… but also shows how important new historical research as well as modern adaptions of history in popular culture are.
During March I had decided to stop watching series, partly to let my eyes have a good rest after staring at the computer all day, partly because I wanted to listen to more podcasts instead of series. This changed this week, when I was through with all my weekly podcasts (suggestions welcome) and needed something to watch while having dinner – so plain so simple. That was when Netflix suggested its new series to me: The Irregulars – apparently a 99 % match. Ok, I did watch some similar shows, basically all situated at the end of the 19th century. But I don’t think Netflix could have known that this really was a 99 % match for me.
I started the series on Wednesday and finished all eight episodes until Friday. Not only because it was breathtaking, adorable and just amazing, but because I was allowed to stop working on my PhD for a while. Why? Because series like the Irregulars is why my PhD matters.
But before I dive into that whole topic, first I need to tell you why this is a series you cannot miss, even if you’re not interested in the gender history of religion.
Five reasons why you have to watch this series (no spoilers)
5. The Soundtrack
Even though I do really like the „classic“ soundtracks of Brigerton, Peaky Blinders or Ripper Street, The Irregulars managed to use contemporary music just as well. There is no need to create a „historical“ feeling, if the past is always just imagined anyway 😉
4. The accents / dialects
I must explain here that I am a real big fan of British accents. And this show has them all! To be honest, I could turn the video off and listen to the whole show again, just because the voices are amazing.
3. The cast
Again, with this colour conscious cast, Netflix created a historical fiction that works without an all-white cast. And this is why: Firstly, there have been way more non-white people in Britain at that time than e.g. Dowton Abbey made us believe. Secondly, you don’t need to be historically accurate to depict the horrors of a classist society (that is enough injustice for one series, you don’t need sexism and racism as well to make it work – because that is not what the series is about!).
In addition, there are only amazing characters and actors in The Irregulars (who speak amazing accents and play within a great soundtrack, so here you go 😉 ).
2. Depiction of romance and sexuality (Spoiler alert)
Many of you will know by now, that there is a black and gay (wow, it took so long) Dr. Watson in this series. Some of you might have already complained – not that this is „not historically accurate“ (I am not speaking to you now, read the paragraph above!) – but that the black gay man‘s love is not returned. Instead, Sherlock goes for his „real“ love, who is white and a woman.
Even though I do agree with you here, that this might be viewed problematically, I have three reasons for you, why you should not be angry with this series because of this:
a) Think of it that way: now 2 white, heterosexual people have left the series and the whole plot relies on the actions of all the other amazing characters once again.
b) Not only did the „sad gay man“ (quoting some tweets here) do something bad in the first place; it was the white woman wo turned out to be the real problem in the series. Think about that 😉
c) The depiction of romance and sexuality in the whole series does not feature a heterosexual matrix. Instead, we can see different types of human relations between all the sexes throughout the series in a completely normalised way. This is so refreshing and I wish the 19th century had really been like this.
1. This gender thing
Last but not least, my reason number one why you should watch The Irregulars: They have amazing characters who fight, think, are friends, lovers, sisters, might be broken, but are nevertheless the heroes of the show – and it does not matter which gender they are to be like that! It is just natural and I love it.
Didn’t I say something about my PhD?
Yes, I did and here it goes…
As Noah Berlatsky has said it aptly: The Irregulars isn’t perfect. And it is about grief and love. It is about that what makes life life – and sometimes unbearable at the same time. Which is why people try to cope with it or even cross the borders to something beyond. Here is where religion comes in.
Actually, in this case it is more esotericism and occultism. Not only is the magical being that Jessica personifies, the Ipsissimus, part of the hierarchical magical order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but the show actually uses this society for their plot.
Again: spoilers for e2 and e3 coming.
When I saw the shot of a letter carrying the sign of the Order of the Golden Dawn in episode 2, I was almost screaming in delight. Finally, one of these series did not only loosely refer to spiritualism, spiritism, and the occult, but uses what history has to offer: one of the two most important societies for modern esotericism (the other one being the Theosophical Society). The Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in 1887 and became a secret, but actually-not-so-secret, society in which the members communicated with ancient gods and goddesses and took part in rituals to gain magical / spiritual powers.
A society in which women and men can be equal parts? Not in the 19th century you might think. Wrong! The Theosophical Society as well as the Order of the Golden Dawn actively encouraged female contribution and spiritual power. For example, the first and the third leaders of the Theosophical Society were women (H. P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant). As we can see in episode 3 of The Irregulars, the Order of the Golden Dawn as well had many prominent members: e.g. the actress Florence Farr and the poet W. B. Yeats (both also members of the TS at some point).
Both are actually part of episode 3, as well as the (in)famous Aleister Crowley. But it was not him, who plotted against dear Jessie (as I have thought at first), but the actress. Not only am I a bit angry that my beloved Florence was featured like this. Also, the ginger haired women had to be the evil witch-like person, didn’t she? 😉
No! As with all the other parts of the show: it is about gaining the power which makes life bearable. It doesn’t matter who the opponent in each episode was, there is only one way out of misery: grief through love and not through power.
As in our 21st century world: anyone can be evil, anyone can be broken. But we can choose either to become monsters who create monsters (quoting The Irregulars) or friends, family, lovers and be strong – together.
Why my PhD matters
No, my PhD does not look at popular culture and what role religion plays within it – but some do and check them out! I look at the intersection of religion and feminism which occur e.g. in the Order of the Golden Dawn.
Luckily, there had been enough research on this topic already, so that the writer of the show was fully equipped to write this 19th century show in which gender and sexuality are as fluid and contested as they were even back then.
But there is so much work to be done – and so many great shows are possible, so many plots just lying around! The patriarchal and white way to write history had continually been challenged by the research of the last decades and we are slowly but steadily unveiling a past which includes special and exciting people all around the world, not only in the 1890s Britain.