I just watched the most recent episode of Downton Abbey; the one where all the ladies strike a blow for liberal post-WWI values by deciding to eat a massive pudding even though a former prostitute made it with her sin-soiled hands.
In the episode before this one, Lady Sybil shockingly died of her dad taking the word of an arrogant society doctor instead of the family’s usual homespun one who knew her well enough to recognise that she didn’t usually have fat ankles. Or, as my friend MC said,
“Clearly, Downton isn’t light on plot telegraphing so I knew the minute Pompous Childbirth Lord Plot Device made that rather revolting comment at the dinner table that something was going to go wrong. But, also being Downton, I thought it would be nothing more than a clumsy way of enabling Grantham [Lord of the manor] to realise that he must move with the times and learn to be able to say “womb” in mixed company.”
The Facebook outpourings of grief over Ladysibyl’s death were entertaining. Here is an example status thread:
H: Downton sobbing. With noise. And snot. I shall wear black for the foreseeable future.
C: I have all of the above plus sore throat.
H: Oh C. I can’t even believe it. I have a headache now. I cried solidly until the end.
C: I hate the producers, they are bastards. I actually haven’t cried this much before over a TV series. I will not sleep tonight.
H: I need a hug.
Almost every woman I know watches Downton Abbey, and they all say basically the same thing: ” I know it’s terrible, but I still like it.” The same applies to me. From the very first episode when the eldest daughter sneaks a fancy young ambassador into her bedroom, finds him dead in the morning and drags him back to his own room, much of the story has been mildly unlikely. But that doesn’t bother the likes of me. I seem to have a tremendous capacity to suspend disbelief when excellent dresses are involved.
I’ve even tried to work out logically why the damn series is so addictive, and have come to no very profound conclusions on the matter. I’ve considered the idea that we tend to hark back to the past when the present seems troubling, but nobody would really want to go back to the time between the wars, so that’s not an entirely convincing explanation. Although… perhaps our fascination does involve a sort of imagined nostalgia. After all, although human tragedies happen in the programme and there are baddies, there is also a strong code of honour among all the characters (without getting too caught up in the class politics of it all). Perhaps because we’re living in times where we no longer feel we can trust those in authority to act with honour we romanticise an imaginary past. A moderately interesting discussion of this question takes place here.
Personally, I am not sure what it is that makes this (and other costume dramas) so compelling, but I feel a similar sort of fascination when I visit historical houses; especially if they still contain the everyday detritus of the inhabitants. The most glorious one for this type of pleasure in Cornwall is Lanhydrock House. It’s a late nineteenth century country house now run by the National Trust, and what I love about it is that everything is still in it, so you can stand in rooms and vividly imagine what it was like to live there. Of course, like the viewers of Downton, we all like to imagine living only in the upstairs parts of the house – wafting around in glorious clothes and having nannies to take care of the children while we entertain our friends and participate in various dramas that involve smouldering, repressed desire and/or cliffhangers. The life of a downstairs person seems significantly less appealing.
When I was at primary school, we were taken to Lanhydrock for a history day. Our class was divided into two groups and we had to spend a morning experiencing what it was like to live in the house in one role or another. I passionately wanted to wear a gorgeous dress and parade around a drawing room, but I was allocated the role of a kitchen maid. I had to spend all morning wearing a shit cloth hat and an apron and stand at a huge oak table kneading bread dough or carrying jugs of water up and down the stairs with about 10 other girls. All dressed the same. There are no words to explain how horrified I was by the whole experience. In several ways:
- It was SPOOKY.
- I had to LOOK THE SAME AS OTHER GIRLS.
- I had to look HORRIBLE.
- I had to eat dry bread and drink water while standing up.
- I HATE role play.
- WHO did they think I WAS giving me the role of KITCHEN MAID??!! Excuse ME.
The entire learning event was entirely lost on me through the sheer outrage at the decision to make me a menial. I have always been too big for my boots.
When, however, I visited Lanhydrock as an adult with my camera in tow, it was the downstairs that interested me most – the evidence of how life was lived in a big house like that. It wasn’t the grandeur I found appealing, it was the tiny details. It resulted in a set of photos that almost ignore the big picture altogether and just focus in on the small, domestic aspects of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Here are some of the photos I took at Lanhydrock. I hope they give a sense of the life of the place, which incidentally, is well worth a visit. If you like that sort of thing.