To celebrate the release of the Downton Abbey movie, Jennifer shares the top 7 reasons she loves Downton Abbey.
If you would prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down for a transcript of the episode.
Transcript for Episode 21: 7 Reasons I Love Downton Abbey
It’s September 16, 2019, as I record this, and as the Downton Abbey movie is scheduled to release later this week, I thought I’d share with you the seven reasons I love Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is the epitome of a sparkling vintage life, and while it’s not everyone’s fine china cup of tea, it certainly is mine. However, if you’re not a fan, you may feel free to skip this episode as it will simply annoy you.
I only have one bit of writing news to share this week, and that’s that The Highlanders novella collection is now available for preorder on Amazon. I’ll put a link in the show notes. My own contribution, a novella called The Violinist, is set in 1915, which happens to fall in the time period of Downton Abbey. But that’s just a coincidence. I promise.
I was a great fan of Downton Abbey from the beginning. For those who might not be familiar with it, it was a British television drama that aired in from 200X to 201X on PBS. Created by Julian Fellowes, it followed a similar pattern as a much older series called “Upstairs, Downstairs,” chronicling the lives of wealthy British people living lives of luxury juxtaposed against the servants who toiled for them below stairs. I loved watching these ways of life that were so foreign to me, both the nobles’ lives and the servants’ lives. Like all the best TV, movies, and books, it gave me a chance to escape my own reality and dream a little, in this case for an hour a week.
In anticipation of the movie being released later this week, I’ve broken down my appreciation for Downton Abbey into seven reasons.
- First of all, it was set in my favorite time period, the early twentieth century. From the first episode set in 1912 through the 1920s, it was an era filled with drama. One of the things I love about history is not only learning the facts about historical events, but learning how these events touched the lives of individual people and families. For example, long-ago events World War II or the Korean War seem so much more real and vivid to us when we hear how they affected our fathers, uncles, or grandfathers who fought in the war, or how our grandmothers coped on the homefront with rationing and shortages and war-bond drives. Well, in the same way, Downton Abbey lets me see historical events through the lens of one household. They got the ball rolling with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, which kicked off Season One’s storyline. We saw the impact World War I had on different characters in different walks of life. We watched the wild spirit of the 1920s roll in, and all along, the various technologies: electricity, the telephone, the radio, the phonograph. One of my favorite scenes was from Season One where the dowager countess, Lady Violet, declares she will never have electricity in her house because of the damaging rays. Well, some people actually felt that way, and some still do feel suspicious about every wave of new technology that comes along. So my number-one reason for loving Downton Abbey is the time period.
- The stories! Downton Abbey is great storytelling, pure and simple. There are mysteries. There are murders and suspicious and inconvenient deaths (poor Mr. Pamuk). There are jilted brides, sibling rivalries, conflicts and betrayals and treacheries of all sorts, punctuated by sweet and tender moments, sometimes from characters you’d least suspect of being capable of sweet and tender. And there’s romance and heartbreak and more romance and more heartbreak and more romance and even some happy endings. There’s good character development, with characters who grow and change over the course of the series. So my second reason for loving Downton Abbey is the storytelling.
- The costumes ! The costumes. The dresses. The hats. The sparkly headbands and slinky gloves and luxurious jewelry. I could watch the series with the sound off and just enjoy the costumes. Even the outfits I hated, I loved.
- Good values. In Downton Abbey, a person’s character wins out over their social status. In a world where rich people are often vilified like cartoon villains simply for being rich, and poor people are often considered virtuous just for being poor, Downton Abbey showed a world where rich people could be good and kind and generous, and the lower classes were not necessarily saintly just because they were poor. To be sure, some of the wealthy characters were disgusting human beings–hello, Larry Grey. And many of the below-stairs people were, of course, men and women of sterling character. But most of them were a mixed bag: clever Lady Mary and snobbish Lady Mary. Kind Lady Edith and revengeful Lady Edith. Treacherous Thomas and vulnerable Thomas. Most of the characters are multi-dimensional, which means they’re human, like every one of us. We can relate to them. And multi-dimensional characters also point back to good storytelling. I appreciated the fact that, at Downton Abbey overall, a person’s quality of character mattered more than their social status.
- Good manners mattered. Downton Abbey shows a type of civility that our world sorely needs today. To express anger with words, not fists or guns. To wash your face, get dressed, fulfill your commitments and keep your promises, even when the world around you is shifting. That’s what good manners are. When everyone knows what behavior is expected of them and what to expect from others, things tend to run more smoothly. Good manners aren’t all about using the proper fork at dinner, although that, too, has its place. At their core, good manners about treating other people with respect and kindness, no matter who they are. Carson the butler was often joke-worthy in his insistence on a proper way to do everything. And yet there’s something reassuring having clear ideas about right and wrong, proper and improper, good and bad. In today’s world where many people think everything’s relative and there are no absolutes, such ideas are comforting. So, reason number five is good manners.
- Downton Abbey is a multi-generational family saga, meaning there are storylines for characters of all ages, from the elderly dowager countess to the youngest child. (The dowager countess, played by the incomparable Maggie Smith, could constitute a reason all on her own.) I love a series that has interesting and even romantic storylines for older characters as well as those in the bloom of youth.
- Reason Number Seven: Top-notch production values. From the décor of the interiors to the English scenery, British accents, and great casting, and aforementioned fabulous costumes, Downton Abbey is a treat to watch.
So there you have it: seven reason I love Downton Abbey. I’ll check back later, after I’ve seen the movie, to share my impressions of it.
Today’s grace note is the 1928 Jewelry Company, and specifically their Downton Abbey Jewellery Collection. You’ve heard me mention the 1928 Jewelry Company before. They’re not a sponsor, and I’m not an affiliate, but I do like their jewelry.
According to the company’s website, the Downton Abbey Collection was inspired by the Edwardian and Art Deco jewelry worn during the time period of Downton Abbey. It was created in collaboration with 1928’s designers and the shows costume design team in England through an exclusive licensing agreement. From the earrings and necklaces, down to the bracelets and hair accessories, the Downton Abbey Jewellery Collection features authentic details and motifs from the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras.
As I write this in September 2019, they’re having a sale on their Downton Abbey collection. I don’t know how long the sale will last, but here’s a link to the company.
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And that’s it for today! I’ll be back soon to discuss another aspect of A Sparkling Vintage Life.
From the dusty archive of antique descriptions we don’t hear much anymore:
Genteel (jen-teel)/adj. From the Middle French gentil = gentle. a: Having an aristocratic quality or flavor; stylish. b: of or relating to the gentry or upper class c: elegant or graceful in manner, appearance, or shape
It all sounds very Downton Abbey. Is “genteel” a word you ever find occasion to use? Do you know anyone personally who fits the description?
Tweed–that rough, woolen fabric so strongly associated with fall– reminds me of academia, the patched elbows and ever-present pipe of a stereotypical professor straight out of Central Casting. Tweed also reminds me of offices, of dressmaker suits and hair scraped into a bun, and heels clicking on hard floors, of clocks and calendars and the clacking of typewriters. These vintage images don’t jibe with my own experiences. Even in my long-ago day, professors were wearing some variation of khaki and polo shirt, or bohemian broomstick skirt and bangles, or, in one memorable case, biker denim and leather. When I last worked in an office, employees wore head-to-toe T. J. Maxx, office floors were carpeted to mute noise, and the clacking of typewriters had faded away in the glow of computer screens. No, these tweedy images in my head hearken back to some earlier time–that misty time I never knew yet yearn for in a curious way.
Tweed brings to mind hunting parties and strolls along the heath wearing sturdy leather brogues–scenes not from my own world, but my imaginary one, fueled by countless BBC dramas. This is the tweed of the British Isles, of shooting parties in cold, damp weather out in the rugged country. It’s the fabric of Sherlock Holmes and the men of Downton Abbey (and the ladies, too, from time to time). A 1998 Smithsonian article described it thusly: “Whether woven in herringbone, houndstooth glen check or tartan, flecked, mingled or striped, the traditional rough feel and subtle coloring of Harris Tweed — and the fact that it is, by definition, handwoven in Harris and the other islands of the Outer Hebrides — have made it, to quote one designer, one of the world’s most ‘noble fabrics.'”
Tweed reminds me of fall, of pumpkins and mist and bonfires and piles of flame-hued leaves. It’s a warm fabric suitable for crisp fall days, but not a cozy one. It’s the sturdy jacket, not the soft sweater underneath. It speaks of ruggedness, protection and strength, which may be why it’s strongly associated with menswear.
To add some vintage flair to your fall, reach for tweed. Some families hand sturdy tweed garments down from generation to generation. Even if you’re not part of the landed gentry, tweed is widely available in shops, and you might find some excellent specimens in thrift stores and on the Internet.
What do you think about tweed? Does it hold good memories for you, not-so-good ones, or no memories at all?
I was surprised by O’Brien’s move, grieving with Lady Mary, shocked shocked shocked by the nanny, loved how things turned out between Mary and Carson. As always, I was impressed by the attention to detail, such as the solid black of deep mourning giving way to mauve for the lighter “second mourning.” As Emily Post explains it in her book, Etiquette (published in 1922, the same year that this season opens), “The young widow should wear deep crepe for a year and then lighter mourning for six months and second mourning for six months longer. . . . People in second mourning wear all combinations of black and white as well as clothes of gray and mauve. ”
Re Mary’s grief, which seems maybe excessive to our twenty-first century sensibilities, Emily Post writes, “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use nor be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from dearest friends. One who is by choice or accident selected to come in contact with those in new affliction should, like a trained nurse, banish all consciousness of self; otherwise he or she will be or no service—and service is the only gift of value that can be offered.”
Seems like nowadays we expect people to bounce back from deep grief in a matter of days. I’m not sure if this quick return to business-as-usual is such a great thing for the person suffering a significant loss. What do you think?
Regarding Mary’s future, Mrs. Post writes, “There is nothing more utterly captivating than a sweet young face under a widow’s veil, and it is not to be wondered at that her own loneliness and need of sympathy, combined with all that is appealing to sympathy in a man, results in the healing of her heart. . . . There is no reason why a woman (or a man) should not find such consolation, but she should keep the intruding attraction away from her thoughts until the year of respect is up, after which she is free to put on colors and make happier plans.” I wonder what those “happier plans” might be for Lady Mary.
In other news, I also had the joy of attending a Downton Abbey premiere party in Coeur d’Alene, sponsored by Idaho Public Television. I’d estimate that about 80 people (many in costume–my tribe), gathered to nibble on appetizers, sip wine, listen to a string quartet, and pretend, if only for a couple of hours, that the Hampton Inn was Highclere Castle. There was a costume contest, and the winners’ costumes were fabulous (although my own personal most-creative award went to the man at my table who dressed as the late, great Matthew Crawley, complete with bloody head wound.) The centerpiece of the event was being shown the first hour of the premiere on the big screen, but had to wait to watch the second hour at home on Sunday night along with the rest of the country.
One of the unexpected joys of going to a Downton Abbey party was hearing the reactions of a large audience, as if we were in a movie theater, but with everyone being familiar with the characters and backstory. Maybe that’s a glimpse of what my football-loving friends enjoy about watching a televised game in the company of like-minded friends–the collective groans, sighs, gasps, and sniffles as the action unfolds onscreen.
Here’s what I looked like, a semi-confusing conglomeration of decades, but somehow it worked: