana would approve of; Rapunzel’s (2010) side-part and gently-waved straight hair look very stylish for the late 2000s.
An example from the Golden Age of Cinema is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. While the costumes of the film revel in lavish stylings of antebellum American Southern dress, Vivien Leigh’s bright red lipstick and sculpted eyebrows belong more in 1939 than 1860.
It’s easy to see this convention in 1980s films. Check out the perm on the 1940s mother in A Christmas Story, or EVERYONE in Dirty Dancing, which is ostensibly set in the 1960s.
This trend is especially jarring when inconsistently applied in a film. The love interest in the 1996 French film Ridicule has straight hair, thick bangs, and simple make-up, but the unsympathetic characters of the French court look more accurate. A male example from the 90s would be Jack from Titanic, who has boyishly-floppy locks parted in the middle. Villain Cal, however, looks more period-appropriate. Clearly the film creators were okay with maintaining less-flattering historical looks for antagonistic characters, but not heroes.
This illustrates that anachronistic costuming choices are not necessarily borne from laziness. In addition to making main characters look attractive and sympathetic, inaccurate fashion can also help convey aspects of character. The titular character in Marie Antoinette (2006) owns a pair of Converse sneakers to emphasize that she is a childish teenager. A Knight’s Tale puts leading lady Jocelyn in punk-rock hairstyles to illustrate her rebelliousness.
Anachronistic fashion doesn’t have to be sloppy. But when accuracy is taken into account, the results are worth it.
Take the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries. The tightly-curled hair might look funny at first, but it adds to the detailed Regency environment, the elements of which come together to bring Jane Austen’s world vibrantly to life.
Mad Men is a recent triumphant example. The actors are decked out in proper attire right down to their undergarments, as costume designer Janie Bryant understood how important this detail was to creating 1960s silhouettes. Here, historical accuracy is not exclusive with creativity, as costuming on Mad Men also reflect the characters’ personalities.
These examples use costuming not to make the characters look attractive to modern sensibilities, but to fully immerse viewers in the period. If anything else, shouldn’t film be immersive?
When we visit a wax museum, we’re usually prepared for a couple of duds that look nothing like they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s due to the levity of such a space – after all, what purpose do wax museums serve apart from the fleeting amusement of seeing celebrities’ likenesses up close?
However, with commemorative likenesses such as statues, busts, or paintings meant to immortalize public figures, there’s a lot more to it. A grossly inaccurate portrayal could be damaging to a person’s public image, and depending on the nature of the commemoration, may be seen as unflattering or even disrespectful.
Take footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous bust, which was unveiled at Madeira Airport in Portugal last year. The bust was mercilessly ridiculed and made the subject of numerous memes, to the point that the artist had to redo it.
Admittedly, famous individuals like these are exposed to these depictions by the very nature of their existence – they’re well-known, so people are going to make fun of them, whether it’s creating unflattering portrayals or vocally enjoying such parodies. That doesn’t make it right or excusable, especially if the public figure is a good person (if they aren’t, well, have at it!). Nevertheless, the fact remains that famous people lose the ability to regulate their public perception. The same goes for unauthorized biographies and the like – there isn’t much that can be done to prevent these interpretations unless someone wants to sue for libel.
The new, sleek Ronaldo statue reflects what we’re conditioned to expect when it comes to commemorative statues, though – a public monument is no hokey wax figure. We seem to expect accuracy and a display of strength or nobility in these types of depictions, which is why more gutsy interpretations often get shot down. Yet we can’t pull the plug on artists’ interpretations altogether. To do so would be to rob artists of their style and create a mild form of censorship that could inhibit creative thinking. (Whether we want to foster “creativity” when it comes to portraying likenesses for public commemoration is another question altogether).
Still, that won’t stop me from expressing my dislike for what I call the “Paper Airplane Portrayal” of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Cristiano Ronaldo is one thing – as an athlete, he doesn’t carry the same kind of significance that a former national leader might. So King’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa seems even more bizarre to me, since I would expect him to look a bit less cartoony and more like the other statues on the Hill. Sculptor Raoul Hunter was aiming to convey King’s forcefulness as a leader, according to this page on the Government of Canada website explaining the interpretations of the statues. The other monuments on the Hill portray their subjects more proportionately, whereas King can only be described as abstract. His monument makes me laugh at him a little, which, applied in the context of public office, is surely a less desirable outcome.
Irrespective of whether we can gauge the accuracy of monuments beyond personal preference, discussing the issue tells us what we value as a society on a surface level. Commemorative monuments rely on context and setting to construct a noble or attractive memory of a person (often a man, statistically speaking) and their contributions in life. Let’s just hope that if we do anything noteworthy, the sculptor chosen to portray us won’t get too weird with it.
Some Harry Potter readers today complain that J.K. Rowling’s universe is not accurately diverse enough. Population research yields an interesting dialogue about the demographics in the series, but representation is an even more complex issue.
I’m about to do something which may surprise you: I’m going to criticize Harry Potter.
During my life I’ve spoken with many friends about my favourite book series, and in the last few years especially, the issue of diversity often looms large.
In Harry Potter the possibilities for discussing diversity are endless, from ethnicity, to LGBTQ+ inclusion, to gender, to species.
Today, I’d like to talk specifically about ethnic diversity. Why are there only, like, five* non-white kids at Hogwarts? (*Seven, but who’s counting?) The fact that there are so few minority characters isn’t ideal for the most popular book franchise of the twenty-first century so far. Even in the 1990s when the Harry Potter books are set, shouldn’t there be more diverse characters to represent the society the novels portray?
I definitely thought so… and then I embarked upon some research for this article and found this thread on Reddit, in which a fellow fan argues that the Harry Potter universe accurately reflects the ethnic demographic of the United Kingdom at the time. In the census for 1991, the year Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins, 94.1% of Britons identified themselves as white, 5.9% as non-white.* (I don’t think the census asked about mixed ethnicity, since it was the first UK census to collect information about ethnic background.)
With the 40 students in Harry’s year (5 of whom are non-white), that places the white population at 90% and the non-white population at 10%, which is actually almost double the proportion of non-white people in Britain at the time. What?!
Indisputably, Harry Potter is a product of its time. Though author J.K. Rowling’s illustrated demographic fits the temporal setting of the story, it doesn’t accurately represent its readers, who span the world over. Readers aren’t going to see the current population (of either Britain or the world) represented in the novels; they’re going to see the population of Britain 20 years ago. And with such a diverse present-day audience, we’re now left with a disparity in terms of ethnic representation.
I would therefore argue that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the number of non-white characters featured in the story, but rather the significance J.K. Rowling gives (or doesn’t give) them in the narrative. Let’s count the confirmed non-white students mentioned at Hogwarts in the books:
How many of these students have a major part in the story? None, really.
Cho Chang, Harry’s one-time love interest, features prominently in Order of the Phoenix but isn’t central to the other books. Rowling has received major criticism for her portrayal of Cho, with accusations of cultural ignorance in choosing her name, negatively depicting the only East Asian character in the books, and more.
Dean Thomas, who is Black, is consistently present as one of Harry’s friends; he shares a dormitory with Harry and Ron and dates Ron’s sister Ginny for most of Half-Blood Prince. Dean has a rich backstory which was originally included in the books but didn’t survive the editor’s cuts. His story, in which he eventually learns his wizard father was killed fleeing the Death Eaters (Lord Voldemort’s followers), was omitted in favour of Neville Longbottom (a white character, interestingly) avenging his parents after Death Eaters tortured them into insanity.
The whiteness of Harry Potter goes beyond Hogwarts, too. Kingsley Shacklebolt, a Black wizard who is a powerful Auror and future Minister for Magic, is praised throughout the last three books, but he’s still a fairly minor character. There are also no identified South Asian characters in the Harry Potter universe apart from the Patil twins, and Latin American characters are non-existent.
All the main characters in Harry Potter are white. We’ve gone over historical demographics, but we should be asking a critical question here: why didn’t Rowling write any of the main characters, or even the major supporting characters, non-white?
After Hermione was portrayed as Black in the broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a play that was approved, but not written, by Rowling), the author stated on Twitter that she “loves black Hermione”. I personally feel that Rowling latched onto the casting to retroactively interpret her novels as more inclusive than they were when she wrote them. Yes, she supports diversity now, but my reading of Rowling’s character descriptions has me convinced that she never wrote Hermione as non-white.*
It’s easy to approve a casting choice and take credit for diversity, but it’s a pretty passive act. In terms of the heavy lifting, Rowling hadn’t originally made strides to portray ethnic diversity in her books. Given all we’ve considered, that seems fair since she wrote the books in the 1990s – even in 2001 when the first film was released, Britain was still 90.9% white. Nevertheless, the later films, made 15 to 20 years after the books take place, haven’t increased ethnic diversity in the casting despite the chance to broaden the demographic for a contemporary audience. And it doesn’t change the fact that none of the non-white characters were given major roles in the books.
Are questions of ethnicity more prevalent here in Canada (and the United States)? Possibly, since both nations were built on mass immigration. Does that mean North American readers scrutinize diversity more than those in Europe or worldwide? Maybe.
What do you think? Should the Harry Potter films have tried to reflect today’s population to bridge the gap between the whiteness of Britain in the 1990s and its current demographic? Should we throw accuracy out the window? Going forward, what should the cast of spinoffs like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them look like? Are J.K. Rowling’s efforts at diverse representation tokenistic, or am I not giving her enough credit?
Who knows, maybe in 20 years we’ll get a remake that fulfills all its potential for representation, and the concept of a “diversity quota” will be so outdated that it’s laughable. Only time will tell.
*As of the last census in 2011, 81.9% of the British population identified as White British.
*My reasoning regarding Hermione’s race, and my argument that J.K. Rowling is opportunistically interpreting her past work, is as follows:
“Hermione’s white face was sticking out from behind a tree.” This quote from Prisoner of Azkaban describes Hermione in a state of fear, and while it may be a turn of phrase for a stricken expression, it seems odd to describe a Black person having a white face no matter how bloodless or pale they’ve gone. There are countless other ways to describe fear or panic.
“… Ron looking incredibly freckly, Hermione very brown, both waving frantically…” Ron and Hermione have both just returned from holidays in sunny places; Ron from Egypt, Hermione from France. I’m certain Rowling is describing Hermione’s tan here, which implies that her “very brown” face is darker than her original skin tone.
Hermione appears as white in book covers. J.K. Rowling has the power to veto such a portrayal if it is inaccurate, and as Hermione’s race is such major difference, I’m sure she would have noticed and corrected it.
Rowling approved white actress Emma Watson’s casting as Hermione for the films despite overriding other more minor character details (she told writers to remove a line where Dumbledore mentions a girl he once dated, since Dumbledore is gay!). She would have instructed casting directors of Hermione’s appearance.
This sketch by Rowling, like all others by her, depicts Hermione with fair skin.