Monday, November 29, 2010

The Age of Innocence

Image courtesy of Broadway Photographs

Between September 26 and November 7 of this year, more than 30 percent of British households were glued to their TVs every Sunday night. They were watching a series called Downton Abbey, which followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. It was written by Julian Fellowes who is a specialist in depicting the aristocracy of the early 20th century (he won an Oscar in 2002 for his screenplay for the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park) and starred Dame Maggie Smith plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It was such a big hit with British viewers that the ITV network has announced that a second series will air in 2011.

Like its venerable predecessors Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsythe Saga, Downton Abbey is set in the period immediately before the First World War. It’s an era for which we in the 21st-century seem to have an insatiable appetite, presumably because we see it as an age of perfection and innocence that was about to be shattered by the “war to end all wars.” Plus of course the clothes are to die for.

But in reality, life in Edwardian Britain was far from idyllic. There was widespread labor unrest, a violent struggle for independence in Ireland, and a struggle within Parliament over social and political reform. Above all, the Suffragettes were smashing windows and setting fire to pillar boxes and burning "Votes for Women" in acid on the golf courses of England. Their goal was the vote, but more generally their actions were a vociferous protest against the confining roles in which all women - whether upstairs or downstairs – were trapped.

In the first volume of my long novel sequence Albion’s Millennium, Lady Celia Maybury is a dutiful daughter shackled to her mother’s side till a suitable man proposes marriage. Her life is one long round of stultifying duties that render her almost comatose with lack of will.  

There was mutton for luncheon. Afterwards Celia wrote the thank you notes that her mother dictated and took delivery of the new flowers and supervised the maids as they put them into Chinese vases around the house. She had no aptitude for flower arranging, she felt, but she twitched a lily here and pulled a delphinium higher at the back of an arrangement simply to have the last word. After changing into the tea gown that Lettie had laid out on her bed, Celia came back into the drawing room as the mantel clock struck a quarter to five.
   Her mother looked up from her embroidery.
   “Will it never stop raining?”
            It wasn’t a question.
   “Maybe no one will come today,” Celia said, interlinking her fingers and stretching her arms behind her.
   She felt shrouded, inert, longing to fling open a window and let a blaze of cold air sweep away the muddle in her head, and yet without the energy to so much as tug at the cord of the blind.
   On a table set up close to the piano stood a kettle and a silver teapot, cream pitcher and sugar bowl. On a glass dish, slices of lemon lay as transparent and anemic as dead fish. Celia ran her eye over the tea caddy, the tea strainer and slop bowl and the stack of little tea plates, each with its linen napkin in a perfectly folded triangle with sharp pointed corners. Nothing seemed to be missing. Holding her skirts flat against her legs, she eased herself into the chair behind the table. Striking a match, she held the flame to the white wick of the spirit lamp. The flame hesitated and wavered until, finally, it flared and then settled. Celia put the kettle on its stand and began the long wait for the water to boil. …
   Visitors drifted into the drawing room, fresh from the damp and foggy street, moving towards the fire, their hands extended to its warmth. The same faces week after week, the same people who saw each other at each others’ houses in town and country with the inevitability of the tide going in and out, making gentle gossip about others whom they all knew. As Celia prepared the tea - one scoop per person and two for the pot - she nodded and smiled at her mother’s guests, at the courtly compliments of elderly men and the gentle murmurings of the dowagers on the eternal subject of the weather, so used to smiling that it no longer required an effort of her facial muscles. Her movements were as instinctive and coordinated as a concert pianist’s. The muscle in her bare forearm tightened as she lifted the heavy pot and poured the stream of dark tea into the cup, tilting the pot upright at the exact moment with the tiniest scooping motion to avoid drips, then handing out the delicate cup and saucer with a steady hand without the slightest tremor of porcelain on porcelain.

We in the US will be able to see Downton Park on PBS Masterpiece in January 2011. I’ll be watching.

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