Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Ups of Downton

DEBORAH CROMBIE: As host Laura Linney says in her introduction to Series 2 of Masterpiece Theater's Downton Abbey, "Who knew that it would be so much fun to watch a houseful of magnificently overdressed aristocrats living under one roof with their servants?"

But we fell in love with Downton Abbey in Series 1, on both sides of the Atlantic. Wildly. So what's so special about Downton? After all, we've been there before, haven't we, with Upstairs Downstairs? And there have been loads of period dramas over the years since.

But nothing has captured audiences' hearts and imaginations like Downton Abbey. Oh, the clothes! The hats! (I wouldn't be surprised if Downton Abbey was responible for an upturn in the millinery industry.) And the house! Highclere Castle in Berkshire stands in as Yorkshire's Downton Abbey, and it is a star in itself.

Creator Julian Fellowes speculates that part of Downton's success may have to do with the fact that Downton is NOT adapted from a novel, so we don't know what's going to happen. And he says it may satisfy a modern longing for a simpler life, without mobile phones and Twitter and, um . . . blogs.

In Series 1 there is certainly the romantic element that I've always thought of as the Edwardian Dream, those few golden years when life was good--at least if you were upper class, and male. But even for women and the middle class, things were changing, and the future seemed full of promise.

Now, however, in Series 2, that promise has been blighted by a war more horrible than anyone could have imagined, and the rigid rules of the pre-war generation will die with it. No longer will people know their place, whether it be upstairs or down.

So will we still love the Granthams and their servants as much?

Do we care if Anna and Bates will finally get their chance to be happy?

If William the footman will come back from the war?

Do we care what will happen to Lady Sybil? Lady Edith? Lord and Lady Grantham?

And, of course, the biggest hook of all--will Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley ever see sense and admit how they feel about each other?

Yes yes YES! We do care, because Downton Abbey is more than gorgeous clothes and houses and wonderful acting from a fabulous cast. Julian Fellowes is a master storyteller, and the characters are complex and very human. Just when you think you've found the villain you love to hate, like Thomas the footman or O'Brian the lady's maid or jealous Lady Edith, Fellowes shows us another side to them. (Although I must admit I have doubts about Mrs. Bates . . .)

(And I have to admit a burning desire to know how the women could eat all those meals and stay so thin! On Sunday we're going to have an Edwardian dinner menu here on Jungle Red, so come back to see what was in all those covered dishes the servants had to cart up from the kitchen. You will be astounded.)

So, readers and REDS, who are your favorite characters? Would you go back and live in Edwardian times if you could, upstairs or down? (Downton Abbey has fired great interest in the publishing world for books set in both Edwardian England and in the Twenties, and I highly recommend our Rhys's Royal Spyness series, as well as books by Charles Todd, Carola Dunn, and Jacqueline Winspear, to name just a few.)

And, readers and REDS, if you could see yourself as ONE character at Downton, who would it be?


  1. Hi, my name is Ramona and I'm a Masterpiece Classic addict. I was just breaking out of my Cranford obsession when Downton Abbey came along to give me a new fix. Oh, thank you, Masterpiece!

    I love all the elements you mention. I would love to see an upswing in the millinery industry (but not so much the whalebone corset industry.)

    I adore Mr. Bates and would happily donate for a hit man to take care of Mrs. Bates. But the most interesting character to me is Lady Edith. She started out as jealous and underhanded, but the war has allowed her to transform herself--driving the tractor, reaching out to the soldiers, becoming an all around better human being. Great character growth. But I think her early bad act is going to haunt her, and all of Downton Abbey. Yay!

  2. Ok i have not seen this, and there has been waaay too much talk about this show from people I like, soooo where do I get Season 1? Does anyone know if it is out on DVD? I am going to Netflix right this minute to see if I can stream it...

  3. I haven't watched yet, but I've heard so many good things about the series that I want to. My mother is British and she loves the show.

  4. Lora-- go to PBS website & you can watch both season 1 & whats already been shown of this year's episodes... But I think it ends today for season one..
    Maggie Smith's Dowerger Countess Violet is so intersting to watch and embodies such snobbery...

  5. Ramona, we already have our modern version of the whalebone corset, dear. It's called Spanx. But I so love hats, and would cheer for their return for all occasions.

    I'm reaching here, but I can see myself as Lady Mary. She was hot to trot when the Turkish bounder came to her bed, otherwise she would not have allowed the evening to continue. I can see myself there. :-) And she's sassy, by gum. Nobody's is putting that Baby in a box!

  6. OH, I--I mean, i just love it.

    I can barely watch the trench warfare. Can you imagine?

    And I'm wondering about Lady Edith, too...because we know she's terrible, and yet, now...

    In the episode we say last night, someone said--how are we supposed to have a grand dinner party when we have no footmen?

    (Don't YOU say that all the time?)

    The answer was something about how war changes everything.

    And I'm reading the new Rutledge right now, too..so I'm immersed! HIGHLY recommended.

  7. And Hank, you have to keep in mind that NOT dressing for dinner meant the men didn't have to wear tailcoats!

    We obviously never have dinner in our house. It is footman free:-)

  8. Lora, Series 1 is available on DVD, and Series 2 is already on sale from PBS, for those who can't stand the suspense. I'm enjoying the weekly anticipation, myself.

  9. "... someone said--how are we supposed to have a grand dinner party when we have no footmen?"

    Said by Mr. Carson. Don't you just love him? His sense of propriety -- and justice? And romance -- excellent advice he gave Lady Mary. Eyes in the back of his head, too. And to think he once worked in a circus!

  10. I love the series, having caught up late on the PBS website (where you can see Season 1.) It definitely riffs on other favorites: Upstairs/Downstairs, Pride & Prejudice (daughters to marry off, the estate entailed away from the female line), even Titanic. I love the way it's made, not in a slow Edwardian manner but moving quickly from drama to intimate drama. For a modern audience.

  11. I haven't yet seen the new series, but I plan to catch up with an "On Demand" orgy.
    I adore Maggie Smith. She has that character spot on (as we'd say in Britain) and I've actually met several ladies just like her.

    I actually blogged about Downtown Abbey on my individual blog www.rhysbowen.blogspot.com

  12. So happy to see you writing about this, Deborah. And of course my answers to your questions are yes, Yes, and YES! I CARE! I'm riveted.

    Now can I complain? I so do not believe the dynamic between Cora (Lady Grantham) and O'Brien. Cora is so easily persuaded to champion the odious Thomas. Whom she knows is a thief. Cora is becoming more and more whingey and annoying. Manipulated for exigencies of plot. While Isobel Crawley is getting turned into a shrew. She wants the DOG banned from the house?

    And that house has supposedly a hundred rooms - WHY on earth are the wounded housed in the drawing room??

    Love the bit with Daisy being strong armed into saying YES to William. Just guessing: he's not coming back alive.

  13. Loved season 1 and like season 2, but agree with most the U.S. reviews I've seen that S2 is a bit weaker. For fun I started live tweeting the show as @L_MarysEyebrows. *arch*

    Hallie, I agree: I don't buy Cora's gullibility about O'Brien; however, Cora doesn't know that Thomas stole. Cora's character seems all over the place: sharp, witty then gullible and whiny. Ugh. And yeah, Isobel really seemed to jump the shark last episode!

    But I'll keep watching for Michelle Dockery's performance and cheering Mary and Matthew. ;-)

  14. Didn't watch last year but watched the marathon a few weeks ago and now I'm totally hooked! Missed episode 1 of season 2 so tried to watch on computer but it felt too small.
    I'm with Ramona - can we just do away with Mrs. Bates? How is it that a chubby guy with a limp can be so sexy??
    Good for Lady Edith - okay not a nice thing to do, but her sister was a total b*tch to her. She deserved it.

    How in the world can Lord G have let that scheming Thomas back into the house?

    Definitely want to read the new Charles Todd, The Confession. so excited - Hank will be interviewing Charles (Caroline) at ALA this Saturday. Will zoom back from the airport on Sunday to watch the next episode.

  15. Here's the link to Rhys's blog about Downton, since she didn't give it to us:-)


    Very interesting observations, Rhys.

  16. I surprised myself by loving this show when I tried it on a whim. I was immediately hooked and was anxious for season two.

    The war stuff scares me, but then that is the point, right? I cannot imagine living that.

    I've wondered if I would like to live those times. Yes, for parts - the clothes are gorgeous and the manners are so nice. But war? No thanks. And I would miss all our advanced medical knowledge along with a few other things.

    I appreciate the book tips. I've been planning to look for some to feed my addiction and for the knowledge of the times. I admit, I don't know as much as I should.

  17. I've just been reading Catriona McPherson's series on Dandy Gilver, which deals with the era just after the war, but in Scotland instead of England. The first book is great fun (although with some loose plot ends), and I'm enjoying the second one now. She seems to get the era right. Still with servants, but the women are a bit more free, being allowed to drive, etc.

  18. My favorite character is Anna. I like the strength of her character, and her devotion to Bates

  19. I saw a comment somewhere - if I can find it again, I'll give attribution - that said Bates is like every Jane Austen hero rolled into one. Which - as long as you take away the money and property - is absolutely correct. Oh, Bates. My youngest and I literally screamed out loud when he finally, finally kissed Anna.

    Mrs. Bates reveals the one thing I don't like in Downton Abbey: evil characters tend to be bad simply because...they're bad. Youngest said, [SPOILER ALERT]

    "Why is his wife making him live with her if they don't like each other? Wouldn't it be smarter to just get all his money and marry someone else?"


    The answer seems to be: Because Mrs. Bates is Evil McWickedson. Oh, well, at least Thomas and O'Brien are getting a little fleshed out in Season 2.

    My captha phrase is "authbr." Which is an author in a draughty old house in chilly Maine!

  20. Okay just saw episode 1 of season 2. Everything changes. Lady G must have hit her head when she slipped on that bar of soap. She's clueless. Mary is nicer and Edith is a little hussy. to say nothing of the dress comment. The Kiss! Almost as exciting as Russ and Clare!!

  21. Karen, I've just read Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains and LOVED it. I'm going to go back now and start with the beginning of the series. Wonderful writing and characters, and detail of life in post-WWI Scotland. The new book is set in Edinburgh, which I especially liked.

  22. Okay, I can see I'm missing out on something BIG. Got to get the first season on Netflix and get started...

  23. This series is amazingly good, and I'm not a fan of "soap operas." Fellowes is doing a magnificent job. I keep waiting for someone to tell on Thomas. and Cora is a little too simpery for me, but the cast is marvelous. Maggie Smith, sadly, looks older to me, but still has that zing. Does anyone really believe Olivia? Anna and Mr. Bates....I could go and on...

  24. Rhys, yes. Maggie Smith. I adore her.

    Rosemary, get a computer with a big HD screen.

    You are keeping me in laughing happiness. xo

    Ramona, keep it coming. Get that millinery back. I nned a new hat.

  25. My captcha said iy all "scuttle." I left Hank off. should have read:

    Hank, you are keeping me in laughing happiness. xo

  26. Maggie Smith has ALL THE BEST LINES. But I like what they are doing to Cora. I think she's finally getting an EDGE. And I also like that Isobel is getting a bit too pushy. That's why the show is so great, the characters all have their ups and downs -- their comuppance and down-uppance or is it comedownance. I'm making up words now in the spirit of upstairs/downstairs.

    And Ro, you are right, Lady Mary had it coming....although in those days, Edith should know, you bring scandal on the older sister, you bring it on yourself.

    I am TOTALLY hooked and my husband thinks we should have a party here where everyone has to dress in dinner ware. That means gowns and hats, ladies. Who is in?

  27. Jan, I'm in. I need a new gown. And hat-- to be sure.

  28. I am TOTALLY in. Since I'm staying with you next week, should i come in costume?

    BTW Mary's dresses in last episode were killer. The red one and the sleeveless lace. yum.

  29. I say Edith and Mary are now even, and it will be interesting to see if they can reach some sort of understanding.

    Jan, I love comedownance:-)

    But no hats at dinner. Only for daytime wear. So maybe we should consider a garden party (in the summer, obviously, unless we all move to FL) so that we can wear the gorgeous hats AND the dinner gowns. Unfortunately, I would not look like Lady Mary in those dresses . . .

  30. Hi Karen in Ohio (and everyone),

    I splurged on DA1 in December in boxset form and loved it, of course.

    Re the "loose plot ends" in my first book: I'd never! I was being deliberately playful, but it puzzled more people than it entertained. However, there is an extra clue in the answer to the first FAQ on my website.

  31. Catriona! Squeee!

    Please leave a link to the FAQ in question, my dear. I've looked and looked, and can find nary a FAQ. Thanks, ever so much.

  32. Had to rush off down to the beach and watch the sun set on the Pacific (it's a hard life). Back now. Hilarious Twitter, name, Missy.

    I haven't seen S2 and although everyone says it's weaker I know I'll watch it all in one weekend ("What's a weekend?").

    The sure hand of Julian Fellowes makes it easy to relax into - you know there won't be any mistakes that tear down the fourth wall. My only quibbles were that Lady Sybil has a very modern accent - and a tan!

  33. Hi again, Karen. I just looked and FAQs are under About the Author at www.dandygilver.com. I hesitate a bit to send you there because the picture of me on that page is an instance of unforgivable duckface (before I realised that not smiling in photos doesn't actually make you look younger - just grumpy).

  34. I'm green about the sunset, Catriona.

    Many thanks for the hint. The father was just who I thought it was!

    While I was there I read your FAQ about the Burry Man, and Googled for photos. What a bizarre custom. However, your descriptive powers are amazing--he looks exactly as I pictured him from your book.

  35. Love Anna and Mr. Bates. I was so excited when they kissed and am sure that they will be together again.

    The series comes very close to Brideshead Revisited which is my all time favourite!

  36. I'm very late commenting, but it's all your fault. I'm on jury duty all week with no internet except at night. After dinner I check out my dear Reds to find you're talking Downton! Don't watch TV--didn't even get the box to change it to receive the new signal. But my son got season 1 for Christmas, and we stayed up all night watching it in a marathon. When I read to my husband the comment that said we could see season 2 on the website, we took a detour to the PBS site, which led to watching Ep. 1, and there went the night.

    And for all those who say Season 2 is weaker, you could have fooled us! We both thought it was as strong as ever. Maybe it's because they're showing the war, so it's not as all-garden-partyish. Deborah's right, though. Under all the gorgeous costume and scenery, under all the fabulous acting of the cast, the storytelling is magnificent! Something all of us who are writers can learn from. Or just enjoy.

  37. I'm probably the only person left on earth who reads memoirs, diaries/letters, and biographies of World War I era upper class British families, so many of whom lost most of their fighting-age men. All that gallantry, those inspiring uniforms, the "fighting for our king and country" spirit, and then to face the horrors of France, the trenches, the mustard gas. Pretty awful. I was touched by Lord Grantham's bitter disappointment in only having an honorary role and not actually being allowed to go to war. Those scenes felt real to me; but the romanticism of the Grantham women tending to the very fetching wounded seems pretty fantastical.

    But....I'm just as riveted as the rest of you. I only wish the Turk had lived. He was truly delicious.

  38. Oh, TJO, I agree. That was so sad...and so revealing.

  39. Downton Abbey is the best! One of my friends has invited over myself and another lady to watch the next episode. She's happy because she is the only female in a house full of boys.

    I think I know what will happen with William and Daisy. He'll go missing and she will miss him and realize how much she actually loves him.

    Hallie, The soldiers probably got put in the drawing room because they can't walk up and down the stairs.