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Genteel Escapism

by Emily Williams

February 9,2010

A few weeks ago, I saw a film that only a geeky gal like me could anticipate with such impatience: The Young Victoria, the new biopic revolving around Queen Victoria’s rise to the throne and her made-in-heaven marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. It struck a deep chord with me, as does any film about England, and it’s now on my favorites list (and the qualifications to get on this list are tough, believe me!). I’m able to enjoy films like this on several levels: the acting, the emotion it evokes, visual aesthetics, historical accuracy and the feminine aspects of the set design, namely the dresses and china patterns. At this point, it’s obvious this film was aimed at a female audience, because I doubt Limoges or satin gowns are all that important to the guys.

Hollywood knows by now how successful period films can be. Another of my favorite examples is Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. It’s based on the novel by Edith Wharton, because classic literature rarely fails at the box office. Every scene is bathed in opulence, showcasing the decadent lifestyle of the wealthy families of New York in the 1870s. The same goes for Titanic. Now we look disapprovingly on that kind of excess. Still, there’s a little something in all of that luxury that we can’t get enough of looking at or reading about.

Women probably love period pieces because of the grandeur, the costumes and the finery. We like looking at a time gone by when manners and refined sensibilities reigned. It’s one of the chick-flick principles. Yet, what you usually don’t see in those films or sometimes the novels they are based on are the working classes and labor mills that funded that lifestyle, which repulses us today, not to mention the wide gap between socio-economic classes. This is why the Titanic disaster remains a poignant emblem of a by-gone era when it was considered a punishable crime for a third-class passenger to cross physical paths with the first-class. No one wants to go back to that kind of pecking order. Society is no longer confined to rigid traditional ideas of breeding and wealth – not all together, at least. But with our freedom to be and do whatever we want, have we sacrificed something else?

I think the real reason we all savor watching films or reading novels set in the 19th century isn’t at all because of the ballroom scenes and powdered wigs. It functions as a means of escape, a glance at the quiet serenity that life once was before Jerry Springer and road rage. All of the little attributes we associate with the olden days – etiquette, calling cards, white gloves, modesty – seem quaint and insignificant to us now because of the culture we live in, where hardly any of that takes center stage. But it wasn’t too long ago when it did matter. Don’t believe me? Ask your Grandparents. They lived through it.

More than that, there may be tradeoffs as culture progresses – if progress is the word you want to use. With everyone complaining that we are so rude to each other or that we live in an uber-relaxed age where anything goes, it is any wonder that some of us long for the age of innocence? Personally, I would gladly wear asphyxiating whale-bone corsets on a daily basis if it meant not having to hear 10 year old boys casually swear like convicts in front of their parents, in public and no one bats an eyelash…not even their parents. There just comes a time when enough is enough in terms of the limits civilization makes for itself.

So, the hopeless romantics and history buffs convene at the Manor to dream in celluloid or read good literature. That doesn’t mean to say my nerdy brethren and I refuse to take part in the modern world. We’ve just grown disenchanted with it. So let’s have fun with it! Why else do re-enactors gather together at Civil War sites? I propose a return to a little gentility, now and again, to keep the spirit of a time long past alive and well, at least in our imaginations. It may perhaps be all we can do to prevent that spirit from dying out.

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