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Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’

I’m not a big TV-watcher…except in the middle of winter.

Two favorite antidotes to stress: twinkle lights and a holiday movie.

My husband and I do watch Castle together on Monday nights, and our collection of Friends DVDs is well-loved. But in the summer and fall, you’re more likely to find us eating dinner on the balcony, sprawled out in the living room reading, doing the New York Times crossword together, or squeezing in a walk before it gets dark. We don’t have cable, so my sports-nut husband only watches big games on TV (he does catch other games online sometimes).

But in the dead of winter, when it seems the world is perpetually dark and frozen, all I want to do is curl up on the sofa and lose myself in a good TV series. (Though we do keep up with the crossword year-round.)

I’ve been enjoying season 4 of Downton Abbey, though the plotlines have gotten a bit soapy for my taste this year (and oh, I miss Matthew). J and I are newly into Sherlock, and we are watching as much of the Winter Olympics as we can.

This TV-binging does have its downsides: too much screen time can make me punchy and distracted, and I have not watched so many commercials since the last Olympics, in 2012. (NBC needs to expand its lineup of Olympic ads.) I also, obviously, get less reading done in the evenings, though I’m knitting up a storm while we watch the figure skating and the skiing and the mystery-solving.

I usually try to avoid excessive TV-watching, but this time of year I give myself a break. Because there’s no better cure for the winter blues than a good story – whether it’s set in an English manor house, amid the busy streets of London, or on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. When I’m following the dramas of the Crawley family, solving crimes along with Sherlock and Watson, or cheering for my favorite figure skaters, I can forget – for a while, anyway – how cold and dark it is outside. And every evening of immersion in these stories brings me a little closer to spring.

What stories are you watching (or reading) this winter?

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I recently mused on the current popularity of World War I stories in our culture – Downton Abbey (I loved the Season 2 finale!), the Maisie Dobbs series (I just read an ARC of the newest installment), and others. And thanks to Book Club Girl, I can keep indulging my taste for this fascinating era – she’s hosting a read-along of the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd.

Bess is a nurse in World War I who keeps stumbling upon mysteries, and is also struggling to find her place in a rapidly changing England. Raised in India, she inherited a strong sense of duty and a mile-wide stubborn streak from her officer father; she’s blunt, thoughtful and hardworking. I’ve already read A Duty to the Dead, the first book in the series, but you have plenty of time to catch up since the first discussion isn’t till March 26. Here are the other titles and dates for the read-along:

April 30An Impartial Witness discussion
May 1A Bitter Truth paperback on sale
May 29
A Bitter Truth discussion (May 28 is Memorial Day)
June 5An Unmarked Grave – new hardcover on sale
June 25
An Unmarked Grave discussion
June 28
Book Club Girl on Air Show with Charles Todd to discuss the entire series

Look for updates along the way on Twitter (#besscrawford), and on the Book Club Girl and Charles Todd Facebook pages. If you’re going through Downton withdrawal (or simply intrigued by a good mystery), I hope you’ll join us!

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Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post about the lack of World War I stories in my literary education (with one notable exception: Rilla of Ingleside, which gives us the Great War from the perspective of Canadian women on the home front). That post coincided with my discovery of the Maisie Dobbs series and the first season of Downton Abbey, both of which I adore. And since writing that post, I’ve been noticing – and reading – more and more stories about World War I and the 1920s (Hattie Big Sky, Broken Music, Promise Me This, The American Heiress, the Phryne Fisher series). All these books either use the war as a backdrop or begin with its long shadow still hanging over England, Australia and even the U.S. And I’ve found myself wondering why these stories, largely absent from our culture for the last few decades, seem to be enjoying a renaissance now.

It isn’t just due to Downton, though admittedly the series has captured the imagination of millions of fans. (I’m loving the second season so far, and have high hopes for a third.) And it’s certainly not limited to only this year, or even the “Great Recession”: Hattie Big Sky was published in 2006, and Jacqueline Winspear published Maisie Dobbs in 2004. But we are particularly enamored of these stories right now. Why?

Have we all, as a culture, simply recognized this huge gap in our literary and historical education, and begun trying to fill it? (Not likely, I admit – though as a bookworm I’d love it if that were the case.) Is this war now far enough away – nearly 100 years gone – that we can start to think of it as “history,” instead of a black mark on our not-so-distant past? Are Americans finally waking up to the worldwide significance of this war that barely touched them in comparison to the French, the British, the Germans and others? Or – and I think this might be the reason – have our recent worldwide circumstances left us looking for both escapism and ways to cope?

The austerity of the so-called “Great Recession” is, by and large, not nearly as pinching as the straitened economies of wartime and depression. But we’ve seen a lot of upheaval in the last few years, from the subprime crisis to the Arab Spring protests, from the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to rapid changes in the developing world. We relish stories of troubled times during our own troubled times, either as a means of comparison (“it could always be worse!”) or as a means to cope (“they survived and so will we”). At the same time, we love stories of opulence to give us a bit of escapism (and Americans have long loved stories of English great houses and the families who fill them). World War I tales – particularly those of the English aristocracy – can give us both.

Perhaps we also find it easier to handle stories of a big, world-shattering war, with a clearly defined enemy (the one on the other side of the trenches), than we do to comprehend our own small wars, which are so scattered and secretive and confusing, and seem to make little sense even to those who fight in and direct them. For Americans, especially, our role in the world has become confusing, fraught with huge questions about power and responsibility, about obligation and trust, and how to navigate being a semi-superpower in a world fast losing patience with superpowers.

Judging by the popularity of Downton, Maisie Dobbs, War Horse and other stories, I think this trend will endure for a while longer. And while it does, I’ll find plenty to interest and challenge me in these stories, and many characters to admire.

Have you noticed the flood of World War I stories lately? What do you think is the cause?

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When I was a kid, I read a lot of stories set during World War II. I read the Molly books, part of the American Girls series, which began in 1944 and traced Molly’s life through the last year of the war. I remember the Victory Garden her mother grew, the homemade Halloween hula-girl costumes (worn with sweaters because the night was chilly), the patriotic Christmas tree, the English girl , Emily, who came to stay with Molly’s family.

A little later, I read Number the Stars (which still makes me cry), The Diary of Anne Frank and others. World War II loomed large in my perception of American and world history – maybe because the U.S. entered it earlier and was involved for longer than it was in World War I.

I also read lots of stories set during the Civil War, the Great Depression, the “pioneer days” (a la Laura Ingalls Wilder and Janette Oke), and set in more modern times, like Nancy Drew, The Baby-Sitters Club and others. But for some reason, I don’t remember many stories set during or after World War I.

Until lately. My reading and viewing material this winter has included several stories set at the turn of the 20th century, during the First World War or amid its aftermath – Rilla of Ingleside, Downton Abbey, Maisie Dobbs. Somehow I’d missed an important piece of my literary education – the war known as the Great War before it was the “first” one, which came after years of belief – almost laughable to me now – that there would never be another war. Even the earlier books in the Anne of Green Gables series echo this sentiment; Anne says, “It seems so strange to read over the stories of those old wars…things that can never happen again.” (And Gertrude Oliver, in Rilla of Ingleside, sees the other side of the coin. About a Wordworth poem, she remarks, “Its classic calm and repose and the beauty of the lines seem to belong to another planet, and to have as little to do with the present world-welter as the evening star.”)

We in the 21st century have plunged from a century marked by world wars into one marked by many smaller wars, with a multitude of voices disagreeing about our country’s proper role in each one. The news of one war doesn’t envelop everyone’s lives, the way it did during both World War I and World War II. And it’s certainly not as though we don’t expect conflict. It’s all around us – in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places – most recently Tunisia and then Egypt.

I’m often astonished at the naivete of the characters in World War I-era stories – do they really think the war will be over by Christmas? Don’t they see that this conflict will change their lives forever? But then, I have the benefit of hindsight, as does Maisie Dobbs, who solves tricky cases in 1920s and 1930s London. And while she knows better than I do what a mark the Great War left on everyone, I am grateful to have these stories, which chronicle the lives of ordinary people facing a conflict that brought change they never imagined. I admire their bravery, their unflinching devotion to duty, family and country, in the face of a nightmare which came up with the suddenness of a summer squall. I grieve for their losses as I turn the pages, and I am always reminded of Jem Blythe’s words near the end of Rilla of Ingleside:

We’re in a new world, and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks seem to think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished – it isn’t really begun. It will be the task of years. […] It isn’t enough to drive out the old spirit – we’ve got to bring in the new.

Wise and challenging words from a lieutenant of the Great War, who along with his family and comrades truly embodies bravery. I’m inspired and humbled – by his story and by these others – every single time.

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I’m not much of a TV person. Due to my preference for books and the lack of reception on our little TV, I’m usually several years behind the current series/miniseries trends (though some shows, like Friends, hold up year after year).

However, thanks to a bunch of my Twitter friends who love English accents, great houses, upstairs/downstairs narratives, elegant clothes and World War I-era stories as much as I do, I heard about Downton Abbey as it began airing in the States. I was at Abi’s house when the third episode aired, so I watched that one with her, and I’ve since streamed the whole series live from the Masterpiece website. Twice. I am hooked.

I’m intrigued by the drama “upstairs”  – to wit, the fate of Downton Abbey and its three daughters, which hangs in the balance as a new heir comes on the scene. The story of Mary, Edith and Sibyl ensnaring (or snubbing) men, plotting against each other, donning daring new outfits (harem pants!) and forming opinions about women’s rights is fascinating, to be sure. (Though they break my heart with their jealousy and cruel tricks on one another.) And Maggie Smith is superb as the Dowager Countess, delivering such lines as “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?” with impeccable disdain.

But I’m much more drawn to the “downstairs” characters – the strict yet kindhearted butler, determined to serve Downton to the best of his ability; the little scullery maid who gets shoved about by the cook; the cook herself, who hides the fact that she’s going blind; the young housemaids trying to better themselves; the loyal, secretive valet whose sense of honor makes me love him and want to shake him at the same time. I admire the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, who keeps everyone in line with discipline and compassion, and I feel for William, the footman, who gets bullied by the conniving Thomas. Most of all I love the budding romance between Anna, the sweet, kind head housemaid, and the valet, John Bates. I have high hopes for them in the second season, now in production (though we have to wait a year to see what will happen!).

Though I’m more interested in the servants’ story than in their masters’ story, the intertwined nature of the relationships gives the series its appeal. As well, there’s the growing sense that outside events will bring great change to everyone at Downton, from Lord Grantham to little Daisy, the scullery maid. First the sinking of the Titanic and then the outbreak of World War I cut across the class distinctions entrenched in English society. The first season ends in a whirl of uncertainty, but one thing is certain: change is coming for everyone.

It’s also fascinating to watch Downton Abbey in the context of reading the Maisie Dobbs series, which begins in 1929, about ten years after the end of World War I. Maisie is herself caught in the no-man’s-land between the working class of her childhood and the wealthy people who are often her clients. The war has wrought great change on every level, and the people of England are still trying to sort it out. (Perhaps it’s also appealing to read about such upheaval in a time of transition in my own life!)

Have you been watching Downton Abbey? What did you think? Are you, like me, waiting eagerly for the second season? (And are there any other series/miniseries you’d recommend for these winter days?)

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