Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Why We're Upstairs, Downstairs, and All Over Downton Abbey

Why are we enthralled by Televised Brits? Is it love, envy, or a good gossip?

Were you to ask to ask me to describe myself, which you would never do, of course, being too well-bred, and were I to answer, which I would never do, I would perhaps say (rather modestly) that I fancied myself as terribly, terribly loyal.

And you’ll have noticed, from the rather odd diction of that appallingly ridiculous first line, that I’m also being terribly, terribly influenced at the moment by my recent watching of television programs heavily laden with the British sauce, don’t you know, darling?

You see, darling, I wasn’t sure quite sure whether or not I was really permitted to like Downton Abbey because, after all, it seemed so thoroughly and entirely based on Upstairs Downstairs that one could hardly turn a corner  in the drawing room, open a door in the pantry, or sneak into the mistress’s dressing room in the Abbey without entering Eaton Place first.

You recall Eaton Place, don’t you, darling? That simply wonderful spot where the Bellamys lived and where Mrs. Bridges ruled over the kitchen, where Hudson kept his stiff upper lip when all about him were loosening theirs and where Rose --of the ambiguous sexual preference, hinted at before its time-- sniffed out secrets as well as kept them?

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Okay, enough of that. I’m going to speak in my regular voice now, the one that still sounds like Sheepshead Bay and rush-hour traffic even after 4 years of living in England and 25 years of living in Connecticut.  Oy. That’s better.

The problem is, I didn’t know whether I could even ask my friend, Fay Weldon, what she thought of the Julian Fellowes’s show without offering offense. And so I did an Internet  search and viola (as we said on Ocean Avenue), Fay had already dished all the dirt already.

Dame Weldon talked about all kinds of scandals, including her theory that “the more governments preach equality the more we seem to relish the old days when there were fixed hierarchies and strict formalities to be observed. When we knew our places and doffed our caps.” Weldon attributes the success of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey to this rebellion against rebellion, this “class business, ” suggesting that “perhaps it’s just that the relationship between the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate offers the writer a wealth of material that’s denied to the writers of soaps, cop shows, doctors and nurses.”

“Reality TV palls,” in comparison to real stories, Fay Weldon, who has recently published in the US the first of a trilogy of novels set in Edwardian London, argues. Compared to game shows, weight-loss shows, or genre shows, "Single ‘issue’ drama fails: we’re tired of examining our own rather grubby navels," she observes.

And whatever Fay Weldon says, well, darling, you should believe.

Fay Weldon has always examined the scary parts of what lies beneath the silk cushions and behind the closed gates. In her 1987 novel, The Shrapnel Academy, for example, she writes that “Those who sit on soft cushions and live politely and eat well and play war games, have the advantage in energy and cunning over those who starve and suffer and are bitter.  Everything’s so much easier when it’s fun!  Everything goes better if you don’t take it seriously.  On the other hand, Downstairs has a vast superiority in numbers of Upstairs and the advantage of surprise and an inbuilt system of informers.”

Let’s keep that in mind as we watch the next episode of Downton Abbey, which we can do without guilt—and with a toast to Ms. Weldon—and read her brilliant new book,  Habits of the House. 

You will adore it, darling, you most certainly will.

Lovely chatting with you, but now I must dash. Crumpets are burning and so, too, might the whole house be if we're not terribly careful...

 

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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