As a fan of Pat Barker's novels about the First World War, I was quick to pluck her latest, "Toby's Room," from the pile at my local bookstore the other day. The jacket copy called it "a masterful novel that portrays the staggering human cost of the Great War. Admirers of her 'Regeneration Trilogy,' as well as fans of 'Downton Abbey' and 'War Horse,' will be enthralled."
Until that moment, I'd never bothered to consider that for many people the PBS series and Michael Morpurgo's book and its subsequent adaptations are now the reference points for thinking about the period 1914-1918. While in Britain the war continued to be a part of school curricula and television programs, in the United States you would, until "Downton" and "War Horse," have been hard-pressed to find people who could name a recent movie or television series that conjured up the conflict.
Over the past couple of decades, that is, there had not been a "Saving Private Ryan" of the Great War, or a neverending series of "The Greatest Generation" documentaries, either. The conflict had begun to recede into the mists of time, partly because virtually no one any longer had a living family member who had served and partly because the 1914 conflagration had lacked what the story of the war of '39 so clearly offered: a genocidal maniac as a villain. No Hitler.
The lack of Hitler and the Holocaust makes it easier for British and Americans to understand German losses in the first war, which is why Morpurgo's presenting soldiers on the German side seems so natural a claim on our sympathies.
Because the real-life quality of the Second World War remains vivid, it is not surprising that with the earlier war the chief representations are imagined not documentary. And with "Downton" and "War Horse" you could hardly find two more contrasting approaches to a made-up subject. In spite of its partial focus on the lives of the servants, "Downton" engages us with its lush depiction of manor living, from heavily sauced meats and the over-egged puddings to the walking tweeds and the crinolines pressed daily. The war is disruptive, but when the Earl of Grantham opens his home to the convalescing wounded he is only doing his aristocratic duty.
By comparison, "War Horse" gives us Alfred Narracott and his family: struggling farmers in Devon. It is a world in which an alcoholic family member cannot be tucked away in a suite on the top floor and classed eccentric; too much booze and the farm fails. It is a world in which the countryside is not acres of rolling lawns but half-acres of failing crops. Joey, Albert's horse, wears the plowing harness, not the racing colors of Ascot. Unlike "Downton Abbey," the primary subject of "War Horse" is not social class.
Paradoxically, in literary terms I think of "Downton Abbey" as the more prosaic: quite literally, closer to prose. This is owing in large part to the fact that English manor life comes to us in fictional form: Trollope in the 19th century, for instance, and Waugh in the 20th. "War Horse," though starting out as a novel, has a poetic skeleton - not just in Morpurgo's precise language but in the antecendents for Albert: in his sexual innocence and animal devotion, he could have been celebrated by A.E. Housman. Barker's books, meanwhile, consist of prose, but their subjects are often poets, most famously Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. In formal terms, Barker bridges the "Downton"/"War Horse" gap.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.