The Wait is Over!

By the time you will read this blog, you will have seen the first episode of Series 4 of Downton Abbey. As of this writing, I am still waiting in feverish anticipation of another season of this addictive Masterpiece drama watched by millions of viewers all over the world. Call it highbrow soap opera or melodrama, if you will, but the appeal of this typically British period drama knows no geographic boundaries. The Chinese State Television broadcasts this series, and it has been one of the most watched shows in over 200 countries from South Korea, to Australia; from Brazil to Russia and, of course, North America.

Downton Abbey has won 16 Emmy nominations, has its own Facebook page, and 297,568 followers on Twitter. There are Downton Abbey interiors on Pinterest and we even have Downton Abbey wines. So what is it about this show that makes it such a worldwide phenomenon? Great story, superb actors, interesting characters, lavish costumes, and the sumptuous backdrop of Highclere Castle makes for a frothy concoction worth consuming! It is all so very elegant and stylish but the story contains some basic universal themes that people anywhere can understand: class conflict, gender politics, familial duty, sibling rivalry, jealously, loss and, of course, romance. Presented with great panache, "It’s not hard to see why it was such a hit: the series has a connoisseur’s eye for the most exquisite emblems of privilege and breeding and a fan’s gusto for intrigue and melodrama."
Stanley, Alessandra. "Forget War; Romance Is in the Air." New York Times 6 January, 2012: C1. Print.

The writer of this show is Julian Fellows; you may also address him as Lord Fellowes of West Stafford! An actor, director, novelist, and screenwriter, Fellows seems to have done it all. He has appeared as a middling character in a variety of British films - including a James Bond movie (Tomorrow Never Dies) and in various British television shows. He won acclaim as the director of Separate Lies, his debut as a film director. His novels include Snobs and Past Imperfect and various romances written under a pseudonym. But Fellows forte is screenwriting: he wrote the script for Gosford Park, (which won the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 2002), Vanity Fair, The Tourist, Young Victoria and his tour de force, Downton Abbey.

Remember another Masterpiece winner Upstairs Downstairs? Downton Abbey is Upstairs Downstairs with more sizzle and spark. The show starts in 1912, just before World War I. Societal norms are just beginning to change though not very visibly. Upstairs belongs to the aristocratic Crawley family: Lord Grantham, benevolent patriarch - and all noblesse oblige - has three beautiful daughters, but no son. His wife, Cora, is American. Because of the laws of primogeniture, Lord Grantham faces the loss of his beloved Downton Abbey unless his eldest daughter marries a distant Crawley cousin who will inherit the estate. Downstairs, we meet a huge cast of household staff whose sole focus is all the minute details of running Downton Abbey. There is the butler, Mr. Carson, who believes in propriety and decorum above all; kindly Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper; Mrs. Patmore, the cook; Mr. Bates, who was with Lord Grantham at the Boer War and is now his valet; Anna, the housemaid, who is full of commonsense. And then we have the two bad apples in the bunch: Thomas, the deceitful footman and the scheming O'Brian, Lady Grantham's maid. And last but not least, we have the matriarch, Lord Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess Violet, played with marvelous aplomb by Maggie Smith. I think that either all the best lines were reserved for her or she does such a terrific job of delivering the zingers that they have become memorable. Another heavyweight, Shirley MacLaine, plays Cora's mother and appears in some of the episodes. Sparks fly when old world meets new and Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith trade one liners.

Watching Downton Abbey may feel like guilty pleasure but it does have a certain documentary - albeit light - aspect to it. While the show has been accused of not portraying social history with absolute accuracy, it does a great job of capturing the zeitgeist of the English aristocracy.  We learn about the lives of the British upper class during the Edwardian era, and view the disastrous effects of the class system and primogeniture. And did you know that to save old country houses from ruin, arranged marriages between wealthy American heiresses and English Lords was an acceptable custom during the 19th century?

Carina Chocano writes in her article, “The Upside-Down Appeal of 'Downton Abbey'” (The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, February 19, 2012) "Clearly, something about this show appeals to our deepest desires, granting us the cake-having and cake-eating satisfaction of indulging in a fantasy of a bygone era .... What Downton Abbey offers... is a utopian version of the past that's custom made for the present sociopolitical morass. It presents a system so perfect that it can weather any upheaval, smooth out any wrinkle, absorb any shock."

New to Downton Abbey? Never seen it, you say! Rush to your neighborhood branch of the Mercer County Library and check out the DVD and catch up on all that you have missed. If your interest is piqued and you want to know more about Downton Abbey, or if you are suffering from withdrawal, waiting between episodes, fear not, Mercer County Library has plenty of books and DVDs about Downton Abbey to keep you occupied in between episodes.

The World of Downton Abbey. Written by Jessica Fellows, this book offers insights into the characters and details about the story as well as information about the British society in the early 20th century.
Lady Catherine ,the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey: Compiled by the current Countess of Carnarvon from diaries and scrapbooks, you will discover the story of Catherine Wendell, the American heiress who married the 6th Earl of Carnarvon.
Below Stairs: the Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir that Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. A biographical account of Margaret Powell's life as a kitchen maid during the 1920s.
Upstairs & Downstairs: the Illustrated Guide to the Real World of Downton Abbey. Discover the goings-on in the opulent houses of the Edwardian era in this beautifully illustrated book written by Sarah Warwick.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: theLost Legacy of Highclere Castle. Read all about the real setting of Downton Abbey and Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, written by Fiona Carnarvon, the current Countess of Carnarvon.
The Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Author Jessica Fellows provides a detailed account of every important character in the show.
Secrets of Highclere Castle. Watch this DVD and discover the history of the real setting of Downton Abbey.
And, there's even a fictional account about watching Downton Abbey entitled: While We Were Watching Downton Abbey by Wendy Wax. The story is set in Atlanta and is about four very different people connecting with each other when they get together to watch weekly screenings of, you guessed it, Downton Abbey!

Rina B.


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