RHYS BOWEN: How did you survive Sunday evening with no Downton Abbey? It was hard for me and my daughter and we didn't see how we could survive a year without Downton. And now Maggie Smith has said she'll only do one more season, whatever happens. She commented that her character has to be at least one hundred and ten by now! (that poor dog Isis was also older than any dog I've known)
So it's a good time to reflect what we love so much about Downton. The story is pure soap opera, isn't it? Man with mad wife. Illegitimate children. Returning Russian prince. Evil servants. Good and long suffering servants. It's all over the top and if it were in a contemporary setting it would be relegated to daytime TV. One of the things we love about it is that it is Downton Abbey, fictitious home of the Crawley famly. We are fascinated by a lifestyle we can hardly imagine. Oodles of servants. A maid waking you with morning tea. Elaborate meals. Hunts and balls and shoots. And gorgeous clothes. I think we love the clothes best of all.
It seems we can't get enough of the lifestyle of the rich and famous a century ago. A few days ago I enjoyed meeting a new writer called Tessa Arlen who has written a mystery called Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman that takes place at a costume ball at a stately home. It's terrific reading, giving the reader a glimpse into the lifestyle above and below stairs. Tessa herself is the daughter of a British diplomat and has lived in various parts of the world, including India where I'm sure she had servants to wait on her, like Downton girls.
So maybe it's time for a reality check: I grew up in a big English house. Not nearly as stately as Downton but with long drafty hallways down which the wind whistled. And one thing I can tell you about it: It was cold. All the time. There was no central heating. If a fire was lit at one end of a forty foot roon the other end still remained glacial. The bedrooms on my parent's floor had fireplaces, but there were none on the floor where my brother and I slept. Hence the windows would ice up in winter, the wind would rattle the window frames and I would snuggle into a tiny ball, clutching my hot water bottle to keep warm.
When I see the Downton people in their elegant silk dresses I always think "You were freezing cold, remember?"
And life seems so easy to us, but was really so difficult. It needed a maid to do up the forty buttons at the back of a dress. And that dress was never washed if it was silk. The marks were sponges off it. But in Edwardian times mud would cake onto the skirts. And people weren't so keen on bathing as they are now. Most people would have a good wash once a day and maybe a bath once a week (bathrooms were also freezing. My father would light an oil stove in ours and we'd all take baths on the same evening.)
Quite possibly everybody smelled bad. Lower class people only had one dress for weekdays and one for Sundays. They covered them with an apron. Men didn't change their shirts every day. They changed their collars (hence the need for collar studs).
And we call them the good old days, but were they? It seems that at Downton they enjoyed a succession of lovely meals and house parties, but in reality the life of an upper class woman was one of boredom. Meals punctuated long dreary days writing letters, wandering through the gardens, reading and playing the piano. Houses were a good distance from each other so it was often a life of loneliness with the husband busy with running the estate or with his business and the wife with nothing much to do except entertain on rare occasions. The only chances to meet young men were those deemed suitable and introduced by the family, and then there was no real chance of getting to know them beyond a brief stroll in the gardens. No wonder Lady Mary wanted to test out Lord Dillingham's prowess before she married him. No wonder there was bed-hopping when they had company!
And those good old days came with no concept of modern medicine. If your cold turned into pneumonia you would probably die. Even upper class women died in childbirth (as we know from Lady Sybil). My grandmother lost a child to scarlet fever and one to meningitis.
So would you really have wanted to live then? Or are you content to enjoy their life vicariously through our books? My next Lady Georgie is called Malice at the Palace and will give you a chance to live like a royal!