Historical fiction seems to be a popular genre these days, especially books set in Europe or Britain during WW2. Starting with The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, there have been so many of this type released over the past few years it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone read them. Another popular choice involves anything with a bookstore in it’s title. While I tend to be a sucker for these kinds of books, they sometimes don’t live up to the hype, but combine the two, and you get the absolutely delightful read, Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner.
The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.
Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:
Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.
Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.
Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.
As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.
About the Author: Natalie Jenner was a new find of mine, after reading The Jane Austen Society, which I blogged about in 2020 (see link) – a post WW2 story about how a group of diverse villagers came together to save Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage. It was a good read for a first book, if a bit uneven, but this newest one is just brilliantly done. She must feel a great sense of satisfaction having two bestsellers, after five failed publishing attempts earlier in her life. (link) A life long lover of books, she owned an independent bookstore in Oakville, Ontario for awhile, so she knows her subject matter. She graduated from U of T with degrees in English literature and Law and worked as a corporate lawyer in Toronto, which probably came in handy for reading all those book contracts. (Translation rights sold to 20 countries.)
Discussion: This book was described by one Goodreads reviewer as Mad Men meets You’ve Got Mail. I never watched the TV show Mad Men – although I loved the fashions, I couldn’t get past the sexist attitudes, (not to mention the cigarette smoking), and abandoned it after the first few episodes. This is a 50’s book, but told from a feminist point of view.
I loved the clever way the author used the manager’s rules for employees at the head of each chapter, and then had the characters proceed to break each and every one. The characters are well drawn and not cliche, as so many of these books can be. Properly cast, it would make a good movie or tv series of the kind PBS/Masterpiece is famous for. I also liked the way she wove the real life authors and historical figures of that era into the plot. Plus it had a suspenseful but heartwarming ending. I always enjoy a bit of karma in my books.
I liked the way the author has carried forward several of the characters from her first book, including Evie Stone, the maid in the Great House at Chawton who helped to catalogue the library and then went on to study at Cambridge. Although connected, each book can be read as a stand alone. In an interview the author discusses her upcoming third book, due in 2024, where she transports one of the Bloomsbury girls to 1950’s Italy – shades of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – bring it on!
This is a book about strong women and a great read for book and bookstore lovers.
PS. While we may admire the elegant fashions of the 50’s who would want to go back to the chauvinistic rules and inequality of those years? I was lucky to grow up in the first wave of the women’s movement, with the invincible feeling that I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I think sometimes people forget what we fought for. Rise up, women of the world, rise up!
I went to a garden party….in honor of the Queen’s 70th Jubilee on Jun 4. Canada is a commonwealth country, so I grew up singing God Save the Queen in grade school, along with our national anthem, Oh Canada. One of my very first memories is of the Queen’s visit to my city in 1959, although as a wee tyke of three I wouldn’t have had any idea of who she was, but I do vaguely remember standing on the riverbank near the church watching the Royal Yacht glide by. All I knew was an important person was onboard, so we had to wait…and wave.
So when I read that the city was throwing a garden party in honour of the queen’s 70th anniversary on the throne, I went straight to the website to sign-up…..but the registration was already full, as the event was limited to only two hundred people. So I spoke to a very nice lady at city hall who put us on the waiting list, whereby I happened to mention that my mother at 96 was the exact same age as the Queen. (I’m not without my devious ways.) A few days later an invitation arrived via email – Hear Ye, Hear Ye – you have been added to the Queen’s guest list. Attendees were encouraged to dress up and wear a hat, including vintage 50’s styles from the era of the Queen’s visit.
Attendance was limited at this exclusive event as they wanted to model it after the Queen’s own garden parties. She holds three every year on the grounds of Buckingham Palace and one in Scotland – a tradition dating back to the time of Queen Victoria in the 1860’s. The parties are by invitation only and fancy dress is required. Tea, scones and cake are served to about 10,000 people. It’s a way for the Queen to recognize and reward public service, and a chance for her to mingle. This year due to mobility issues, other members of the royal party filled in. Here’s alinkto more information about the Queen’s annual Garden Party.
The day of the party dawned warm and sunny, with a delightful breeze – one of those perfect June days you so seldom see anymore. The venue was a public park with beautiful gardens (I posted about Plein AirPainting here in Sept. 2019 when the flowers were at their peak) and we walked through the arbour strung with hanging baskets to the registration desk.
Chairs were set up under the large shade trees for the required speeches, with every stripe of politician represented – federal, provincial, municipal. A pipe band opened the ceremonies.
And then to the food tent – we snagged a table in the shade. The food was wonderful…..the traditional tea party fare.
The sandwiches – salmon, tuna, egg, cucumber – were all excellent. I tried my first cucumber sandwich – where else can you find a cucumber sandwich but at a tea party! And scones of course, and all kinds of dessert squares, and cookies, including these special Union Jack ones.
These individually wrapped souvenirs were sugar cookies with royal icing – almost too pretty to eat, but I managed.
There were macrons in red, white and blue. I’m always disappointed by macrons, as they look better than they taste, and aren’t they French?
There was tons of food left-over, as witnessed by the trays of sandwiches behind the tables, so I hope the food bank benefited.
There was no cost for the tickets as the event was paid for by a heritage grant, but I wonder if some of the people who RSVP’d forgot to show up, or changed their minds, although there did seem to be a good crowd there, including a few people who were walking through the park and asked if they could join in.
The table décor was lovely, and a few lucky souls got to take the centrepieces home.
I really liked these royal blue satin tablecloths.
There were flags,
and tents. Nothing says fancy summer party like a white tent.
It was fun to check out people’s outfits, and their hats.
I wore a floral yellow dress from the 80’s, and got several comments on it, but sensibly wore flat sandals, although I did see a few people tottering around on impossibly high heels, sinking into the grass. I’m too old for that and too afraid I’ll fall over and break something. I needed the sweater because it was cool enough in the shade, and also to cover my arms, as I don’t do sleeveless anymore. It felt strange to wear a dress again, for the first time in five years. I wasn’t too happy with my hat, an old straw relic also from the 80’s, but didn’t have time to look for anything else. Plus, I think those fascinators are silly things on most people.
A vintage clutch purse which closes with a satisfying click, like all 50’s style purses do, including the Queen’s. She has over 200 of her iconic brand, in many colors. It’s rumored that she sends secret signals to her staff with her purse, shifting it’s location to indicate that she wishes to be rescued from a conversation or wants a dinner to wrap up.
And pearls of course, there were lots of pearls in evidence.
After lunch, there was an enactment of the Queen’s life put on by a local theatre group, with various members representing the queen at different stages in her career. No matter what people might think of the monarchy, there’s no denying the Queen has lived a long life of dignified service, not to mention surviving all those family scandals. She must be a woman of fortitude, strength and resilience.
Afterwards, we wandered through the garden pathways admiring the baskets, although the flower beds themselves were just newly planted.
All in all, it was a beautiful day and a wonderful party. Long live the Queen!
I’ve written before about A Christmas Carol being one of my favorite books, and in part one – A Christmas Carol with Recipes, I review the Book to Table classic edition of this perennial favorite. I had expected the recipes in that book to be related to what they might have eaten in Dickens time (1843) instead of the usual modern dishes, but after staring at all those mouth-watering photos I’m hungry, so in part two, let’s discuss the food in Dickens famous novel – food, glorious food!
There are many glorious descriptions of food in A Christmas Carol – who doesn’t remember the famous goose or the pudding singing in the copper?
The first mention comes in the introductory scene where Scrooge is nursing a head cold beside his meagre fire.
I’ve often wondered about the gruel. Yes, I know it’s that bland watery substance that Oliver Twist got in trouble over, asking for more, but what exactly is it and what does it taste like? According to the dictionary, gruel is “a thin liquid food of oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water.” It was a staple for the poor in the past, peasant food for the masses. According to Wikipedia (link) it was on the supper menu for the third class passengers on the eve of the Titanic sinking. (How about that for your last meal?) No more for me thanks, I’d rather have Quaker Oatmeal, thick like glue with raisins and brown sugar, and maybe a hot toddy for my next head cold, or one of those hot lemon drinks designed to knock you out.
The first major description of food and drink comes in the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, at Old Fezziwig’s work party and will have your toe tapping and your mouth drooling over the festive spread.
Negus is a beverage made of wine, often port, mixed with hot water, oranges or lemons, spices and sugar – an old-fashioned name for mulled wine. Yes, to that and to the cake and mince-pies too. Mince pie is another tradition which many people don’t care for anymore, along with fruitcake, but I love them both. Port is a type of fortified red wine, often blended with a spirit such as brandy, making it stronger and more shelf-stable. My father used to have a class of port with a piece of fruitcake on Christmas eve, while watching midnight mass, and sometimes I would join him, but it’s a strong drink which would send me straight to bed. A tradition inherited from his Irish ancestors, that was the only time of year the bottle was brought out, so a bottle could last for years.
You have to admire generous old Fezziwig for having an open bar for his poor overworked underpaid employees. I like to re-read this passage as I don’t recall ever having such fun at an office party myself.
The next major food section takes place with the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the big jolly guy with the cornucopia of food spread out at his feet.
I’ve always wanted to make a twelfth night cake, twelfth night being Jan 5. An old British tradition, it’s a rich fruitcake with royal icing into which was baked a pea or a bean or in modern days a trinket. Whoever gets the piece with the lucky charm is crowned King or Queen for the Day. I found a package one Christmas in one of those overpriced boutique stores – basically it contained a dry cake mix and a gold foil- covered coin – a gimmick for $20 and probably not worth a trip to the dentist over a broken tooth, especially in these times of COVID precautions, but it’s an intriguing idea – perhaps more suitable for a New Year’s dinner some other year.
While Scrooge is out wandering the streets, he comes upon a poulterers, home to the prize turkey, and a fruiterers shop.
Fruit and nuts were a rarity in Dickens’ time, in much the same way as older folks remember getting an orange only at Christmas. When I was growing up on the farm, after the dishes were done (by hand, no dishwasher with well water) and the table cleared, a bowl of fruit and a bowl of mixed nuts was set out to be nibbled at leisure, for no one was truly hungry after the main feast. The nuts were in their shells (hazelnuts, walnuts) and they required work to get at the meat. We’ve lost this old tradition, but I still have the silver nutcrackers and the slender picks. The Cratchits put a shovelful of chestnuts on the fire after their feast, but I’ve never tried roasted chestnuts before, although I’ve seen them in the grocery store this time of year. Which brings us to the grocer’s…
Not sure I would rhapsodize about grocery shopping like this, as it’s still my least favorite essential activity, but I am grateful for the ability to buy food.
I particularly like his descriptions of the good cheer expressed by the shoppers – I’m not sure that is still applicable today, when people pummel poor sales clerks over having to wear a mask or fight over the last Sony Playstation on the shelf.
Scrooge pays particular attention to the dinners of the poor, for not having an oven of their own their meals would have to be conveyed to the Bakers to be cooked, and then fetched back home again.
There was much hunger and poverty in Dickens time, with poor houses and work houses being common experiences for many. The ghost warns of the dangers of Want and Ignorance in the two malnourished youths at his feet.
It’s heart-breaking to see those long line-ups of cars at the food banks during the pandemic, many of whom have lost their jobs and have never had to use such a service before.
The Cratchits were a “working poor” family, and of course Dickens most famous food scene is that of their Christmas dinner.
It was tradition then to have a goose for the feast, and my parents, being rural people recall having goose for Christmas dinner in their younger years. Most farms had a goose on the premises which could be sacrificed for the cause, whereas a turkey was a rarer bird.
Although turkeys are mentioned in the book – the prize turkey hanging there still which the remarkable boy goes forth to purchase for Scrooge – they did not become the more popular Christmas fare until later.
And oh the pudding, born aloft in a blaze of holly and fussed over as to the quantity of flour, and Bob Cratchits compliments to the chef for pulling off such a grand feast on such a small budget. This is one tradition I do uphold but this year my plum pudding will come in a box complete with prepared sauce, although normally I would make the sauce.
And at the end of the book, a reformed Scrooge extends an invitation to his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchit, to share in a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop punch.
Smoking Bishop was another type of mulled wassail drink, with the lemon or orange spiked with cloves and roasted over a fire before being added to a mixture of port wine and spices. (Wikipedia link)
As Tiny Tim proclaims at the end, “God bless us every one!”
Wherever you are and whatever you are eating this holiday season remember to give blessings for the food on the table and the company around it. And if you happen to be home alone, as the young Scrooge was reading by the fire, then a book such as a Christmas Carol is always good company.
This month’s literary salon pick, The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, is a novel set in post-WW2 England about a group of villagers determined to maintain the legacy of Jane Austen by opening a museum at Chawton House, the cottage where Jane spent the last eight years of her life and the most productive period of her writing career.
Who would have predicted that Jane Austen would still be so popular 200 years later, with her face on the ten pound note, dozens of biographies in print, and entire museums devoted to her fame, not to mention the whole tourist trade to places she visited, lived, or described in her novels.
It’s a further testament to her continuing popularity that An Interview with Jane Austenremains my most read post, at 150 some views, from every country in the world, with several more added weekly. Yes, some frivolous little piece I dashed off for Valentine’s Day two years ago is more popular than any post I’ve slaved over for days. But to give credit to Jane, other than the interviewers questions, most of the words are hers, famous quotes from a book I received for Christmas that year, The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen. The post itself was inspired by a question – which dead person you would most like to interview? I can’t imagine my small blog of 300 readers is high up on any google search list, so I can only surmise that it must have been shared by a Janeite on one of the many Jane Austen websites.
I would not describe myself as a Janeite, having only ever read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and watched the movie versions, the dashing Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth, and the petulant Gwyneth Paltrow who forever spoiled Emma for me, and the classic Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. Other than Pride and Prejudice I find her life more interesting than her books.
JA was born in 1775 and lived most of her young life with her large family of siblings at the rectory in Steventon, where her father was a clergyman. Upon his retirement, they sold everything (including a thousand books, for hers was a well-read family) and Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra. Bath was a very social place and it’s widely assumed this change in residence was partially intended to find marriage partners for the daughters, but that was not to be, for despite rumors of several failed romances Jane never married. After the death of their father and the rental of diminished living quarters, her wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by a childless couple in need of an inheritor, eventually offered his widowed mother and sisters the use of the steward’s cottage on his large estate and so they moved to Chawton House in 1809.
The cottage was a large L-shaped building, quite near the street and a busy crossroads, so the thundering of coaches passing by offered little privacy,
but there was a large private garden at the back and they were grateful to finally have a permanent residence of their own.
Although she had written earlier drafts of her novels, this was the scene of the final revisions and the long hoped for dreams of publication, starting first with Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously with the seventh and last, Sanditon, left unfinished. (Although never published, PBS filmed a horrible adaptation of Sanditon last January which was universally condemned. Jane would certainly never have approved of the unhappy ending.)
She wrote at this small desk, still a fixture of the museum today, placed by the window for maximum lighting as she wore spectacles, and was known to cover up her manuscript if there was an unexpected visitor at the door. From her niece’s recollections we have an image of Jane sitting by the fireplace and laughing, as a sudden thought occurred to her and she leapt up to write it down. Much of her early writing originated as a means to amuse herself, and her family, as there are only so many samplers you can embroider before you die of boredom.
After her untimely death in 1817 at the age of 41 (of Addison’s Disease), her mother and sister lived on in the cottage, with Cassandra dying in 1845. Although Jane lived long enough to enjoy some initial publishing success and literary fame, it was after the publication of a biography by her nephew in 1850, that her literary reputation was revived, and it has remained steady to this day.
Today Chawton House is the site of the Jane Austen Museum. (link to a virtual tour of the house). As well as original clothing and furnishings of the period, several of her letters are on display, as well as some jewelry (two topaz crosses) given to the sisters by their naval brother. The nearby great house houses a JA library with first editions of all of her books. Jane memorabilia is in such high demand that one of her handwritten letters was recently auctioned off for $200,000, a four page missile to Cassandra, dealing with fashion trends and family news. It saddens me to think of a future with no such memorabilia, only emails and texts which we blithely delete. I’ve never been to England but Chawton House would be high on my list of historical sites to visit. Although thousands of tourists frequent Bath every year in search of Jane, I’d prefer to see where she wrote, not where she went bathroom dancing.
Now back to our book club selection.
Here’s the publishers blurb: “Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.”
About the author: “Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.” (Goodreads profile)
Quite a distinguished resume, but what’s so interesting about Natalie Jenner is that in her 30’s she wrote five unpublished books – Five. Unpublished. Books. There’s a lot of tenacity there. After her husband developed a serious illness, she turned to re-reading her favorite novels for solace, including the JA novels. Later, when he had recovered, she was contemplating writing a novel set in a great house similar to Downton Abbey but decided to change it to a fictional novel about how the JA museum came to be. For research she took a bucket list trip to a Jane Austen Festival in Bath, (yes there are many of these conventions) as well as the village of Chawton, in order to immerse herself in the world of all things Jane.
This was an enjoyable read, even if you aren’t particularly a JA fan, in much the same genre as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the Chilbury Ladies Choir. I’m sure the movie rights have already been sold. In true Jane Austen style, the author manages to pair off most of the characters, some more successfully than others and some in a politically correct way, although I had difficulty getting a sense of the two characters who were mirrored after Emma and Mr. Knightley. A minor point, but there’s one graphic scene (me too/movie starlet on the casting couch) which seemed out of place. This was noted in a a Goodreads review, and it’s like when someone points out a flaw, you can’t un-see it. The reviewer said she quit reading after that, saying that such a jarring scene had no place in a Jane Austen-like book. I wouldn’t abandon the book over that but subtle allusion might have been more appropriate, or perhaps some gentle editorial guidance.
This book debuted on the bestseller list, as any book with JA in the title is bound to attract attention due to the sheer number of her fans worldwide. (I wonder if I changed my website to The Jane Austen Homeplace, if I might attract a few more followers?)
Jane Austen must have had a strong belief in herself, and a premonition that her works would live on, as she left the bulk of her estate (400 pounds, the proceedings from her books), to her sister Cassandra, with the unusual request that 90 pounds, a considerable sum back then, be set aside for a burial at the prestigious Winchester Cathedral, instead of the local churchyard where her family could visit. Her brothers made no mention of her literary life on the tombstone, perhaps deeming her novels too inconsequential to note, but thousands of tourists flock to her grave-site every year to pay homage to her literary greatness.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a 2018 documentary produced by Peter Jackson which debuted last year on the BBC on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of November 11 1918. Now available for viewing in North America, the film was created using original WW1 footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archives. Most of the video has been colorized and transformed with modern techniques and sound effects to better reveal the soldier’s experiences, rather than the sped up blurred clips of vintage newsreels. Intended to be an immersive experience of “what it was like to be a soldier”, the film crew reviewed 100 hours of original film footage and 600 hours of interviews from over 200 veterans to make the film, including audio from 120 of them talking about their war memories. The director Peter Jackson, dedicated the film to his British paternal grandfather who fought in the war. The title was inspired by the line, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old” from the 1914 poem, “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, which is often quoted on Remembrance Day, especially the famous fourth stanza. The poem was written in Sept 1914 in the early days of the war when the first deaths were being reported…..there would be millions to follow.
The Movie Trailer
Note: I have not actually seen the movie yet, but have it on reserve at the library. (Edited to add – it was powerful and moving to watch these young men go off to war as if on a grand adventure and to see the actual footage of the sad reality – I really have no words.)
I have blogged before about my Uncle Charlie WW1 Vet. Like many of his generation, he never talked about his war experiences, other than being gassed and convalescing for six months with the Spanish Flu before being shipped home, but I have tried to reconstruct his war journey through his WW1 memorabilia. (link – Uncle Charlie WW1 Vet)
Being the faithful library patron that I am, the staff requested one of my mother’s paintings (above) for their Remembrance Day display. I spied this book on the shelf and skimmed through it. It’s quite gruesome in parts, so not for the faint of heart – but that is the reality of war.
At the risk of sounding like an old fogy, it’s been years since I visited a movie theatre – 22 to be exact – the last movie I saw at “the show” as we used to call it, was Titanic. Yes, the year was 1997 and those actors are now middle-aged. There hasn’t been a movie since where I felt I could not wait the minimal few months for it to come out on DVD, or it isn’t even called that anymore – become “available for home theatre viewing.”
So it was with much anticipation that I awaited the opening of the new Downtown Abbey movie. For stalwart fans of the Masterpiece TV series it was like coming home again, for it’s been three long years since we last had a glimpse of the Crawley family and their downstairs servants. (See my Febrary post – Downton Abbey Revisitedfor more on their famous world. Ah, the food, the fun, the fashions….)
The old Cineplex theatre where Titanic last sailed, has been torn down and a new multiplex Cineplex built, as that was the most requested addition according to a recent mall survey. As the average box-office movie-goer is now a teenage boy who is into Marvel/Star wars movies, that’s probably who they surveyed. No one I know goes to the movies anymore, so we have only ourselves to blame for the dearth of watchable movies.
We decided to attend the noon matinee on the opening weekend, thinking the crowds would be fewer, and they were as when we walked in there were maybe fifty people at most. The set-up reminded me of an IMAX theatre, an enormous screen with the seats facing downwards, but at least no one could obstruct your view. I remember the last time I was in an IMAX theatre, decades ago for a Grand Canyon documentary, definitely not a good idea for someone who doesn’t like heights. Speaking of heights, I wondered why almost everyone was sitting near the top. We soon found out, as wow – that surround sound is certainly loud. Even my mother, who denies being a bit deaf, thought it was way too loud. As she was unable to climb higher than five rows up we stopped there, and had a lovely conversation with the lady in the seat behind us, who had recently had knee surgery and also found the stairs a chore. Although there was a space below to store her walker, these places are really not designed for the handicapped…..steep uneven stairs, a long reach to the side handrail, and an elevation requiring a sherpa to achieve. I watched the people coming down afterwards, mostly an older crowd, and everyone was navigating slowly as if coming down off Mount Everest.
The seats were fake leather, non-tilting and horribly uncomfortable – gaming chairs really. They must have surveyed their 15 year old target audience.
The lights dimmed – therein followed thirty minutes of previews – lots of dark intergalactic forces at work on the planet these days, plus one unappealing Christmas rom-com staring nobody I knew. I didn’t know they still made rom-coms, but Meg Ryan would not be caught dead in a silly green velvet elf suit. The only one I was remotely interested in was Judy, and I can easily wait the three months to see Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland, which I’m sure will be an Oscar-worthy performance. Most younger people would not even know who Judy Garland was, nor maybe Renee Zellweger either.
At least ticket prices are still reasonable…..$9 for a senior and $11 regular. Big boxes of popcorn were $9 but small ones were $7 so you might as well spring for the larger size. And what a variety of hot foods available, my lord – poutine at the movie theatre? I happen to think poutine is a code word for future heart attack, but hey the target audience is invincible.
Oh yea….I was supposed to be reviewing the movie.
The Movie: (no spoilers here)
There’s a big difference between writing a weekly series with an ongoing storyline and having to construct one from scratch in such a way that people tuning in for the first time are not hopelessly lost. There were lots of intro scenes establishing the background and introducing the characters. This probably accounted for the slow first half – I glanced over and my mother had fallen asleep, (1:30 pm is her usual nap time), but when I nudged her awake, she said she was just resting her eyes. My eyes were sore too, as I found the screen way too close even from five rows in the midsection and wished we were higher up the mountain. Where is a sherpa when you need one….
The characters seemed somewhat subdued. It took them awhile to don their familiar roles, which is to be expected I suppose as when you are playing someone weekly it’s easy to slip into character again. They were rusty – not Mary or Violet though. Although everyone had a story, some were larger – Mary, Tom, Thomas and Daisy. Daisy really seemed to be coming into her own. Maybe they should give her a spin-off series? Some characters barely had a part – Cora, Robert and Mr. Bates, and Henry just showed up at the end leaping of a car in time for a ball, although for a tall skinny guy he does leap well. The plot line seemed thin and weak to me – but then I’m not really a monarchist. It’s hard to get too excited about a visit from the King and Queen when they couldn’t even be bothered to make an appearance the past six years – much ado about nothing – but I suppose for the time period, serving king and country and all that. Perhaps I am unfairly comparing it to the fast-paced series where scenes seldom lasted more than a minute or two and you were constantly left in suspense, wondering how things were going to turn out. This ending was preordained.
The sets and costumes were lavish as usual, as Julian Fellowes is one for details, but perhaps a wee bit less extravagant than usual. As I had read it cost 1 million pounds/dollars to film each episode of DA, I wondered if having already dismantled all the sets (except for Highclere), they had to make do. Big box movies have a budget too. If the substitute rooms didn’t seem as familiar or as opulent then maybe I have just watched too many episodes and know that the place settings would never be that close together for a formal dinner with the King and Queen, where Mosley makes a speech…..oops small spoiler. The table did seem rather crowded.
Will we get a sequel? We could – there were a few unwrapped hints, Edith’s comment about missing her job, Tom’s new romance, but I suppose it depends on how much money is made.
Most newspaper reviews have rated the movie a three star, but of course to DA fans it’s a five star. I would tend to agree with both of them. While I enjoyed it – it was good, not great. Actually, I think I enjoyed any of the two hour spectacular Christmas specials more, except of course the one where Mathew died, a tragic ending so unexpected it made some people tune out permanently. So don’t feel bad if you don’t have access to a mountain near you, you can easily wait until it comes out for home viewing…..and you can save on the popcorn too.
Overall, while it was slow to start, it picked up speed and finished with a grand, if somewhat sad, flourish – leaving us wanting more. But there’s a small part of me that wishes he had just left them frozen in time at Christmas/New Years 1926 where everything was wrapped up neatly with a big bow.
Postscript: My apologies for not commenting on anyone’s blogs this past month. Real life has interceded with the Cold-From-Hell (me), plus my mother was hospitalized for a week, she’s home now and on the mend, but I have not had internet access so I have not been able to read here at all.
Every May 24th weekend one of our local museums hosts their annual Victorian Tea, complete with freshly baked scones, white tablecloths and fine china.
The May 24th holiday weekend in Canada is called the Victoria Day weekend, because May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday. Older people may remember the schoolyard rhyme children chanted years ago – “the twenty-fourth of May / Is the Queen’s birthday; / If they don’t give us a holiday / We’ll all run away!” Now many people don’t even know who Queen Victoria was, unless you watch the PBS TV show Victoria, but she was Britain’s longest reining monarch, although Queen Elizabeth surpassed her in 2015. She became Queen at age 18 and reined over the British Empire for 63 years, from 1937 until her death in 1901, a period known as the Victorian era. She married her cousin Albert, had nine children and survived 20 different governments and 11 prime ministers. After her death, her birthday was made a federal holiday, which was eventually was moved to the Monday preceding May 24 because of the weekend. Queen Victoria most likely would have approved as weekends were an invention of the Victoria era. This May 24th marks the 200th anniversary of her birth in 1819.
Note: the Union Jack (Canada did not get it’s own Maple Leaf flag until 1965) and the old fashioned lilac bush (see Lilac Time).
The Victorian cottage is one of many buildings on the museum site, whose mandate is to display our past customs and heritage. Many have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, but the cottage was part of the original grounds. It is a small one floor dwelling, built in 1893, which was used by a Detroit woman as a summer home until her death, when it was donated to the museum. She was known as the cookie lady, for her kindness in treating the neighborhood children to sugar cookies on the veranda when they were passing by.
It consists of a good sized dining room, living room and kitchen and two very small bedrooms.
The inside still looks as it did during the time she lived there, floral wallpaper, quilts and all.
The problem with the Victoria Day weekend is that the weather is usually guaranteed to be cold, rainy and miserable, which does not deter the campers, as it is considered the unofficial start to summer. It seldom fails, whereas the following weekend, the US Memorial Day is often quite nice. Still, not one to let a bit of rain (or even forty days of it like this spring), get in the way of a good tea spread, I decided to attend. The last time I was there, it was miraculously a warm and sunny day, with a pleasant breeze coming off the river, and we were able to take our tea outside on the veranda, as opposed to inside huddled beside the stove. It was such a fine day we lingered over a second cup.
Although the day started out warm and sunny, the forecast was rain by 3pm, (I’m quite serious about the forty days of rain), so we set out early and decided to tour the buildings first (my friend had never been there), as we could always sit inside later if it started to pour. On our walk about, I noticed a big patch of rhubarb growing beside the log cabin and took some pictures which I could have used in last week’s Rhubarb Lunar Cake blog. (It’s never too late to edit!)
There’s something so civilized about a tea party and the clink of china tea cups, shades of Downton Abbey. Each small table was laid with white tablecloths, cream and sugar sets, crystal butter dishes, jars of strawberry jam and a colorful mixture of china cups and plates.
The servers, young and old, were dressed in the costume of servants of the day, complete with frilly caps and white aprons. The wind was so strong, their aprons were billowing in the breeze and the tablecloths were threatening to blow away, so we decided to sit inside.
The only occupant of the veranda was a bird nesting high up in the rafters, most likely anticipating left over crumbs.
Even inside, with the veranda doors open, it was so windy that our vase of flowers blew over soaking the tablecloth, which they removed and replaced with one even more exquisitely embroidered. Our server, a charming young girl of about ten, inquired as to our choice of tea and scones – raisin, rhubarb, orange or apple cinnamon.
Such a difficult decision, but my choice is always the rhubarb – it was divine, light and fluffy, and I am still trying to get the recipe, a carefully guarded secret. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of it before it was consumed!
They make up to 400 scones for the day, using the cottage’s own wood-fired stove. (Note the mirror at the top – I guess that was to check your appearance after slaving over a hot stove all day?) The cost of the tea was $7.50 with donations to the museum fund, ordinary admission being $5, a bargain for the price.
Exactly at 3 pm as predicted, the skies opened up and rained on our lovely tea party. Oh well, there’s always next year…I’m sure I’ll be back.
Postscript: Easy rhubarb scones, only for truly lazy cooks or those whose kitchens are about to be torn apart. Mix this, with this,
‘Village for sale in Yorkshire – property includes a great house with 43 low rent cottages,’ said the ad on the internet. For only 28 million pounds you could have your very own Downton Abbey, complete with a butler saying, “Welcome to Downton” or whatever you wished to call your estate.
I was late to the British Television drama Downton Abbey, having binge-watched five seasons over the winter of 2015, when it’s ending was already rumoured. Forty some episodes later, I was addicted, and could see why it was watched by over 100 million people in 200 countries and considered the best drama series ever. I had heard people talking about the show and had even tried watching a bit here and there but there were so many characters and relationships to keep straight. The librarian suggested the only solution was to go back to the beginning, so I did. It helped make a long snowy winter pass pleasantly, as I spend it in balmy Britain in the early part of the twentieth century. Recently our local Public Television station has been airing the re-runs, which inspired me to revisit the world of Downton and make some observations, focusing on the fun, food, and fashions.
As a history lover, I found the era of the show fascinating, as it was a time of much change and innovation in the world, which is one of the reasons that producer Julian Fellowes chose it for his period drama. He starts his saga in 1912 with the fateful sinking of the Titanic (and the death of the Downton heir apparent), and subsequently covers WW1 and the 1920’s, all the while working many of the decades most famous innovations into the script – cars, electricity, telephones, early airplane travel, listening to the king’s speech on the wireless/radio plus household appliances like refrigerators, toasters, mixers, sewing machines, typewriters, curling tongs and hair dryers as well as covering changes in women’s fashions, hairstyles and roles. Looking back, Downton is a strange world in many ways, one many of us may find hard to relate to, especially if you are not British and your only exposure to the aristocracy is a picture of the Queen on your Canadian money. The show is interesting because it depicts the rigid class structure of the time, the wide gulf between the social classes and the upstairs downstairs aspect of running a great house, as well as the developing increase in the middle class and the importance of education. Of course, we would all like to have lived such a life of leisure, and never have to worry about cleaning the house, making supper or childcare – there were nannies for that. It was an envious lifestyle in many ways, even if they did tend to spend very little time with their children – an hour after tea time, but as the Countess Dowager exclaimed, it was an hour every day!
While some things would have been lovely, such as having a breakfast tray brought to you in bed, (only for married women, spinsters like Edith were expected to show up at the table) and having an elegant five course meal prepared for you every night, other things like being a slave to the 7 pm gong (dinner at eight seems way too late), and eating in the formal dining room in your best clothes in the presence of the butler and footmen, would have seemed very rigid on a regular basis. (No sneaking leftover pizza in the kitchen of that household.) Could you eat when someone was standing there like a statue, pretending not to watch you or listen to the conversation whilst being ready should you require any attention. It might be a tad uncomfortable, but maybe preferable to trying to flag down a waitress to bring you a coffee refill. There was always conversation over dinner, and after they “went through” to the living room, more conversation. So different from today when so many people dine with their cell phones instead of their companions.
One would think they were a family of anorexic alcoholics from the dining room scenes. While they served themselves from the platters proffered by the footmen, there never seemed to be much food on their plates, (especially the deserts, and I watched!) which might explain why they were so thin. They tended to savour small exquisite portions – certainly no supersized meals there.
Strawberry English Trifle
And the wine, so many different ones for each courses, but as Carson said, they usually only take a sip. What a waste of good wine, why not just open one bottle for the meal, and be done with it. The china and crystal were lovely however – why don’t we use the good china anymore. It’s so much more elegant – as long as you don’t have to wash the dishes, and why did they never ever show anyone washing all those dishes night after night?
And the tea – so many cups poured, so few sips taken…but such pretty teacups. But no scones or treats? It’s a long way until supper – ah yes, the crumbs and calories. Teacups are elegant, but they hold 4 oz at most, and when I want a cup of tea, I want a bracing hot mugful. Recently I saw a lovely silver tea service at a thrift shop, but it would need polishing and I already own too many teapots I seldom use – no one entertains like that anymore, which is why it was in the thrift shop.
Oh, the clothes – that long elegant silhouette, nothing too clingy, or skin tight like today’s fashions with everything emphasized and/or overexposed. I especially liked the flapper style when they entered the 1920’s, and all the jewelry and hair ornaments….and the hats, so many stylish hats, week after week. Even their nightgowns and robes were feminine and elegant.
For a fashionista it was worth tuning in just for the clothes. The show must have been a wardrobe persons dream job. The colours and fabrics were exquisite too. But did they really need a lady’s maid to help remove their jewelry and undress themselves before bed, like a bunch of toddlers? I found this 1912 book The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes (Julian Fellowes niece) most interesting in explaining the jobs of the various household servants.
There were chapters on each of the characters, as well as general historical information about the running of such an estate and depictions of common household items. Part of the lady’s maid’s job was to maintain, mend and care for the clothing. Sign me up – I hate doing laundry and despise that half hour of ironing every week. Imagine having someone to pack and unpack for you when traveling – it would be pure bliss.
While women’s clothing can be delicate and in need of more care, the valet’s role was even more puzzling and seemed to consist of nothing more than brushing the dandruff off the shoulders of the men’s evening jackets and polishing their shoes. But again, there was the packing and maintenance and plenty of rules for black tie, white tie and tweeds. In one of the early episodes, Lady Mary inadvertently insults one of the staff by commenting that he was only a footman, but a staff position in such a great house was a steady and respected job, guaranteed employment and a step-up for many in the village.
Jessica Fellows has published a number of these lavish hardcover coffee-table type books, including this earlier one, The World of Downton Abbey, 2011, with lots of behind the scenes photos. Highclere Castle, where the filming takes place, is a real working estate, and the present day countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon has published At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, which chronicles the food, menus and entertainment of four historic weekend house parties held at the estate from 1866 to 1936. There seems to be no shortage of books about Downton as recently I ran across this book, Downton Abbey and Philosophy, edited by Adam Barkman and Robert Arp, with contributions by 22 writers, about such diverse topics as the War Years, Master and Servant and Lady Edith and the Trials of the Modern Woman, as well philosophical ventures into morality, manners and socialism.
What did they do for fun? They seemed to read a lot of books – at least they are always opening and closing them, and wouldn’t it be splendid to have that red carpeted library, although many of the books look like dusty tombs. The dinners and parties and dances look splendid, especially the waltzes and the jazz tunes on the phonograph. The fox hunting and horse race scenes were gorgeously filmed as was the grouse hunting in the heather filled moors and the visit to the Scottish castle. A life of privilege would certainly have its pluses, but would it be enough? (see the philosophy book – finding the meaning of life in Downton Abbey). I suppose you wouldn’t question it if that was all you knew, but I am reminded of Sybil’s remark after the war was over, when they had grown accustomed to having a purpose in life (in her case nursing). Instead of going to dress fittings and endless teas and charity events she said she wanted to be tired at the end of the day, tired from doing useful work. Well Darling Sybil, I’m sorry they killed you off in Season Three, but work is tiring, very tiring – try it for twenty years or so and let’s check back or let’s change places. I think I could adapt to being a lady of leisure – are there any British castles where they will let you sample the life of a lord and lady for a month? Highclere Castle does host some daytime events and there are cottages you can rent overnight, which brings me back to that ad? Anyone have an extra 28 million pounds they can spare? Or if not, then anyone care for tea? We can always pretend…..
I know some people who stopped watching after Season 3 as they could not handle the deaths of two of the main characters, but apparently those two actors had specified they only wanted 3-year contracts. Maybe they were afraid of being typecast, but having watched Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, well seriously – Mathew was all I could see. The story-line of Downton Abbey really draws you in, it is multilayered with many characters. The scenes are short for the most part, and the pace quick. Having such an excellent cast of strong actors helps, they really inhabit their roles. My least favourite characters were Mr. Bates (bad temper, shady past and way too old for Anna), Cora with her breathy baby-like voice and snobby ways, Shirley McClain as her American mother (horribly typecast), as was Miss Bunting (rude and much too short). I’m glad they ended the show on a high note after six seasons, as I really couldn’t take Bates facing jail time yet again…..and Mary’s multiple suitors were no replacement for Mathew. Although she did eventually chose one, none of them could ever measure up.
In some cases, (the pigs anyone?) they seemed to have run out of story-lines. But I was very glad poor Edith was happy at last, and ranked higher socially than Lady Mary, (but then I was a middle child too). Epilogue: There are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie swirling, with a tentative release date of Sept 2019, but I wish they had left them frozen in time at New Years 1926. It ended perfectly, with all the story lines wrapped up nicely, so why run the risk of spoiling it – but then I may be convinced otherwise. I’ll be watching…..I wonder if the movie theatres will be serving tea and scones?