Monday, February 8, 2016

Unwrapping a Minor Rant on MERCY STREET. Shouldn't art imitate life?

One of the reasons I so enjoy historical romance novels, as well as most historically based novels and film adaptations, is because I love history. Having grown up in Virginia, I was taught more than my share of Virginia history as well as US history. Why? Because living in Virginia is living in the footsteps of all who came before us and settled this great country. As Virginians, we are surrounded by history. It’s difficult to journey anywhere in the state where there isn’t a marker, historical monument, or museum extolling the history of the area going back to Jamestown. It’s Virginia and I love it.

Because of my love of history, and because I grew up just south of Washington, DC and Alexandria, when I heard about the production of MERCY STREET for PBS, I was very excited. I’ve seen the first three episodes with three more to go. This is not a review of the show but a commentary on some rather snarky remarks made in a review of this series. Prepare yourself for a minor rant…well, trying to keep minor.


Inspired by real people and events, Mercy Street goes beyond the front lines of the Civil War and into the chaotic world of the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. , Mercy Street takes viewers beyond the battlefield and into the lives of Americans on the Civil War home front as they face the unprecedented challenges of one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. 

Set in Virginia in the spring of 1862, Mercy Street follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict: Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green (Hannah James), a naive young Confederate belle. The two collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel that has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital in Alexandria, a border town between North and South and the longest Union occupied city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria served as the melting pot of the region: with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded fighting men from both sides, runaway slaves, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The intersection of North and South within the confines of a small occupied town creates a rich world that is chaotic, conflicted, corrupt, dynamic and even hopeful — a cauldron within which these characters strive, fight, love, laugh, betray, sacrifice and, at times, act like scoundrels. This series is not about battles and glory; it’s about the drama and unexpected humor of everyday life behind the front lines of war. It’s a fresh twist on an iconic story, one that resonates with larger themes we still struggle with today.

~*~            ~*~               ~*~             ~*~

While reading a blog post at one of my favorite blogs, which will remain unnamed simply because I still like it and don’t want to get banned from it, I could not help but disagree with some of these particular ladies’ ideas regarding the series and in turn, historical romance.

The author of this review felt that MERCY STREET was ‘riddled with modern clichés, melodrama, and a bend-over-backwards attempt to show everyone involved in the Civil War as nuanced, complicated, and principled so as to result in none of the characters in the show being at all interesting or believable’.*

*This is not a direct quote, although close…as an editor, I can’t allow poor writing even to be quoted on my blog. J

Having watched the same shows as this reviewer had, who mind you normally keeps her reviews to costuming and not the overall production, I feel that her remarks are entirely too snarky. I thought about commenting on said blog but had I, I’m sure the reaction would not have been favorable. As I said, I’m a fan of the blog and so have no wish to alienate myself.

However, I took great issue with the statements in the review regarding the true history of the series. Seeing Union soldiers being anything but kind and considerate to the citizens of the city of Alexandria must most certainly be perpetuating a lie. The truth is that Union forces throughout the entire conflict held the city of Alexandria and that wasn’t just a few months, but years. The residents of the city were forced to live under martial law. Businesses were confiscated or shutdown if the owners refused to sign a pledge allegiance to the Union. Homes were confiscated and used for boarding troops, and there was no opportunity or remedy for refusal. Anyone caught doing anything the Union authorities thought unlawful could, and more times than not, be shot on sight. The Union were the victors of the War Between the States and so have been painted as the good guys in modern history books. Heaven knows that our Federal government would never allow such brash behavior to happen under its watch…now would it.

My greatest objection in this review was labeling the series as being riddled with modern clichés…in particular regarding the women in the series.

This review was critical of Mary Phinney for being portrayed as a wealthy widow, volunteer nurse, and a New England abolitionist. Well, the truth is that Mary Phinney was a real person in history. She was in fact a wealthy widow, her late husband being Baron Von Olnhausen…the characters make all kinds of snide remarks about it in the first episode. She was from New England, and she was very much an abolitionist. My question is why this reviewer felt that any of this was in anyway considered modern cliché. Are they implying that a wealthy woman, or any woman in the 19th century, who no longer had the protection of a husband, must quarter herself away from society and not put her talents, abilities, education, and intelligence to good use?

Their next snarky, and rather ignorant, remarks were thrown at the character of Anne Hastings. This character was not real but she was based on the real Anne Reading who was actually trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. The reviewer thought her having a sexual relationship with one of the doctors too cliché. It makes me wonder if these ladies think that just because a woman has a vocation and no husband that she wouldn't crave the company of a man.
Anne Hastings and Dr. Byron Hale in bed. *oh my!*
This is where the connection to historical romance novels comes into play.

When defending romance novels, I will hear from those who think of them as fluff, soft porn, and little stories written by silly women and that historical romances are fairy tales and not historically accurate. Reading something like this review lends me to believe that there are some people, who are truly ignorant of history. Are we to assume that there were no sexual relationships outside of marriage other than scandalous affairs and prostitution? That any respectable woman of society who had sex with a man who was not her husband was most likely raped because God forbid she couldn’t have actually desired it.

Are we also to assume that before the 1960’s, there was no pre-marital sex, no sex for widows, for women unhappily married to womanizing men, that there was no homosexual relationships, or as named as another cliché by this review…drug use. All of these things only came about after the so-called sexual revolution of the 20th century…and even at that, the latter part of the century because goodness knows, women certainly lived quiet celibate lives throughout the rest of it.

I told you this was rant. I object to people, men, and women pressing their politically correct versions of history onto every book, television, and movie production, which in turn, forces it on the rest of us. People have been people, human beings, sexual creatures, weak-willed, and unable to resist vices, emotional, dramatic, and just like the modern us throughout time eternity. Just because it’s not written that way in modern, politically correct history schoolbooks doesn’t mean that it was any different than it is now. The only difference is…we are supposed to be much more accepting of the nature of being human than they were in the last millennium.

What do you think? Is showing characters being human, submitting to their desires, their fears, their loneliness, and their vices simply cliché or is it just portraying real life as it was and is?

If you’ve seen the show, I’d love to know what you think about its accuracy. If not, I hope you’ll check it out. It’s really quite good.

Happy Reading Everyone!

MERCY STREET on PBS, Sunday nights at 10 PM. You can also see episodes at PBS online.


Melody May said...

I think it shows life. People are so use to things being sugar coated and that nothing like what happens today happen in the past. Of course that isn't the case it was just hidden from general public or people just look at the other direction. People should pay a little more attention in history. Times like these I wish the History Channel would play more of the history base shows they were know for instead of Pawn Stars. I had some crappy history teachers in school, but I'm glad History Channel use to show history stuff. I probably went off on a tangent.

Amy Valentini said...

Exactly, Melody, human life and human needs has not changed one bit since the caveman, we just have more conveniences, and abilities. Men tried to keep women's sexuality stifled throughout the ages but more out of ignorance and fear than anything else.
The History Channel, for the most part, does tell it like it really was and I appreciate that too. I'm very proud of the producers of MERCY STREET for not taking easy way out, and giving us the completely politically correct version.
Thanks for coming by and speaking up. I appreciate your support since this can be a 'touchy' subject. :-D

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Amy, 100%.

Amy Valentini said...

Thanks that I know it's you. :-)
Thanks for coming by. xox