As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book‚Ä¶without pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, the drama of Downton Abbey leads me down a winding path.
Downton Abbey. 368 min. Brian Percival, Brian Kelly, and Ben Bolt. dist. by PBS. 2011. $34.99.
Detailed and luxurious settings paired with rich characterizations and witty dialogue make this delicious soap opera a delight. Writer Julian Fellowes’s creation, starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, and Dan Stevens, is set in the late Edwardian era and follows the fate of an ensemble cast of characters residing both upstairs (the Earl of Grantham and his family) and downstairs (his staff) in the grand home of Downton Abbey. When the Titanic sinks, it takes with it the heir to the earldom and the presumed fiancé of Grantham’s eldest daughter, Mary. Now the entailed estate, including the fortune the Countess of Grantham brought to the marriage, is set to pass to a third cousin once removed, Mr. Matthew Crawley. The disdain could not be more heartfelt (said third cousin once removed is a middle-class lawyer). Yet what is the household to do but invite him into the fold and hope for the best? As Grantham attempts to welcome Matthew, both the Countess and the Dowager Countess seek to undo the entail, and the three daughters of the house plot to find their own paths‚ with two of those paths in direct, and spiteful, conflict. Meanwhile, below stairs, the staff have their own agendas and nasty conflicts to plot and endure. Both upstairs and downstairs characters question the rights of the other class, and as the winds of WWI rapidly stir, what once seemed an inevitably set future rapidly changes. Involving, charming, and highly addictive, the first season was event television for its many fans. The second season is in full, if too short, swing on PBS and is bound to leave viewers wanting a range of consolations to carry them through the winter. [Downton Abbey: Season 1 was chosen as one of LJ‘s Best DVDs of 2011 (“Best Media 2011,” LJ 1/12, p. 44‚ 45). The review of Downton Abbey: Season 2 will appear in Video Reviews, LJ 3/1/12.‚ Ed.]
Upstairs, Downstairs. 3250 min. Bill Bain, Christopher Hodson, Derek Bennett, and Raymond Menmuir. dist. by Acorn Media. 2011. $199.99.
This long-running series, made in 1971, is the grandmother of the English house series and the inspiration for Downton Abbey. As such, it should appeal to Downton fans for its similar time period and focus on class, character, setting, and sweeping social changes. Set in a large home in London, the story details the lives of the wealthy Bellamy family, headed by the politician Richard Bellamy and his wife, Lady Marjorie, the daughter of the Earl of Southwold. Downstairs, a cast of characters that often steals the show from the Bellamys reigns supreme. The wide-ranging and evolving plot is complicated, engrossing, and smart. The series shares the same rich production values and fine acting as Downton, making it a perfect pairing for fans.
Flambards. 660 min. Leonard Lewis, Michael Ferguson, Lawrence Gordon Clark, and Peter Duffell. dist. by BFS Entertainment. 2011. $39.98.
Based on the K.M. Peyton books of the same name, this series is set in England just before World War I and shares with Downton Abbey a focus on social change and the lives of the upper class. The story follows the orphaned heiress Christina Parsons, who, after living with a string of different relatives, is at last sent to the estate of Flambards, where she meets her Uncle Russell and his two sons, Mark and William. Mark is a bold adventurer, well pleased with the rewards of his station, while William, disabled in a riding accident, is more timid. In this very male household, Christina must find her way‚ and she does so in heroic fashion. Full of richly detailed shots, a similarly involving story, and the same soap opera plotting, Flambards should please fans interested in the exploration of tradition, class, and the SOMETHING of England as it faced war and change.
Cranford. 468 min. Simon Curtis. dist. by BBC Worldwide. 2010. $49.98.
This series based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell takes a step further back in time, to the 1840s, but nonetheless tackles similar issues of social change and class. In the village of Cranford lives a cast of middle-class characters, the kind, the gossipy, the earnest, the staid, the reformist, and the eccentric among them. At Hanbury Court lives Lady Ludlow, who rules‚ and plans to continue to rule‚ in the manner she has always known. Opposing her in honorable and respectful ways is Mr. Carter, her land agent. Carter takes Harry Gregson, the ten-year-old son of a poacher, under his wing, and it is largely through their relationship that the implications of class and social change are played out. Meanwhile, the main characters among the villagers, sisters Matty and Deborah Jenkyns, have their own way of ruling and their own plans, as well. Downton Abbey‘s upstairs/downstairs dynamic is here paralleled by the tension between estate and village life, and the settled lives of villagers and aristocrats alike contrast with the unknown future presaged by the coming of the railroad. With high production values, a sparking cast, and a sensibility that closely matches that of Downton Abbey, this makes for equally grand viewing.
Gosford Park. 137 min. Robert Altman. dist. by Universal Studios. 2004. $14.98.
Set in England between the wars, this stylized movie (screenplay also by Fellowes) adds spice to its finely honed observations about the wealthy and servant classes with a murder. With his sharp eye for detail and fine ear for dialog, the late director Altman (Nashville; A Prairie Home Companion) brings a saturated and luxurious feel to his consideration of the shifting ground of social change. While this is a darker work than Downton Abbey, the nastiness of Downton‘s characters Mary, Edith, Thomas, and O’Brien would not be out of place among those gathering at the estate of Sir William McCordle for a weekend hunting party. As the guests (and their servants) arrive‚ among them a host of titled personages (Maggie Smith appears here as well), an American actor, and an American film producer‚ connections and misalliances hatch, and Sir William is murdered. Viewers are treated to a marvelously sly story as the death is investigated.
Howards End. 140 min. James Ivory. dist. by Criterion. 2010. $29.95.
Based on the book by E. M. Forster, this Merchant Ivory Production, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins and released in 1992, also focuses on class and social change at the start of the 20th century. Three families collide in this story: the Wilcoxes, a rich clan whose success in trade allows them to presume to a life once only the privilege of the aristocracy; the three Schlegel siblings, who have a comfortable, upper-middle-class, bohemian life; and a lower-middle-class couple named the Basts. Various members of the Wilcox and Schlegel families interfere, with disastrous results, in the lives of the Bast family‚ and in one another’s lives as well. At the heart of the story is the friendship between Ruth Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel. Upon her death, Ruth leaves her house, Howards End, to Margaret, but the rest of the Wilcox family covers up the inheritance. As the relationships among the three families develop, the broader context of social change, position, and power comes into focus. This is a more somber work than Downton Abbey but should please fans looking for strong characterizations, historical details of social change, and‚ although there is no downstairs staff in this story‚ investigations of class.
Jeeves & Wooster. 1150 min. Ferdinand Fairfax, Robert Young, and Simon Langton. dist. by A&E Home Video. 2009. $59.95.
One of the great pleasures of Downton Abbey is the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith with a sharpness and wit that often make the show. Her entrenched insistence on the lifestyle she’s accustomed to and her self-possessed lack of interest in anything outside of her worldview epitomize the upper-class expectation of unquestioned privilege while providing the foil for much of the series’ implicit commentary. With a much lighter hand, P.G. Wodehouse wrote stories starring a similar figure, a gentlemen of means named Bertie Wooster, living high between the wars. His hilarious antics, mostly seen through the eyes of his valet Jeeves, are full of slapstick glee. Wooster is a bumbling, foppish delight, almost always in some kind of trouble, which his unflappable and droll valet must undo. The pair are grand in audio and subtle and sly in print, but for sheer fun it is hard to beat the television series starting Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves.
Bramwell. 54 min. (first season). David Tucker and others. dist. by Shanachie. 2005. $39.98.
If the aspects of Downton Abbey that focus on medicine and women’s emancipation interest your viewers, then they should delight in Jemma Redgrave’s performance as Dr. Eleanor Bramwell, a woman striving to make a dent in the male-dominated medical field in the late Victorian age. Eleanor, whose father is also a doctor and plays a key role in the series, is a bit like the youngest Crawley daughter, Sybil, in her progressive political views and desire to do her part in changing the world. Her drive often results in clashes with the male doctors in her circle, and this eventually leaves her with no place to practice. Her father offers her a place in his practice, but Eleanor rejects a life spent issuing medicine to rich old ladies and instead goes to work at the Thrift, a free hospital in the London slums. While Downton Abbey explores sweeping societal changes, largely from the point of view of the aristocracy, this series focuses on the fate of the poor and the role of women‚ a generation before Sybil becomes a nurse and Edith learns to drive.
Paths of Glory. 88 min. Stanley Kubrick. dist. by Criterion Collection. 2010. $29.95.
Along with Gallipoli and All Quiet on the Western Front, this 1957 film starring Kirk Douglas is one of the finest WWI movies ever made. Based on Humphrey Cobb’s book, it offers a harrowing view of trench warfare and a disturbing investigation into the ramifications of unquestioned power and position. While Downton Abbey glosses power, draping it in the lovely cloak of kindhearted lords and ladies, this lays bare the full costs. Based on a true event, the story follows a French infantry unit ordered‚ by an officer motivated by the lure of a promotion‚ to make a suicidal charge to claim an elevated German position. While some follow the order, others do not, and the hill is lost. To save face and punish the unit, the officer orders three men to be executed on the basis of cowardice. This is not the war the Earl of Grantham regrets not being able to join, or the war in which his footman, William Mason, is excited to serve. It might, however, in some small part be the war Grantham’s valet Thomas schemes to flee.
Morton, Kate. The House at Riverton. Washington Square Pr. 2009. 496p. ISBN 9781416550532. pap. $16.
With its engrossing plot and engulfing pace, Morton’s story of a grand English home, its masters and servants, and the tragic death of a young poet should capture the attention of Downton Abbey fans. The tale unfolds through the memories of a former maid, Grace, more than seventy years after the story’s central event‚ a party held in 1924‚ takes place. As a young girl, Grace came to serve at the great House at Riverton and witnessed the carefree lives of its residents, including sisters Hannah and Emmeline. While attending the aforementioned party at the house, the poet Robbie Hunter committed suicide, and only the two sisters and Grace knew the truth surrounding his death. Grace has kept the secrets of the house up till the present, but now, decades later, a filmmaker asks her for insights into the happenings at Riverton, and she begins to remember the past. The upstairs/downstairs elements are all here, as is a mystery or two and a great sense of landscape and setting. While this is a much more gothic story than Downton Abbey (putting aside the entire episode in which a body is carried across the house in the middle of the night), it is as lush and lovely in its attention to language and detail and should please readers who enjoy a focus on characters and setting.
Miers, Mary. The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life. Rizzoli. 2009. 484p. ISBN 9780847830572. $85.
After all-too-brief glimpses of the library and saloon of Downton Abbey, readers might enjoy paging through one of any number of grown-up picture books on English country estates. This one features detailed photographs of 62 homes (with exterior and interior details, outdoor spaces, and gardens) that span centuries of English domestic architecture, from the medieval to the contemporary. Annotations abound throughout the work, and also included are several focused essays by noted architectural historians. Other great choices include Houses of the National Trust by Lydia Greeves; The English Country House: A Grand Tour by Gervase Jackson-Stops and James Pipkin; Chatsworth: The House by the Duchess of Devonshire; and English Country House Interiors by Jeremy Musson. For those wanting more social history than illustration, suggest Life in the English County House by Mark Girouard, and for those looking for insider knowledge, suggest Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs. Finally, there is a print companion to the series, The World of Downton Abbey, which many fans will seek.
(See also Joy Fleishhacker’s “A Visit to Downton Abbey” for more related reads.)