Nostalgia – Part 2

“The past is not dead; it is living in us and will be alive in the future, which we are now helping to make.” – William Morris

In Part One of my nostalgia-themed article, I pointed out that the cult for nostalgia is not new, discussing the Victorian predilection for an idyllic past as exemplified through the illustrations of Kate Greenaway.

This week, in Part Two, I will be exploring the contemporary predilection for all things historical. This is a phenomenon we find expressed in the popularity of vintage clothing, and ‘retro’ styles of music, but which is perhaps most interestingly expressed in the popularity of the ITV1 series, Downton Abbey.

Cast of Downton Abbey

Fashion and popular music have always inclined towards the referential, invoking familiar sounds and images that hark from different eras. Treating the past as a vast shopping centre from which one can annex any style one chooses and reproduce it in a consciously ironic reference lies at the heart of post-modernity, to cite an over-used phrase. It is what one might call conspicuous irony.

Madonna has achieved precisely this type of relentless referentiality throughout her musical career. Her video for Vogue, released in 1990, was a pastiche of Marlene Dietrich in the film noire genre and her 1989 video for Express Yourself was a direct reference to the Fritz Lang film, Metropolis. 

Marlene Dietrich and Madonna

There is, however, a fundamental difference between this type of post-modern referentiality – self-conscious and ironic in essence – and the simple nostalgic yearning to return to an idyllic past. The post-modern sensibility is one in which there is a disenchantment with meaning.

The current leaning towards nostalgia is closer to what can be described as pre-modern, since it expresses a simple desire to revisit a time, or times, that have passed; not in order to repudiate or subvert meaning, but to recover it.

The pre-modern sensibility is more to do with taking a stand against the modern world, or expressing disenchantment with it and it is my belief that we are evolving from a post-modern culture into one that is pre-modern. That is, we have become disenchanted with disenchantment. The endless reproduction of images dissociated from their original meaning so beloved of an ironic post-modern sensibility is, ultimately, unnerving and disorientating because as human beings we have a basic need to discern meaning in our lives.

The success of ITV1’s Downton Abbey, for example, has nothing to do with irony and everything to do with the type of pre-modern nostalgia that yearns to return to a time when things seemed to make more sense.

Of course the catalyst for this current nostalgic mood is the recession. Times of economic uncertainty cause us to become introspective and nervous about the future. Instead, we retreat to the relative comfort of the past, which seems rosier and cosier than our bleak present.

Economic uncertainty can also make us feel cast adrift, unsure of our place in the great scheme of things and as we struggle to comprehend how the Western World got itself into such a mess, we may wonder if the phenomenon of the economic boom is becoming a thing of the past.

The past, of course, is a non-threatening place. We already know what the past is, or we think we do. The future, on the other hand is, as Shakespeare would say, “that undiscovered country,” an unknown place that, in times of recession, can become a terrifying one.

It is of particular note that in the equally economically depressing 1970s – also a time of recession – there was the power shortage; the oil crisis of 1973, when the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath imposed a three day week as an emergency measure. During this time, there was a plethora of period dramas such as Poldark, The Onedin Line, Flambards, and of course, Upstairs, Downstairs. 

Cast members from Upstairs Downstairs

The fashion for period dramas says much about our collective fears, our cultural aspirations and perceptions. The Edwardian era, in which Downton Abbey is set, was a time before the world changed irrevocably, before the carnage of the First World War, when the collective consciousness of the nation was still relatively naïve and idealistic.

In Edwardian times, the climate of optimism and innovation so characteristic of the Victorian era was still very much in evidence, as the Edwardians lived through a host of new-fangled innovations: the automobile, electricity, the telephone, central heating.

Indeed, there are some amusing scenes in Downton Abbey where characters struggle to cope with new inventions. Carson, the butler, has no idea how to use the newly installed telephone and holds it the wrong way round, then jumps out of his skin when the operator comes onto the line.

Downton Abbey's Carson played by Jim Carter

It is easy to see why, as well as envying what we perceive as their comparative complacency, we might identify with the Edwardians. They struggled to adjust to their new world much as we have struggled to ours – in our case, grappling with the complexity of computers in the often too-rapid advancement of technology; coping with the consciousness shifts brought about by global capitalism.

Like us, the Edwardians lived and worked in an uncertain, ever-changing world, in which the everyday lives of ordinary men and women were being revolutionised, both economically and culturally. The Edwardian world, contrary to popular belief in the myth of the Long Summer – was not a stable and secure one, but one fraught with protests and strikes. It saw the rise of the working man, through the founding of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions, as well as the long and often violent struggles of the Suffragette movement, which by the First World War, had secured votes for women.

Yet somehow our lives seem so much more troubled and uncertain than those of our Edwardian predecessors. It is not with irony that we follow the story of Downton Abbey’s cast of characters, but with a sentimental and perhaps rather self-indulgent fondness for times past, for ‘better’ times.

Until the recession ends, if it ever does, our days of conspicuous irony are over.

Images reproduced from madblackcat.com, thepixeljunkie.blogspot.com, guardian.co.uk and itv.com

Nostalgia – Part 1

We live, it would seem, in nostalgic times. Clothing now hailed as the height of fashion by critics and fashionistas, is more often than not, derivative of earlier times; usually the 1960s and seventies, sometimes earlier. Often this is regarded by cultural critics as referentiality; a self-conscious and ironic invocation of the past through the replication of familiar images, known as post-modernism, in which nothing is produced, merely reproduced. Yet behind such post-modern referentiality is a longing for better times that is anything but “ironic”. In Part Two of this article I will be exploring this contemporary tendency towards nostalgia, in the light of the success of period dramas such as Downton Abbey.

Nostalgia, however, is nothing new. From the mid-nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution, which urbanised the English landscape through expanding cities and the building of new factories, gave rise to a growing nostalgia for times past and for a forsaken rural idyll.

No artist epitomises this reflective mood better than the children’s illustrator and writer, Kate Greenaway. Greenaway harked back to the eighteenth century for the inspiration for her character’s clothing, drawing her ideas from the empire line dresses and pantaloons fashionable during this period. 

Kate Greenaway

Greenaway’s idyllic childhood paved the way for the idealistic portrayals of childhood depicted in her paintings and illustrations. To this day, Greenaway’s romantic rural images, of immaculately attired children playing in lush gardens on perfect summer days, symbolise a yearning for a lost innocence which while seeming a little sentimental in our cynical times, nevertheless still speaks volumes about the English attitude to landscape, essentially one of melancholia and loss.

Born in London in 1846 to an artist father and a mother who ran a gift shop, Greenaway, along with the painter Helen Allingham, was one of the most successful female painters of her day. Greenaway studied at the Slade School of Art, after which she began producing illustrations and had her first exhibition in 1868, at the tender age of twenty-two, which included a watercolour and a series of illustrations for fairy stories. Following this, interest in her work was such that she received a commission from the editor of the People’s Magazine. This led to her being asked to illustrate Christmas and Valentine cards for a company called Marcus Ward. These designs secured her further commissions and she began to achieve a modicum of success as a freelance illustrator and by 1871 her annual income amounted to just over seventy pounds, by 1877 this had reached around three hundred pounds. In addition she held exhibitions at the Royal Academy, as well as taking in regular commissions from the famous London Illustrated News.

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamlin

Her partnership in 1878 with Edmund Evans, ostensibly the finest engraver in London, led to the production of her first children’s book, Under the Window. This secured her position as the most famous illustrator of the Victorian age and by 1881 her annual income was in the region of £1,500, not a lot of money by modern standards but a sizeable amount in late Victorian times.

A study of her work reveals a surprisingly broad plethora of influences. While at an immediate glance we discern a traditional and rather sentimental Victorian fussiness, upon closer inspection this use of detail and sense of design owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic movement, both popular artistic fashions of the time. Her passion and the prevailing subject of her paintings was nature and the study of the natural world, a factor which aligned her with artists such as Rossetti and Lord Leighton, key figures in the pre-Raphaelite movement.

Greenaway led a relatively sheltered life and did not travel much, a factor which is reflected in her quintessentially English drawings, though she was friends with some of the greatest artists of her day, including the poets Browning and Tennyson, as well as the cultural critic John Ruskin, whose ideas would later influence Oscar Wilde.

One of Greenaway’s most interesting legacies is her influence upon children’s fashions. The high-wasted empire gowns depicted in her illustrations and paintings became the fashion for those who liked to dress their children in historic clothing. This paved the way for a romanticised ideal of childhood, in which freedom and play, expressed through the physical freedom of the loose flowing gowns, became central to the notion of a lost innocence, of a forsaken childhood.

What is noteworthy here is the link between the “innocent” childhood and the “historical” style of the clothing in which the children are depicted. From an adult perspective and in the popular culture of the day, childhood is mapped as the lost idyllic past, a factor that is borne out by images of clothing that refers back to an earlier time.

May Day

When something – such as childhood, or landscape – is perceived as irretrievably lost it becomes idealised, like the Eden myth, and we are barred from returning to it by the proverbial flaming sword. It gives rise to a yearning – to what I have elsewhere described as a “wound of lost community” (The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde, A Cultural Afterlife, Lutterworth Press, 2007) – a longing to be elsewhere; to be in a better place, somewhere other than here and now. Because we human beings are quixotic creatures we buy into the myth of the perfect past, of the lost Eden.

These days, Kate Greenaway’s paintings, along with those of her contemporary, Helen Allingham, are often to be found hanging in pubs and hotels, teasing us with the promise of Eden with their images of happy children playing in meadows in flowing gowns. In our cynical times the child in the sunny meadow is still a powerful image, one that resonates powerfully with those who lament the erosion of the natural environment and the ever expanding metropolis.