Sunday, February 26, 2012

To The Manor Born

This time of year is always super busy. Between soccer practices, soccer games, lesson plans, writing papers, grading papers, wrangling kids both at school and at home, and being a mom and wife, there barely seems time to catch my breath.

However, apparently there is always time for a new obsession.

Before I tell you about it, and then give you a slew of related book suggestions, I have to set the scene.

There is a special place in my heart for BBC/PBS British drama. My mother always loved all things English, and my early years were spent sitting next to my mother on the couch watching shows like The Irish R.M. (Highly recommend it if you have never seen it. I believe the series is on DVD now.)

It was only natural that I would grow up still loving English country estates and stories set within their walls. More on that later.

Fast forward to this time last year. I had read a couple of brief articles in Entertainment Weekly about a new show called Downton Abbey that was garnering rave reviews. Sounded like something my mother and I would both like, but then, since it was that time of craziness in the year, I promptly forgot about it. One night my mother also mentioned it, and we chatted that perhaps we should watch it. After all, Maggie Smith was in it, and we had adored her since we saw her on Broadway in Lettice and Lovage. Again, it fell by the wayside.

Fast forward yet again to December, 2011. My good friend, Jett, texted me during the Christmas vacation to tell me about a show she and her daughter, Elizabeth, were in love with -- a show called Downton Abbey. She knew I would love it and urged me to watch the first season before the second one started in January. I added it to my mental list of shows, but that was all I did.

Here is my disclaimer about that: television is not my preferred medium. There is rarely a show that I find myself sticking with for a long period of time. The only ones that were able to do so were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost. Once Upon a Time might get added to that list in time. I prefer reading, and I find it hard to sit still for a long period of time except when I am reading or unless the show is especially well-written and intriguing.

Back to the story: I began seeing Facebook posts between my friend Elizabeth and her sister Becky about Downton Abbey and for some reason, those posts heightened my interest in the show. I asked Elizabeth if I should be watching it, and her response was such that before I knew it, I had ordered the first season from Amazon. Wicked Amazon where I can find everything my heart desires and then some.

Downton Abbey arrived on Valentine’s Day, but I was unable to watch it until that Friday.
Oh my!

Five minutes into the show, and I was hooked. Two episodes later, I dragged myself to bed.

Saturday, armed with Girl Scout cookies and the remote, I watched the other four episodes of the first season. One more, I told myself time and time again about both the episodes and the Girl Scout cookies. I felt slightly sick after that much tv viewing and a box of cookies, but I was hooked -- I would need the second season before the day was finished.

Charles and I ran to Target, so I could get Season Two. Charles was definitely humoring me as he could not see the allure of the show. He had tried to watch the first episode with me, said, “I keep expecting Mr. Darcy to appear,” (yes, my dear husband has watched Pride and Prejudice with me even though he is more comfortable with Sports Center,) and promptly fell asleep.
I watched three more episodes Saturday night.

I watched four episodes on Sunday.

We will not be discussing how many Girl Scout cookies I consumed in that time period.

I thought I was finished except for the Christmas episode. Mistakenly, I assumed it would not be advancing the story, so I was just going to save it for another time. Silly me. Thankfully, Elizabeth made a reference to the Servants’ Ball, or I would still be in ignorance of some important plot points. I rectified that situation with two more hours on Monday (thank goodness for a four-day weekend).

Seventeen hours of Downton Abbey in a weekend.

What’s the allure?

Well, I really can’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin anything about it.

The bare bones of the premise is that it is set in the early 1900’s at Downton Abbey, a country estate that makes Pemberley look like a potting shed, and tells the story of the family that lives upstairs and the servants who live downstairs.

The bare bones don’t do it justice. I fell in love with each and every character, but I must say my two absolute favorites are the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, and Mrs. Padmore, the cook. They have the best lines. The entire show is glittery, gossipy, and compulsively watchable, to borrow the words of reviewers, and as evidenced by my own gluttony of viewing. I now talk about the characters as if I really know them and they are members of my inner circle of friends. It makes me long for a life where sandwiches are served under silver domes, where there is a cut-glass biscuit jar beside my bed, and where my shoes have Cuban heels and strappy buckles. My mother, without a doubt, would have loved it.

So, what to do now as we wait for Season Three?

Well, there are a few books that might fill the void with homes and casts of characters as riveting.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Really, this book should earn a blog post all of its own, and I am sure I will write it one day. This was my mother’s favorite book, and one of my top-two as well. As you can see, between the two of us, there are multiple copies. Cassandra tells her story with the beguiling opening sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” She lives in a crumbling castle in the 1930’s with her family, and it is the only book I have read over and over again. Really, it should be read by anyone who loves England and manor homes.
Atonement by Ian McEwan also takes place on a country estate during the 1930’s and reminds me most of Downton Abbey. Also, one of my favorite books of all-time. My copy is flagged with numerous sentences that made me gasp at their beauty.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Longbourne, Pemberley -- more lovely country estates, and I have a feeling that the Dowager Countess was much like Elizabeth Bennett when she was younger.

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. Young girl marries and moves to Manderley. Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. O’Brian -- lots of parallels there -- just saying.
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. Set in the same period as Downton Abbey, and you will not be able to put it down. At least, I wasn’t able to do so.
Trinity by Leon Uris. Also on my all-time favorites list. If you want more background about why the Irish chauffeur, Branson, feels the way he does about Irish independence and the landed gentry, this book will explain it all. A sweeping saga that sucks you right in -- this was the first book I ever read that made me cry.
Two books that will be making their way to my house in the coming days have been listed numerous times for people who love Downton Abbey.

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons. It is about a girl who must leave Vienna in 1938 and goes to work as a housemaid in England. We will see if it lives up to the hype.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle and is the seat of the Carnarvon family. Now those who know their Egyptology may recognize that name -- Lord Carnarvon provided the funding for Howard Carter’s expedition that found King Tut. I love tidbits like that! Anyway, the current Countess has written a book about Lady Almina who lived at Highclere during the same time period of Downton Abbey. It is non-fiction, but I am interested enough to read it.
Any other books that are similar that I should add to my list?

I will eagerly await any suggestions while I have a spot of tea. :)