I have many guilty pleasures, including the queso from Torchy's Tacos in Austin, The Real Houswives of New York, and, most importantly for us here today, the British miniseries Lost in Austen. It's a sort of wish fulfillment version of Pride and Prejudice, in which a plucky, modern-day heroine named Amanda Price finds a portal to Austen's England via her bathroom wall. The show plays into what is, admittedly, a pretty widespread fantasy of women (and likely some men) the world over: slap on an Empire-style dress and a bonnet, and you, too, will no doubt be irresistible to Mr. Darcy. As a bonus, you'll get to live inside the world of your favorite novel, surrounded by the insufferable Mrs. Bennet, the kind, understanding Jane, and the tragically hands-off Mr. Bennet (revealed here to be graced with the Christian name Claude).
But it's Amanda's present-day roommate who, in the final moments of the series, reminds us of a cold, hard truth: while those women in flowing gowns and men in knee-high boots might seem impossibly elegant to us when viewed from a comfortable 200 years' distance, the reality differs somewhat. When Amanda asks her to come along with her to 19th century Longbourne, Pirhana (her roommate) says, "Amanda, I'm black. And what's more, I can't live without electricity, chocolate, or bog paper."
When (major spoiler alert) the miniseries ends with Amanda swapping places with Elizabeth Bennet (in time, space, and Fitzwilliam Darcy's affections) the implication is that while Lizzie was clearly too modern for her own time, Amanda belongs to it.
It's an adorable and satisfying conceit for a TV show meant to be consumed along with obscene amounts of chocolate, no doubt. On reflection, though, is anyone served by this kind of sentimentality about the past? Especially a pastiche of time gone by? After all, it's the Republican spin machine's treacly version of a 1950s paradise (one which, let's be clear, never existed, except on TV) that's used as a reason to roll back the rights women and people of color have spent the last 60 years fighting for.
By dressing up the past in our own expectations for it, we do those whose dedication and hard work has brought us this far a disservice. Nostalgia for one's childhood is understandable, but nostalgia for a time in which slavery was commonplace worldwide (though it has yet to be eradicated, even today), women were treated---by the law as well as by men---as property, and there was little to no access to things like Charmin and Vosges?
No thanks. I'm too busy making sure it doesn't reassert itself in the here and now---a place which, incidentally, is looking pretty good these days, what with Obama's reelection, New Hampshire sending an all-women delegation to Congress (plus a female governor), more women than ever in the House and Senate, and the first openly lesbian and bisexual members of Congress headed to D.C. Yup, I'll stick with the era I was lucky enough to be born into, thanks. Pass the chocolate.