The past is a different country, not today in funny costumes

Melanie Pappenheim in Albarn's 'Dr Dee'

We all love a bit of history, don’t we? Lady Mary in Downton being terribly brave, the sexual intrigue of the Tudor court, the carnage of the Western Front, East-Enders having 15 kids in the 1950s, Gawd bless ‘em. It’s on the telly, innit? So it must be true.

But why do we watch? Do we really want to know what it was like? Do we think we already know? Or is it a bit like science-fiction, basically people like us but with interesting funny clothes on? I wonder.

I’d like to think I was a bit too intelligent to fall for the history-as-theme-park line, or that at the very least I ought to be able to deconstruct the narrative and work out a more or less authentic version behind it. But I wonder, sometimes.

A few months ago I saw Damon Albarn’s opera about John Dee, the Elizabethan mage, genius, conjurer – everyone had a different view on him. He thought he could talk to angels. He believed that numbers held the key to the universe, that the descendents of King Arthur (who was related to Elizabeth), had ended up forming colonies in America, that the North-West Passage actually existed and that someday it would be possible to turn base metals into gold. Ha ha. What a fruitcake.

The show, though long on spectacle, was somewhat vague on the biographical side, so I thought I’d check out a couple of books about Dee, and as it turned out, an old friend of my husband’s was writing one. He very kindly sent me the manuscript and I found it tough going. Okay, I’ll admit it, I didn’t get past the first couple of chapters. Anyway, the book is out now and I’ve managed to read it all the way through.

I say managed because I’ll admit it, it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. It didn’t go into day-to-day details about how Dee was taken in by his associate (I’d hesitate to call him friend) Edward Kelley, and eventually agreed to join him for a wife-swap. There was less than I’d have liked about his domestic arrangements at Mortlake, his wife and children. It was all about Tudor Court politics and how Dee wasn’t very good at it. In short, it was a scholarly book, not a popular biography, and very good it was, within those parameters. If you already know a bit about Dee, or about the period, I can recommend it highly.

But the thing I found most challenging was how very different people’s mental outlook was then. In many ways, they weren’t like us at all. They seriously believed the most extraordinary things. Queen Elizabeth truly thought that the Philosopher’s Stone and the distillation of base metal into gold would happen in her lifetime, that if she invested in the research she’d probably be able to make a fortune out of it. Magic wasn’t just something rather flaky and sensational, it was viewed seriously by the highest in the land. And many magicians used methods that would now be described as rigorously scientific, devoting years to painstaking study, experimentation and observation.

Despite my two degrees, I found it incredibly difficult to get into this mindset. To see people from four hundred years ago as inhabiting a very different intellectual landscape. I thought I knew all about the Reformation, but somehow I still expected early modern people to take seriously what I take seriously, or at least to be comprehensible to me. I was guilty of Hollywood-inspired historical laziness.

More balloons in Doctor Who, "Family of Blood"

It raises a worrying possibility. If we think people hundreds of years ago are basically like us, but wearing different clothes and eating different foods, if we ignore the things that make us feel uncomfortable, such as their casual racism, the belief that slavery is not simply tolerable but ordained by God, or the fact that doctors smoked in public in the 1950s, we’re being historical tourists. And that’s only one step away, maybe not even one, from regarding other peoples of the earth in a similar fashion. We make the serious mistake of thinking everybody’s basically the same.

I’ve studied Shakespeare at postgraduate level, so this argument is nothing new to me. People are always saying they love Shakespeare because he was a kind of eternal Everyman, somehow simply knowing the fundamental and unchangeable things about human nature. Well, yes and no. His observations on power would be recognisable to Prince Charles or David Cameron, but it’s worth remembering they still came from a place of believing that kings were divinely appointed to reign and that deposing them threatened the cosmic order, and that laws preventing people of a certain social class going around dressed in velvet were perfectly rational, indeed desirable. History is endlessly absorbing, but like science fiction (which historical dramas resemble in some respects), the way we produce and consume it says as much about us as about the people we purport to be watching or studying.

In history that’s likely to be consumed by children, this is particularly troublesome. Everyone has their strong views on what it isn’t appropriate for them to see. In an episode called The Idiot’s Lantern shown back in 2006, the Doctor and Rose ended up in an English suburb in 1953. Nobody smoked, because that wouldn’t be good for the kiddies to see. More seriously, though, a woman who was being bullied by her husband eventually kicked him out, with the Doctor’s full support, and this was shown as a good thing. Never mind that, back in the 1950s, social pressures kept working-class people in the most appalling marriages. Our particular period has selected the avoidance of unhealthy habits and the encouragement of female autonomy as being desirable values to pass on to the next generation.

As indeed they are. But, while someone over there is mentioning that the boy at the edge of the shot has the wrong haircut or that you never saw glasses like that in 1953, we’re blind to the fact that we have filtered the reality of life in a particular historical period through our own rose-tinted specs to give children a version of history that says a lot more about our values than the ones people had at that time. Values that will probably seem perverse or incomprehensible to people one hundred years from now.

As LP Hartley famously wrote, the past is a different country. They do things differently there.

The Arch-Conjuror of England, by Glyn Parry

Dr Dee, An English Opera

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