UM History Professor Serves as Historical Consultant for PBS’ ‘Mercy Street’

January 13, 2016

UM history Professor Anya Jabour poses with Hannah James, who plays Emma Green in the new PBS Civil War drama “Mercy Street.” Jabour served as a historical consultant for the series, which premieres Jan. 17. (Photo courtesy of Anya Jabour)MISSOULA – University of Montana Professor Anya Jabour spent five weeks in Virginia this past spring working as a historical consultant for the new PBS Civil War drama “Mercy Street.” The program will premiere Sunday, Jan. 17.

As a historical consultant, Jabour’s job was to make the actors appear as authentic as possible, whether they were interacting with family members or with strangers, whether they were of a younger generation or an older one, African-American or white, Confederate or Union. And that meant providing them with the social guidelines of the time.

“Mercy Street” follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict. Mary Phinney is a New England abolitionist, and Emma Green is a young, upper-crust Confederate. Their worlds collide in Alexandria, Virginia, the occupied border town that has become home to all manner of people, including runaway slaves, displaced rebels, Union soldiers and spies. Some characters are composites; others are based on real people.

Jabour was asked to lend her expertise after her 2007 book “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South” ended up in the hands of producer Lisa Wolfinger.

“Scarlett’s Sisters” provides a look into how elite Southern women found a catalyst during the Civil War. Jabour said the fervor of rebellion against the Union made it easier for Confederate women to step outside their usual social parameters. Their new roles involved more choices, more independence from men and even independence from a life that involved slaveholding.

“Our research team and I read many, many, many books, including some original source material,” Wolfinger told the Montanan magazine. “And I came across Anya Jabour’s ‘Scarlett’s Sisters,’ and I thought she could help us bring to life the Green family and specifically the younger daughters.”

Wolfinger originally asked Jabour to serve as a script reviewer when the series was in the early stages of development, in early 2013.  As a script reviewer, Jabour commented on the characters, plot and dialogue, with a focus on young women’s wartime experiences, including shifting gender roles, evolving courtship practices and changing family dynamics.  Once the series went into production in spring 2015, Wolfinger invited Jabour to serve as on-set historical consultant.

In addition to providing guidance when it came to behaviors that were changing as a result of the war, Jabour worked with the actors on following the social mores of the time, like how to walk in public.

“Women, for instance, wouldn’t walk unaccompanied,” Jabour said. “People of inferior status would walk on the right side and just behind their superiors. Party etiquette for the elite, especially, was precise. Gloves were to be worn while dancing but not when eating or drinking. Gents escorted ladies off the dance floor.”

Once it premieres, Jabour will contribute to a “Mercy Street Revealed” blog, available online at http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/blogs/mercy-street-revealed/. She also was featured on the “Historical Accuracy” video, which is part of the Uncover the History website online at http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/uncover-history/.

For more information call Jabour at 406-243-4364 or email anya.jabour@mso.umt.edu.

Contact: Anya Jabour, UM history professor, 406-243-4364, anya.jabour@mso.umt.edu.