Thursday, January 12, 2012

Downton Abbey

The second season of one of the more fascinating shows on TV this year appears on PBS. Downton Abbey is a beautifully crafted and acted miniseries set in a fictional estate in North Yorkshire, England. Having missed season one, and hearing that the show was a "must watch", we bought the DVD of season one and became seriously hooked. We are great fans of the old "Upstairs, Downstairs" series, also broadcast on PBS many years ago. For me the key to both shows is the playing out of how different life was for those in class-conscious England at the beginning of the twentieth century. Stories of the landed gentry and those "in service" to them open a window to what their lives were like.

Downton Abbey opens with the sinking of HMS Titanic in 1912. The family in residence at the estate is greatly affected by the tragedy in that among those who went down with the ship is the cousin of the current Earl of Grantham of Downtown Abbey, and his heir who was to marry the lord's eldest daughter, Lady Mary, thus becoming first in line to inherit the title, the manor and all that went with the estate. Having no other heirs, Lord Grantham is duty and honor bound to leave the estate to a distant cousin of whom they know little, except that he is a middle class barrister, a profession for which they have no respect. (Even then, lawyers were considered odious.)

The consequences of this change in the family's fortunes play out in settings as diverse as the opulent 100-room manor house to the trenches of World War I battlefields. The current Earl's family schemes as to how to avoid turning over the title and the estate to the new heir, all that is except for Lord Grantham himself. He sees himself as not the owner of Downton Abbey, but as its caretaker and custodian. Like any good Englishman, Lord Grantham is determined to follow the law which states that all he possesses, including his American wife's fortune which is now part of the estate, must pass to the rightful heir. Lord Grantham's wife and his mother who, up until this new turn of events were enemies, unite as allies to find a way to hang on to everything.

It is impossible to relate all the stories that unfold in connection with the events described above, so I won't try. What impressed me about this show was the insights into the attitudes of the wealthy British upper class who presided over the country during this era, and the army of servants who waited on them hand and foot. The nobility believed they were superior to those not of their class, but many felt a sense of "noblesse oblige", the obligation of persons of rank to behave in a way befitting their station. This meant treating servants fairly and taking some responsibility for their welfare. Contrary to what one might expect, many servants came to love their masters and to perform their duties with pride and loyalty.

There were certain distinctions even in the underclass. The butler was supreme commander of the "downstairs" world and often wielded his power more ruthlessly than the lord of the manor. Standards meant everything and were adhered to religiously. All staff members from parlor maids, kitchen maids, footmen, chauffeurs and cooks knew their place and stayed in it. Work was hard to come by, and often the slightest infraction was enough to get some poor soul sacked. As an example of how rigid these standards were, when the war with Germany broke out and male servants were conscripted for the army, Charles Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey was aghast at having to use housemaids to serve dinner, a duty always performed by male footmen. Oh the sacrifices we are asked to make in time of war.

One of the side joys of watching the show is getting to hear the English language spoken properly. Also the understated British sense of humor amuses me. One of the more delightful characters in the story is Lord Grantham's mother, the dowager empress, played impeccably by Maggie Smith. This grand old dame despised the mother of the new heir and rarely missed an opportunity to let her know. She once delivered what she thought was a stinging insult to this woman only to have the woman say: "Well, I'll take that as a compliment." Unfazed, the dowager mutters: "Then I must have said it wrong." Game, set and match. Despite their aloofness and feelings of superiority, I confess to being an incurable Anglophile. The sun never sets on the British Empire.


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