A Victorian Tea

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. 

Victorian Tea CottageNote: 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. 

Victoria Tea Cottage

 It consists of a good sized dining room, living room and  kitchen and two very small bedrooms.   

Victorian Tea

Victorian Tea Cottage

The inside still looks as it did during the time she lived there, floral wallpaper, quilts and all.  

China cabinet Victorian Tea

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.  

Victorian Tea cottage

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!)  

Rhubarb

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. 

Victorian Teat

 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. 

Victorian Tea

The only occupant of the veranda was a bird nesting high up in the rafters, most likely anticipating left over crumbs.   

Bird nesting

 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.   

Victorian Tea China

 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!   Victorian Tea Cottage

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, Rhubarbwith this, Rhubarb scones

bake as directed,  Rhubarb sconesand you get this.  Rhubarb scones

Enjoy with a nice cup of tea in a china cup!

 

 

Downton Abbey Revisited

Downton Abbey

‘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.  Downtown Abbey

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!

The Food

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.  

Downton Abbey

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 Trifle

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?Teacups

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.     

Downton Abbey The Fashions

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.Hat

 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. Downton Abbey

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.   Downtown Abbey 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.   Downton Abbey

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.  Downton Abbey      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. Downton Abbey

The Fun

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…..

The Cast

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.Downtown Abbey

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).      Downton Abbey 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?

The official movie trailer: