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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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