Sunday, September 30, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Downton Prairie

I never can read a history of anything without seeing the unexplored possibilities. This week it's Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890, by Peter Pagnamenta (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012). This book outlines the love affair of the British landowning class with their fantasy, and occasionally with the actuality, of the Rockies, Great Basin, and Great Plains, beginning with William Stewart: "A peppery, red-faced captain on the British Army's retired list." Don't let the retired list fool you - he was only 38 when his American adventures began. Stewart signed on with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to travel with them to a rendezvous, but what he was interested in was not the fur business, but hunting.

And this was true for the British who came after him until after the Civil War. The same time and country that we associate with horse tribes following the bison, wagon trains leaving a trail marked with graves, the Donner Party, culture clash, mountain men, and prospectors the contemporary aristocrats of England, Scotland, and Ireland associated with pleasure trips after big game. They ranged from insouciant young lords setting out equipped with rifles, servants, and a knowledge of the wilderness culled primarily from the novels of James Fenimore Cooper to mature excursionists hauling along French chefs and plenty of servants, ammunition, and silver services, who are "pestered" by 49ers in rags with nothing to eat. The British tourist became stereotyped in American papers as loftily rude, impractical, unreasonable, and convinced that the world existed for his comfort and convenience and he was doing it a favor by condescending to demand privileges from it; and this stereotype, like most, had its exemplars as well as its counter-examples. Very few seem to have had much more than a nodding acquaintance with the reality of the land and societies visited; but of what tourist is this not true?

The book details many types and stages of British aristocratic enterprise in America, but what seems to me to have been most grossly overlooked is the fictional potential of these sprawling mid-century safaris. I see in my mind's eye a BBC series, later brought to America and broadcast as part of Masterpiece Theater, set in the Great Plains and Rockies of the Gold Rush years,with the lives and fortunes of an ambitious British hunting excursion, perhaps an older gentleman and his two sons, or perhaps a son and a nephew, their confidential servants, a hired guide or two, and locally-hired wagons and their handlers; intersecting with the lives and fortunes of a particular set of 49ers; which is where most of the female characters would come from, of course. Probably you could shoehorn in a spirited aristocratic beauty somehow, and no doubt one or the other set of characters would make an Indian connection of some kind. One must have the love interest in these things, after all.

But the chief interest would lie, first, in the intrinsic interest of surviving the frontier, which would be just as unfamiliar to the pioneering families as to the British at the early stages of the Gold Rush; and second, in the exploration of how each group intersects with its illusions - some of which, only the audience would be in position to see - and with each other. Where the British would see a glorious free landscape of great beauty, the 49ers would see broken axles and days hauling wagons up near-vertical slopes; where the British would see trophies, the 49ers would see food; where the British would see a noble savage or a degraded subhuman the 49er men would see a potentially dangerous enemy and the 49er women would see someone willing to trade a brace of ducks for an old quilt.

You could also use the situation to comment on modern situations - for are we not, when we go as tourists in Africa, southeast Asia, and Greece, or even to New York, even to San Antonio, bringing our prejudices and assumptions with us and making ourselves ridiculous to the locals? (But we laugh kindly at tourists, as long as you don't sneer at us.)

The cast is varied enough that you could make one character stand in for a "type" and still cover a reasonable cross-section of viable human reality, once they developed as individuals to humanize the type. The guides, the leader of each expedition, their grown children, the servants, the feisty widow in the wagon train (I insist on the Feisty Widow; she'll probably take over when the original wagon train leader dies in the stampede caused by the overeagerness of one of the British hunters, dealing that party its first major reality check), would all get their personal arcs. Not every one will live to see the end of the series; not all those who die will die well; and some will be corrupted or degraded rather than matured; but many will grow stronger and more clear-sighted, personal if not national politics will become more practical and more generous, and the audience gets costumed drawing-room drama and open-air action at the same time. You can't tell me you wouldn't tune in to that!

But of course, I don't work for the BBC.

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