Fact Through Fiction
Never before has it been so important to investigate the way in which televised historical drama recreates and represents the past, for, as Robert Rosenstone (2003) acknowledges, “the increasing presence of the visual media in modern culture and the vast increase in TV channels seems to ensure that most people now get their knowledge of the past, once school is over, from the visual media” (p. 10). Therefore, this research uses the popular PBS Masterpiece Theatre program Downton Abbey as a case study to examine the accuracy of depictions of historical periods in contemporary television programs with the intent of discovering the impact of historical fiction on audiences’ perceptions of the past and, subsequently, on the collective memory of the public domain. Using a reception analysis approach, this research considers both producer-encoded and audience-decoded content within the four categories of (I) Setting, Details, and Design; (II) History; (III) Behavior; and (IV) Agenda, Values, and Effects outlined by Paul B. Weinstein (2001) to form conclusions concerning the relationship between the encoding and decoding of Downton Abbey, in particular, as well as the larger implications these findings have for televised historical drama and society’s collective memory, in general. Ultimately, this essay argues that through its precision of post-Edwardian detail, Downton Abbey attempts to construct a veil of accuracy behind which the series’ narrative is theoretically able to operate freely and without rigid constraint by history’s “hard and fast rules” (Fellowes, 2012a, p. 60). The findings also reveal an incongruity between this philosophy of encoding and the subsequent decoding process of Downton Abbey’s audience members. Finally, this study offers two potential functions historical drama may serve in contemporary society: as either a catalyst for historical inquiry or as a purveyor of distinctly modern, as opposed to historical, lessons.