Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Downton Abbey Phenomenon

Who would have expected the recent success of UK series Downton Abbey, airing here in the States on PBS?  With a distinct Upstairs, Downstairs feel thanks to writer Julian Fellowes, a phenomenal cast including greats like Maggie Smith, and a unique take on pre-WWI England, it surpassed many expectations to become a television phenomenon its first season.  Both the first and second seasons are now available on DVD, but the new season doesn't air in the US until January 2013.  So what are fans to do during the grueling wait?  Well, if you're interested in delving into a bit more of the history of the series, I can certainly help you out.

First, there's Below Stairs: the classic kitchen maid's memoir that inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey", by Margaret Powell.  It is, quite literally, a behind the scenes view of one of the great houses of England in the early part of last century, from the drudgery of blacking stoves in the pre-dawn chill to romps with errand boys to the heartbreak bound to occur when a wandering eye led to a cross-class tryst.  Absolutely fascinating.

Then, from the other side of the coin, there's Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: the private diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale.  If you think that ladies had an easier time than their female servants, you would be only partially correct.  Isabella Walker, a widow at 31 in 1844, was left with nothing--her husband's son from a previous marriage inherited everything.  Her second husband, Henry Robinson, moved his family to Edinburgh in 1850, traveling frequently for business.  When he was home, he was cold and remote.  Isabella, left to her own imaginative devices, recorded her fantasies in a private diary, most often starring an upstanding, and married, Dr. Edward Lane.  In 1858, her husband, chancing upon this book and appalled at his wife's perceived infidelity, petitioned for a divorce on the grounds of adultery.  And of course, her diary was read during the court, making the trial international news and ruining Isabella's reputation permanently.  Extremely eye-opening and riveting.

I'm back next week to start wrapping up what I've read the last two months.  In the meantime, happy reading!

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