I’ve been following the skewering of this BBC1 period drama on Twitter and The Great War Forum with much interest. Ever since Downton’s second series, which was set during WWI, and the imminent centenary of WWI’s beginnings, my enthusiasm for this period has grown by leaps and bounds. I was excited when The Crimson Field (formerly titled The Ark) was first announced because of the dearth of period dramas–and histories in general–focused on women during the war. It’s only been within the past year or so that I’ve been able to find a plethora of information about VADs and other women’s units–though, granted, living in the US limits my access to primary sources at the fingertips of those who live in the UK! That said, the criticisms and inaccuracies noted in The Crimson Field are the result of creative license and the disrespect of women’s history.
The Great War Forum has one measly, mostly neglected sub-forum for women, a great majority of WWI websites I’ve encountered give a cursory glance at women’s roles, and some don’t bother to mention women at all! Save for Vera Brittain and her autobiography, Testament of Youth, pop culture has no room for women of WWI–and that’s a problem when it comes to how to shape and nurture images within viewers’ minds. I have first hand experience with the challenges of acclimating readers to new characters and a new setting, as I’ve discussed here. There’s an instinct to dump as much information as possible into the text in order to show readers “this isn’t the Regency!”, but all that does is intimidate a reader with a wall of text when all they want to do is fall in love with the characters and the story.
Now this is only my speculation, but IMO, the writers of The Crimson Field had to walk the delicate tightrope of familiarity and unfamiliarity. This is why you start with character archetypes and tropes, and this is also why you bend historical fact to accommodate the plot–and your target audience. I’m sure not all male-centered WWI dramas are 100% accurate, but the fact that their images have dominated the historical and pop culture landscape for the past 100 years have made them familiar with audiences. Ergo, WWI period dramas don’t have to work as hard to draw viewers in.
There has been much gnashing of teeth from people I respect and value (Sue Light!), but we’ve got to look at this from a popular, mass audience perspective. S2 of Downton Abbey, the BBC adaptations of Birdsong and Parade’s End, and now The Crimson Field, sent countless viewers in search of the real history behind these dramas, inaccurate or history bending though they were. When historians get bogged down in pedantry, that is when they lose the opportunity to breathe life into history and make it relevant to the curious layman. You also lose the opportunity to meet an audience where it is by sticking to insular circles (and you lose the ability to see things from different perspectives). If anything, the true tragedy would be for The Crimson Field to end and the interest in women’s WWI history to dry up for lack of resources. I’d rather there be a flourishing of fun websites and more books about women in WWI than ephemeral Twitter and forum conversations that won’t do a thing to rectify the invisibility of women’s history.
Will there be more stumbles and blunders in the future (I will readily admit mea culpas in my own fiction when someone points out mistakes)? Will it take time, effort, and resources to instruct? Yes and yes. But I’d like to see WWI historians & screenwriters/novelists grab at least half as much fervor and enthusiasm Tudor historians & screenwriters/novelists have managed to drum up in the general populace over the past 10-15 years than have them fall into curmudgeonly obscurity once the commemoration of WWI ends in 2018/19. Especially for women’s history! So let’s all grab hands and run instead of retreating behind the wall of knowledge because something isn’t done 100% correct from the get-go.