‘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?
The official movie trailer: