I’m getting to the “Downton Abbey” episodes a bit later than the rest of the world, but I am getting to them. I’ve never been much for these upstairs-downstairs British house dramas, but the ground has to be fertile for the seed to grow, and I guess that’s finally happened. You have to run a modest modern household of your own to appreciate how much work goes into it, even with today’s considerable labor-saving devices. To think what it must have taken to keep a pile like Downton operable as a habitable home, much less what kept it from falling to rubble, is mind-boggling.
The number of scurrying serfs required to keep its fires burning, its beds made, its kitchen turning out meals, its ten thousand chandeliers dusted and its inhabitants properly dressed is mind-boggling. (Although we only meet a few, the Granthams being a modest family. Or maybe the production budget only allowed for a cast of 20 or so.) Of course they all have complicated lives outside of their work, and the family itself is going through the things families went through in the Edwardian era, what with the need to get their daughters well-married and their estate properly passed down, all while the modern age lurks just offstage, the way the ’60s loom in “Mad Men.”
But being a woman, and the mistress of NN.C Abbey here in Michigan, I’m most interested in the domestic details of clothing and housekeeping, the way the ladies dress for dinner, what everyone eats. You needed a valet or maid just to attend to all the details of your wardrobe, to lace your corset or fasten your cufflinks or attach the stiff collar to your stiff shirt, so you can sit at the head of your table like a penguin and preside over dinner. I read once that true upper-class people call tuxedos “dinner jackets,” because that’s what they are.
I notice you don’t see the laundry being done. If you want to keep me awake at night, whisper in my ear that in my next life, I might be reincarnated as a laundress. I’ll stare lasers into the ceiling. The main character in the novel “The Girl With a Pearl Earring” was a laundress in the large and child-heavy household of Johannes Vermeer, and the paragraphs of description of the daily chores involved made my hands ache with sympathetic pain — the washing, the scrubbing, the rinsing, the starching, the bleaching, the wringing, the hanging, the ironing, the folding. My earliest memory of a washing machine at our house was one where you had to move the clothes over, a few at a time, into the spin-extractor, and yet, my mother did it happily. She also owned a washboard for problem cases, and I think she knew what the alternative was.
So far, my favorite moment is the old cook, trying to tell young Daisy, the kitchen maid, that Thomas the footman is not for her. Thomas is gay, and the cook tries to tell her a half-dozen ways, but Daisy, besotted with his attention, can’t hear her. “He’s not a ladies’ man,” the cook says; she’s a rougher sort, but apparently sodomite and buggerer aren’t in her vocabulary. And of course I love anything that drops from Maggie Smith’s mouth. She plays the dowager countess, and she gets all the best lines.
I can’t believe it’s only four parts, and we’re almost there! But a second season is on tap. So in that spirit, and because it’s Burns Day, let’s start the bloggage with a story about haggis. Mmm, gray food served in offal — my mouth is watering.
Although, when you think about it, what we eat isn’t much better. What’s the difference between what you put in homemade tacos and what Taco Bell calls “taco meat filling?” You probably don’t want to know. And in the right frame of mind — i.e., after a beer or three, during a blue moon — I’ll actually eat this stuff. Maybe I should stick to the vegetarian options.
The predates “Downton Abbey” by a few years, but I bought this book a while back — “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” — and enjoyed it immensely. It’s an explanation of Victorian England that concentrates on the little details of daily life, including maybe the biggest one: Why have a Downton Abbey at all? (Answer: To have a home base for fox-hunting, and an escape from plague season in London.)
Now I must fly. But first, was Trent Reznor really nominated for an Oscar? If so, I hope he wins. The score in “The Social Network” was outstanding, and I’m not a score-noticer by any stretch.
Good Burns Day to all. I’m headed for Taco Bell.