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Weekly Shhhout-Out

Roaming librarians file dispatches from the world of information.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The World of Downton Abbey


Downton Abbey

The PBS Masterpiece Classic series Downton Abbey, now in its second season, is a surprise hit for public television. The drama about an aristocratic British family and their servants before and during the Great War is not just a hit with the usual suspects, the aging demographic that has followed Masterpiece Theater for decades, but also with young people. I know because my daughter and son-in-law are just as addicted as I am and tell me that many of their friends watch it too. People of all ages post updates on Facebook answering questions such as “Which Downton Abbey character are you?” I will leave it to the psychologists and political analysts to explain why so many people today are drawn to a tale about the 1% of a distant time and place, but strong storytelling, magnificent acting (Maggie Smith!), characters to both love and hate, and of course that big house and the sumptuous costumes all make for an irresistible television experience.

The best historical films and television series make us want to learn more, and what better place than the public library to get ideas on related reading. I’ve put my Readers’ Advisory cap on and here is a selection of books that illuminate the world of Downton Abbey.

The first season is set in the period just before World War I, a world that seems idyllic in retrospect because we know it will all soon be swept away. The best book I know that captures this moment is The Perfect Summer: England 1911, just before the storm by Juliet Nicholson. This readable popular history was a best seller in England and tells the story of that long, hot summer through the eyes of a variety of people from all social levels including a debutante, a trade unionist, a butler, Home Secretary Winston Churchill, and Queen Mary, wife of the just crowned King George V. Of course it was not perfect for everyone, and Nicholson balances the rosy picture with an account of the labor unrest caused by harsh working conditions and low wages.  The Shooting Party book coverIn fiction my favorite book set in this pre-war period is The Shooting Party by Isobel Colegate, published in 1980. Unfortunately MCPL only owns one copy now, but there is a film version available with James Mason in a magnificent performance as Sir Randolph Nettleby. The DVD includes a documentary about Knebworth House where it was filmed. The deceptively simple story of a shooting weekend at a country estate in 1913 is, in the words of the Spectator review, “a perfect metaphor for the passing of a way of life." You can easily imagine the upstairs and downstairs characters of Downton Abbey in attendance.

This season the residents of Downton Abbey see their lives changed by the Great War, both those who go to fight in the trenches and those who support them on the home front. The literature about World War I is vast, but I would like to highlight two recent nonfiction books that bring a fresh perspective. To End All Wars: a story of loyalty and rebellion 1914 - 1918 by Adam Hochschild covers the opponents of the war as well as those who fought it. Some families were bitterly divided. For instance, the Commander in Chief on the western front had a sister who was a leading pacifist campaigner. That book focuses on Britain, but a diverse assortment of ordinary people from different nations tell their own stories in Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: an intimate history of the First World War. In fiction Pat Barker’s outstanding Regeneration trilogy explores the war from the point of view of the shell-shocked and injured survivors, characters like the recuperating officers we meet when Downton Abbey becomes a clinic.  Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a modern classic and book group favorite. This epic tale of love and war, often compared to Dr. Zhivago, is the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman who finds himself fighting on the Western front in the same place where he experienced his first love affair years before. A BBC film version will be available in the U. S. later in 2012.

A main theme of Downton Abbey is the relationship between the upper class characters and their servants. One of the most interesting books I have read in recent years is an illuminating study of this topic focusing on Virginia Woolf and her servants. Mrs. Woolf book coverThough set in a later period than Downton Abbey, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an intimate history of domestic life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light captures the same unease that changing times brought to the traditional relationship of masters and servants. There is added irony in the fact that the Bloomsbury characters, who consider themselves feminists and cultural revolutionaries, cannot cope without their cooks and maids. I wonder what Virginia Woolf’s reaction would be if she knew that one day she would share equal billing with her cook.

Downton Abbey viewers probably all imagine ourselves upstairs in the great house, but, alas, I took the quiz and found out that I am actually a downstairs character! Never mind, I can still take a virtual tour of Highclere Castle, home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, which plays the starring role in Downton Abbey.


Rita   Rita

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Last edited: 11/6/2007