Posts Tagged ‘Aristocracy’

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

If I’m right, you’re getting set to watch the second episode of Downton Abbey having put all the dinner dishes in the dishwasher, brushed your teeth, made a good strong cup or pot of tea or coffee, and are about to consume half a dozen donuts, or a huge slice of banana bread, or 3 humungous scoops of double rich, double good, chocolate chip ice cream with a bit of chocolate sauce on top.

Now I must admit, in all candor, that I can also imagine I’m dead wrong and you’re not about to consume a huge chunk of banana Imagebread–not at all. Instead it ‘s a medium sIzed piece of pumpkin bread with a maple walnut topping. Or perhaps I’m wrong because you have no plan to eat the pumpkin bread or the banana bread. And then again maybe I’m off base since you’re not now, nor have you ever intended to watch Downton Abbey. For you, it hath no relish of salvation.

Well, thankfully, this is a free country and you don’t have to watch the show if you don’t want to. However, let me also make use of this freedom and sing some praises for this mega popular BBC series for it’s got an awful lot going for it.

Let’s start with pageantry. The show sports loads of pageantry, but this is pageantry you can enjoy snuggling up to munching a Baby Ruth, or some pretzels, or that banana bread I mentioned earlier. This isn’t the kind where you have to sit in a cold, concrete block, stiff benched cathedral listening to soggy bromides mixed with especially pompous platitudes where you end your several hour stay furious and exhausted.

Au contraire. Watching the pageantry at Downton, you find yourself at the end of the show wanting more of the stuff. Pageantry at Downton is like a pageant–I mean it’s like fun. It’s a holiday, an Olympic event; it’s a kind of rock concert you want to dress up for. Or watching puts you in a festive big hotel wedding mood with mounds of shrimp and oodles of oysters there for the taking. And all the chocolate you can get your hands on. I mean some folks are even wearing tuxedos and shiny dresses and five inch high heels.

But here’s the thing. If you don’t like pageantry that’s perfectly OK. You can still be entertained for Downton provides you a wonderful opportunity to enjoy despising the mindless excesses of early 20th century English aristocrats who never have had to squeeze into a packed redline rush hour train car during a January snow storm or 100 degree Chicago heat wave in July. By all means, let your flood of opprobrium for these folks flow.

On the other hand, you may prefer warmly sharing in the more modest sorts of joys and concerns which are offered the downstairs staff. For they too have their loves, and dreams, and anxieties and interesting conundrums they work hard to favorably resolve. The show doesn’t present the downstairs staff as flat, boring, card board creatures who we, the audience, don’t worry about or identify with.

ImageFor the point is that both the upstairs and downstairs folks are shown sympathetically which is to say they’re both shown in an attractive light. Whether their portrayal is historically accurate I must report, with some consternation, I’m unable to say since I have no first hand knowledge or experience of people who lived these kind of lives, nor do I have much book learning under my belt to help me decide. But what I can report with some confidence is that at by the time an episode has ended I feel as if the better angels of our nature have had many opportunities to come forth.

Downton Abbey is in its fourth season and enjoys a huge viewership. According to several surveys, it’s easily the most popular TV show in England. And it’s amassed a large American audience as well. The most frequent explanation for its popularity is that both here and in England people harbor secretly and not so secretly a huge wish to live the lavish life style enjoyed by the aristocrats of old. I mean waking up surrounded by tons of Spode or Haviland cups and saucers and plates amid a sea of sterling silver trays, and tea sets, and immense serving spoons, and napkin rings, and silverware. And gorgeous sloping lawns, and fancy cars, and a downstairs staff to minister to one’s every whim.

However, my explanation for the show’s success points in the opposite direction. I believe Downton’s popularity rests on the way the show shows not how the downstairs staff takes care of the upstairs aristocrats but on how both stairs take care of each other. Care and concern and love and affection doesn’t travel in one direction only.

What we learn from watching Downton Abbey is that our probable preconceptions about aristocratic life were wrong. Contrary to the idea that the old world was composed to two groups of people who were very very different, Downton portrays a universe where upstairs and downstairs people share a common humanity and common concerns. Right is right and wrong is wrong and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly which is which. Moreover, both upstairs and downstairs folks are basically pretty nice, but some aren’t and the ones who aren’t sure end up creating an awful lot of trouble for everyone, upstairs and downstairs alike.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

“her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank,

instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her.” ~Jane Austen

As far as I have been able to discern from extensive reading of European literature, I possess all the inherent skills of successful and beloved duchesses across the centuries. I’m good at all things duchess-y (or is it-esque?). Duchesses are almost universally described as “highly intelligent,” just like me. I was born to be a duchess, and am now just a 21st-century lady-in-waiting.

The most celebrated duchesses are excellent correspondents. I am a huge proponent and practitioner of letter writing. I typically write two letters (including “thinking of you” or birthday cards) per week. If I had more free time, I expect I would write even more letters. I am certainly intimately acquainted with enough people to write a letter a day for the better part of the year, and if these people were to write back (though they rarely do), I’d respond to their responses. You can see how this would fill up my mornings as duchess.

Another thing duchesses are required to do is “run a household,” which generally means boss people around in order to ensure that the place (a palace, in most cases) looks its best. Ask any friend of mine whether or not I am particular about the placement of items in my home. They’ll tell you a story detailing my charmingly fastidious nature, I’m sure.

Having a discriminating eye and endless resources leads to impeccable interior design and an impressive art collection; thus, duchesses are well-known supporters of arts and culture. I readily collect what art I can, though my most expensive acquisition is in the tens of dollars, not the tens-of-thousands of dollars range. Nevertheless, my list of favorite things includes both live music and libraries. Therefore, I am already a well-season patroness and eagerly await the opportunity to expand my contributions in this capacity.

Duchesses are expected to host parties and special events. Again, I am highly qualified in this regard. While at parties, the best duchesses entertain their guests with topical conversation and witty banter. Duchesses infamously tell rather ribald stories, which I can do when pressed. Every season, I have at least one thematically appropriate event scheduled. In the fall, I put together my annual “Football Party” which includes an array of food and intense Bears’ football watching. Moreover, I ensure that an autumnal trip to the countryside takes place, clearly harkening back to a genteel, bygone era. One of the most famous parties in history is The Duchess of Richmond’s ball, a fascinatingly important party, and one whose significance I’m sure I could duplicate, if I only had duchess-quality resources at my disposal.

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Tricia Lunt?

Duchesses are always on the forefront of fashion (see Kate Middleton, now Duchess Katherine). While her style is enviable, I think I do alright with 1/1,000th of the budget. My most recent shopping trip resulted in the purchase of garnet suede lace-up boots. If that doesn’t scream “duchess,” I don’t know what does. I also like to wear a well-placed scarf, or sport a ridiculous hat. If she had been born in the 70’s, Madame de Pompadour and I would be essentially indistinguishable.

though she was only a Marquise, and I, as a duchess, would outrank her.

Thus, like any woman meant to be a duchess, my main task is to charm a lesser prince, which would not have been a problem had I spent the summer on a yacht in The Mediterranean as I should. Lesser princes are the younger brothers, not directly in line for the throne, and decidedly more fun (see Andrew and Harry), so I consider it a win-win.

My next best plan is to seek out a man nicknamed “Duke.”