As I watched the first episode, I starting thinking: how would you go about constructing a villain for a modern TV show set in Victorian times?
You'd obviously make them a wealthy landowner. No, stronger than that, they would be an absentee landowner who had no apparent interest in their estates other than the income it brought them. They'd have to return to the family pile for plot reasons (and because you'd spent a fair chunk of the production budget on hiring a nice country house), but they would openly talk about moving away again quickly, perhaps (for added villainy) by going to a slave-owning US state, say, Virginia.
You would rub in the economics: perhaps you would give the villain a soft-hearted old relative who sometimes went easy on the tenants and then have your villain turn up to renege on a rent indulgence shown by the elderly relative, and humiliate him in front of his tenant to boot. When collecting rents, you would make sure that the villain evicted an 80-year old man who had nowhere else to live; and if any tenant, faced with your duplicity, were to venture an opinion that one day the tenants would throw the landowners off the land, your villain would respond by saying that that was all the more reason for the landowners to give as good as they got.
You could really lay it on thick. How about having the villain express an interest in exploiting fossil fuel deposits? And if the elderly relative were to opine that coal is 'dirty stuff', then ignore him in favour of profit?
If you were not scared of going too far then you could have the characters discuss the modest widening of the franchise resulting from the Great Reform Act, the showpiece of the reforming Whig Government of the 1830s, and have your villain say "Don't talk to me about progress. It's change that's unnecessary and entirely in the wrong direction!".
You would of course give your villain some personal failings as well. How about treating inferiors badly? Make them generally curt and unthinking with servants. But that's just for starters. You would also introduce a doctor who ventures a progressive opinion, e.g. that a depressed wealthy heiress might be better off working for a living, then allow a woman of the household to offer the doctor a drink, and then have your villain countermand the offer of a drink and order the doctor to look at your horse.
It goes without saying that your villain would be indulging in a casual adulterous affair. And the episode would end with the villain literally twirling a cane while strolling off to seduce the depressed and vulnerable wealthy heiress discussed earlier.
I have described what the supposed heroine of our story, Anne Lister, says and does in the first episode. As I understand it, because she is a lesbian rather than a man, all of these characteristics of the typical villain of a Victorian TV drama are now supposed to be signs that she is "fearless, charismatic, and determined to do things her own way ... she defies every convention of the society she lives in", as the BBC itself puts it.
If I were an old-fashioned Marxist then I know exactly what I would say about this. This is the most egregious example of rentier-bourgeoisie propaganda: there is a very thin veneer of progressivism provided by making the main character a woman, but otherwise this is well-funded cheerleading for the worst excesses of the Victorian capitalist-landowning classes. It is a parody of Jacob Rees-Mogg in drag! Is it just like the way multinational corporations wave a rainbow flag to pretend to be progressive, and then use that as a distraction from crushing unions, oppressing workers in the third world, ruining the environment etc etc.
But I'm not a Marxist of any kind. I'm just pleased to see that the BBC can provide a sympathetic portrait of reactionary politics and capitalist endeavour. "She’s an efficient landlord and runs rings around her coal mining rivals", the BBC says, bigging her up. I'm now looking forward to the BBC spotting that General Gordon was gay and using that as an excuse for a lavish costume drama with him as the hero. The tagline: "He's an efficient imperialist and runs rings around the natives!" Andrew Scott could play Gordon, with a few knowing, Fleabag-esque, looks at the camera. Give it a soundtrack with some pop music on and we're looking at 3 BAFTAs at least.
Anyway, the Marxists needn't worry. I'm sure the proletariat has better things to do than watch BBC costume dramas on a Sunday evening. They've got Ubers to drive, Deliveroo orders to fulfil and Amazon parcels to pack.