“My dear fellow, we all have chapters we’d rather keep unpublished.”
So speaks Lord Grantham, one of my favorite characters on the wildly popular PBS Masterpiece show Downton Abbey. The show seems to be on the lips and minds of everyone these days, including me. An avid viewer of Masterpiece Classic, which gets me through the long part of winter each year, I became enticed from the very first episode of Downton Season One last year. There is something about the characters and the world that one enters while watching the show that captivated me. I felt as if I was living during the Edwardian period, a part of the Crawley family. It was pure torture waiting a whole year for Season Two, but once again it was well worth it (anyone else having withdrawl symptoms yet?).
If, by chance, you haven’t been introduced to Downton Abbey yet, let me give you a basic lowdown on the premise of the show. Season One begins in April 1912 with the Titanic disaster. Lord Grantham (Richard Crawley) who is Earl of Downton Abbey, is married to American-born Cora, and together they have three daughters: Mary, Edith and Sybil. The major issue in this period drama is Lord Grantham’s estate and money cannot be left to his daughters, and one of Lord Grantham’s heirs has just died on the Titanic. Thus, another (third) cousin and potential heir, Matthew Crawley, enters the picture. Of course, the family wishes Mary will betroth Matthew and remain at Downton Abbey as Countess, however, this proves to be a more difficult match than expected. The in-and-out ways of life are played out amongst not only the Crawley family, but the many servants as well. Life below stairs proves to be just as interesting, if not more so at times, than upstairs. There is bickering, scheming, everyday drama and even romance among the servants. Perhaps this is what I love most about the show: the intertwined storylines between the lives of the servants and the lives of the rich. We see what happens below stairs and upstairs in a politically accurate look at the time period the show portrays.
“No, I couldn’t have electricity in the house. I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapours seeping about”-Violet, Dowager Countess.
I love that most of the show is filmed on location at Highclere Castle, the real “Downton Abbey.” We drift from room to gorgeous room with the others as they go about their day, and it is a fun peek into this real life estate! While Downton Abbey was traditional in every sense, the time period was one of great change, including the suffrage movement and the onset of electricity in homes. Downton was no stranger to these changes, and in fact Lord Grantham embraces them, saying that changes come to us all. They acquire a telephone and electric lights, of which Lord Grantham’s mother Violet (played by an ingenius Maggie Smith) has much to say against it. The show explores these changes, as well as those brought about by World War II in Season Two, while still keeping us intimately acquainted with the family and the people who serve them.
The show has something appealing for everyone: the historical aspects, the drama and romance, the action of the war and changing political tide, the costumes and fashion of the period, and a look at life in service. I hope that if you haven’t given the show a chance, you’ll reconsider. And if you are an adoring fan like me, please check out some of OWL’s Downton goodies to hold you over until Season Three.
Downton Abbey Season One: This is where is all begins!
Downton Abbey Season Two: The season that just ended on PBS is full of action and many changes during World War II. Downton becomes home to soldiers wounded during the war, and nobody is left unscathed. A very memorable journey.
The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes: This spectacular book is a companion edition to the show. It is full of rich, colorful photos of the actors and Highclere Castle. The book is broken into sections, covering everything from Family Life and Society, to Life in Service and War. It contains memorable quotations from the show throughout, but what I like best is that it blends fact with fiction. It takes aspects of the show and explains them in there historical context, so you learn more about the time period and the show.
Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maids Story that Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey by Margaret Powell: If you want to learn more about the “downstairs” characters in Downton Abbey, look no further than this revealing memoir of life in service by someone who truly lived it. Powell started out as a kitchen maid, which was the lowest of the low, before progressing to cook.
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons: A lovely story about a Viennese Jewish girl, Elise, who during the Second World War escapes the cruelties of Austria by finding work in service at Tyneford House in England. She struggles with leaving her family behind (her parents hope to get a Visa to America and then send for her), but is warmly welcomed by owner of Tyneford Mr. Rivers. When Mr. Rivers son Kit returns home, a special relationship forms between him and Elise and her whole world is changed forever. I liked some of the similarities between this story and Downton Abbey, and author Natasha Solomons has a very poetic voice.
The Edwardians is the classic novel by Victoria Sackville-West depicting life during this ever-changing time period. It follows the lives and thoughts of Sebastian and Viola, two children of English aristocracy. Both children feel apart from the society they grow up in, but are introduced to another world when they meet Lady Rochampton and explorer Leonard Anquetil. This book was made into a film series as well.
You may want to check out Upstairs, Downstairs–this PBS series is often linked to Downton Abbey and indeed has a similar plot; the life of the rich Bellamy family upstairs in Eaton place, and the servants’ lives below stairs.
Sarai is the Library Assistant and is currently humming tunes off of Bruce Springsteen’s new (awesome) album Wrecking Ball.