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It’s no secret I love a good British period drama, especially Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Lark Rise to Candleford. This fall, I’ve been swept up in the latest series showing on Masterpiece PBS: Home Fires.

Home Fires follows a group of women in the fictional village of Great Paxford, most of them involved with the local Women’s Institute, at the outset of World War II. The show’s marketing has centered around the ongoing feud between traditionalist Joyce Cameron and new WI leader Frances Barden, but the plotlines delve deeply into the lives of several more women: quiet bookkeeper Alison Scotlock, schoolteacher Teresa Fenchurch, stoic farm wife Steph Farrow.

Most of the women are committed to “doing their bit” and to the work of the WI: making jam from local produce that would otherwise go to waste, building an air-raid shelter for the village, raising funds for ambulances. The WI gives Frances (in particular) a purpose to fill her days. But all the characters are also grappling with other challenges: family illness, raising teenagers, financial difficulties, deep marital rifts. Several of them have husbands or sons who end up going off to fight. All of them find their lives irrevocably changed by the war, and each of them has to make hard choices over and over again.

Home Fires is a quiet show: it lacks the tense life-or-death scenes of Call the Midwife or the soapy drama of Downton. So far (the first season ranges from 1939-40), there are few massive military battles being fought. But the quietness is what I love about it. It is a show about ordinary people living small but valuable lives, who are called upon to do things they never thought they would have to do.

I am not (obviously) living in a war zone or facing the same challenges as the women of Home Fires. But I am fighting my own battles every day, and I am also mourning with the world after Paris and Beirut, wondering where it will all end. I’ve enjoyed the period detail and witty dialogue of Home Fires, but most of all I have loved watching these women as they face what comes.

Sometimes they fail. (They are human, after all.) Sometimes personal tragedy shakes them to their cores. But most often, they rise to the occasion – usually with quiet humility, sometimes with all flags flying. They adapt and make do; they find new ways to solve thorny problems. They hear bad news, and mourn, and then get back up and move forward. Together.

Courage has been variously defined as grace under pressure, the judgment that something else is more important than fear, or the simple act of seeing something through. The women of Home Fires embody all these definitions, and I’m looking forward to watching them face new challenges in season 2.

Have you watched Home Fires? What did you think?

(Image from pbs.org)

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It’s no secret that I love Oxford – city of dreaming spires, home to one of the world’s most ancient and beautiful universities, site of my starry-eyed study abroad semester in college and my blissful year in graduate school. I never tire of it, and I regularly read books set there. But I’ve recently been revisiting Oxford in cinematic form, via the Inspector Lewis TV series.

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(Image from pbs.org)

Lewis is inspired by the Inspector Morse novels of Colin Dexter (whom I met long ago in Oxford), which follow Morse and his sergeant (Lewis) as they solve crimes in and around Oxford. I watched an episode or two of the Inspector Morse TV series during my first semester in Oxford, but I’d never watched Lewis until my friend Amy convinced me to give it a shot. She predicted I’d enjoy both the plotlines and the Oxford setting. She was right on both counts.

new college quad

When Lewis opens, Morse has died and Lewis has been promoted to inspector, and paired up with a new sergeant: James Hathaway (the tall blond bloke above), a former seminarian who left the ministry for a police career. Like every good pair of detectives, they are opposites in some ways. Lewis is an agnostic workingman who grows impatient with Oxford’s intellectual snobbery; Hathaway is brainy, Cambridge-educated, and harbors complicated feelings for the church he left. They make an excellent team, though, and their sly asides to one another are one of the show’s great pleasures. (Like Castle, which I also love, Lewis has a few other recurring characters: Dr. Laura Hobson, the sharp-tongued, kind medical inspector, and Jean Innocent, the keen-eyed superintendent and Lewis’ boss.)

My husband doesn’t always join me in my TV obsessions, particularly the British ones (see: Downton Abbey), though we do watch Castle together and we both adore Friends. But after listening in while I streamed my first episode of Lewis, he asked to watch the next episode with me. Two days later, we were checking out an earlier season on DVD from the library.

J has visited Oxford several times, though he doesn’t love it as I do. But we’re both enjoying the intricately plotted mysteries, though he does laugh at me when I squeal at the sight of a familiar Oxford spot (there are many) or point out a geographical error (there are very few).

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The Radcliffe Camera

According to our usual TV-show pattern, we discovered Lewis just as it was ending, so we’re saving the series finale for some later date. (Since it usually takes me about a year to get through TV series – Friends, Gilmore Girls, Mary Tyler Moore – I’m assuming I’ll get around to the finale months from now, which means I’ll have to find it on DVD.)

For now, though, we’ve got a slew of episodes to work through, a few dozen cases to solve alongside our crack team of detectives, and many hours to spend in my favorite city.

Have you watched Lewis or Morse (or Endeavour, the new prequel to Morse)? Are you a fan?

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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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