Monday, February 21, 2011

Edwardian Ghosts

I don't have anything against the Real Housewives franchise; most of my friends watch at least one iteration of the show and through their recaps I have gained a passing familiarity with the loud, overconfident, and materialistic ladies of New Jersey, Atlanta, and Beverly Hills like secondhand smoke inhalation. But my taste in household drama runs towards the traditional - as in, once a character shows up in a motorcar spitting dust and shrieking about how exhilarating it all is, I feel like Fonzie's airborne over the shark.

I come by my love of Edwardian costume drama honestly. Growing up, one of my favorite times of the week was Sunday evening at 9 pm, when I’d sit on the floor in my parents’ room and watch “Masterpiece Theatre” with my mother while I finished my homework. It was hosted by a man we jokingly called Alice The Cook, and Mom and I followed the trials and tribulations of the Upstairs, Downstairs characters like they were family.

They almost could have been. My grandparents came from Yorkshire and before he joined the Royal Navy, my grandfather worked as a gardener on the grounds of the castle used to film “Brideshead Revisited.” That's my downstairs connection. Meanwhile, hoping for a more upstairs future, we kept a tiny framed picture of Lumley Castle in the front hall – Lumley being my grandfather's family name, and me being hopeful that one day a man dressed in a Beefeater outfit would inexplicably knock on the front door and name me its rightful inheritor. 

So I couldn’t be more proud to be handing down the obsession to our two daughters via steady exposure to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and the newest Masterpiece Theatre delight, “Downton Abbey.” Set in 1913, it follows both the wealthy Grantham family and the army of servants that keeps their grand home running. All three of us watched it, rapt, while Andrew hid upstairs and played on the scrabblePad. When each 90 minute segment was done, we spent another 400 minutes discussing it. 

Who’s your favorite character? Why did Thomas and William get in a fight? Why did Daisy put molasses in the soup and then cry? Why has it taken this long for the lovely Elizabeth McGovern to finally get a decent role again?

During one episode the ten year old commented on the appearance of the three Grantham daughters, all of whom are being cosseted until they make good marriages. “They’re so pale!” she said. “Lady Mary is practically invisible!” (Lady Mary is indeed what my friend Barrette calls “Jellyfish Pale.”) This led to a discussion of how being pale, and for men being portly, were outward signs of power and money at the turn of the last century. “The people who were the lowest in society were the ones who worked outside, and didn't have much money for extra food,” I explained. “The last thing you wanted to be was tan and skinny.”

Unlike today, of course.

There's an aspirational pull to watching these three Grantham daughters who spend their busy days at the dressmaker, reading on a chaise, or horseback riding: the real Bachelorettes of Berkshire County. What child in her right mind wouldn't fantasize about having maids who will make your bed, tie your shoes, do your hair, and tell you how beautiful you look every day?

But there's a catch. In one scene, Lady Mary comes to the defense of her younger, idealistic sister Sybil, who is catching hell from her father and grandmother for having attended a political rally with the dreamy Socialist chauffeur. “She has a right to her own opinion,” Lady Mary says.

That’s when the dowager grandmother, played by Dame Maggie Smith with such perfect ferocity that she may as well lean over and take a bite out of the camera lens, says “No she does not! When she gets married, her husband will tell her what to think!” 

At that line, both of my opinionated modern girls looked at me with saucer eyes, barely able to stifle their laughter. What girl on earth would wait to have an opinion until she received it fully formed, like a communion wafer, from her husband? It was the same expression worn by Dame Maggie when a distant, middle class  relation (oh the horror) told her about some upcoming travel plans. She interrupted him and said, "What is a week-end?"

There are some things in life worth preserving, like exquisite manners and watching British costume drama with your mom. But when it comes to the systemic and pervasive subjugation of women - a lively topic what with some of the federal budget cuts now on the table - good riddance. Not even for the keys to Lumley Castle.


  1. Now I must watch that show. I've heard so many great things about it.

    And I love your daughters' reaction to Dame Maggie's line.

  2. I need to see if this series is available through our library.

    Also, I'll have to watch it on my own *sigh*. I know my 3 boys will have no interest...even from the historical side.

    That's OK, I'll curl up by myself.

    Your daughter's commentaries are wonderful, and I'd enjoy a night like that.


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