Join us on Thursday, April 9th for the second lecture in the Public Intellectual Lecture Series, offered through a partnership between Carleton University Department of English and Literature and the Ottawa Public Library. The lecture will be presented by Nick Milne, part-time professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. He specializes in early twentieth-century British literature, with a particular focus on the literature of the First World War. His work has appeared in Slate Magazine and on BBC Radio 3 and 4.
"The tremendous success of ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey offers an important opportunity to evaluate the role played by works of historical fiction in how the reading and viewing public forms its historical memory. The series tells the ongoing story of the fictional Crawley family as its members and friends weather the enormous social and political changes that swept through England during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
This mixture of fact and fiction is enticing, and has been the source of considerable critical and popular success for the series—but just how much is fact, and just how much is fiction? With events like the sinking of the Titanic, the revelation of the Marconi Scandal and the outbreak of the First World War serving as essential backdrops to Downton Abbey’s ongoing narrative, some viewers have found the series to be as much a learning experience as a source of entertainment. Series creator Julian Fellowes has been regularly lauded for his historical research, and the satirical newspaper The Onion has gone so far as to joke that “watching a single episode of the British TV series Downton Abbey is the cultural and educational equivalent of reading an entire book.”
My proposed lecture will use Downton Abbey in both its particulars and its wider genre to examine the role that historical fiction plays in “teaching” people about the past. I will apply various theories of history and history-writing—from those of the influential 19th-century theorist Leopold Von Ranke to those of the postmodern historiographical philosopher Hayden White—to the most provocative historical episodes included in the series, while also examining how other popular literary, dramatic and cinematic works have engaged with the same subjects in a fictional context. I will offer a particular emphasis upon the matter of the First World War, which forms the focus of the show’s whole second season while also being at the centre of a long and still raging history/fiction debate.
Attendees will be invited to consider many important questions. What moral or ethical responsibilities does the creative artist have when attempting to convey an historical event or person to his or her audience? What do history-writing and the writing of fictional narratives have in common? How do they differ? And what should we think when events or ideas made popular by fictional works become just as well-known and influential in popular memory as those received through the various streams of history? By examining what Downton Abbey gets right—and what it gets wrong—we will come to a better understanding of the necessarily creative component involved in making history into a story." (Prof. Nick Milne)
The lecture will be held at the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library (auditorium). Thursday, April 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.