Wednesday, March 23, 2011
"DOWNTON ABBEY," NOT SO LONG AGO
“Gosford Park” was beloved by many people and so myself and many others are delighted to have a sort of continuation in the series called “Downton Abbey” by the same author, Julian Fellowes. The time is the decade or so is earlier, just after 1900, a time of held breath, of climax culture of a sort, a balance point in a world about to go mad.
My mother-in-law, Ellison Westgarth Macfie Scriver, was born on September 4, 1887, in Clarenceville, Quebec, which makes her about the same age as the girls in “Downton Abbey.” Her mother’s cousin was a Lady and the Macfies had a great house in Scotland. To all accounts, Wessie’s mother was very much like the dueling dowagers in the tale, except not so willowy -- built rather more like Queen Victoria. To put this in perspective for Paul, who just visited Wounded Knee, that massacre is dated 1890. To put it in the perspective of “Downton Abbey,” there was no Macfie on the Titanic (the sinking of that great ship is the first event in the plot) but there was a lady who later married a Macfie. She went into a lifeboat and spent that devastating night rowing in the darkness alongside her lady’s maid, not knowing which direction they were going and without any destination. A LIFE boat, you know. Fellowes has been engaged to write a new Titanic series.
Walter McClintock came to the Blackfeet country in 1896. One looks at his photos without being able to comprehend the industrialization that was changing whole continents of lives. Steam engines on the railroads and rivers, electricity in the houses, automobiles replacing horses -- all pulling us into different, previously unknown, configurations of thought and life. But possibly all of them repetitions of the insoluble problems of “place” and pecking order. What are the trustworthy sources of authority? What is the measure of a “good” man?
“Downton Abbey” tries (and succeeds) in showing several good men, each in their own way and level of class. The “master” is a fair one, the “butler” is a diligent one, the “new man” -- a lawyer -- is an earnest man. Is this big pile of a house worth their efforts to save it? Well, the present real-time owner -- a very pretty blonde -- seems to think so. She says it is a “masculine” house, a trophy house, so full of paneling that it’s hard to hang wallpaper. I admired the many doors that opened directly onto verandahs. Knowing the reputation of English climate, I expect that when the sun finally gets warm, one wants to fling open those doors and burst out to walk on the lawns.
What is a “good” man now? What is a grand house? What is the relationship between city and country on a continent as vast as America -- not a island so small as England where the indigenous people were quelled years ago? What are the markers of success in a world where one vital resource after another blows up, one political arrangement after another turns terrorist, one aspect of the humanities after another collapses, and no one knows quite what ought to be taught in the schools? If 1914 turned the world upside down, what will 2014 do? I’m surprised to probably be here to find out, but in the meantime I’m hoping to pick up survival tips from these tales.
The people DO have consciences and make choices according to them. Mostly, those who do bad things are repentant. (O’Brien leaves the soap where it can be slipped on, Mary allows the passionate advances of a exotic man with a literally bad heart, Edith -- oh, poor Edith.) But after reading the imdb.com comments by viewers, I think the person who caught the problem with this elegant tale was the one who noted that Robert Altman, with his hustle and random mess, was an excellent balance for Julian Fellowes, who really is a bit soft on the aristocracy country lifestyle and admits it. This director was a little too respectful. Middle class?
The sharp notes are struck by the women, not the rather clueless daughters, but the older women. Maggie Smith and Jessica Brown-Findlay are evenly matched (would you have guessed ANYONE could spar with Maggie Smith?) rather as were Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins in “Gosford Park.” Much of the best dialogue goes to them. But Elizabeth McGovern with her triangular eyes and dimply mouth can pitch a wicked line with a hook in it just as well as any of the above. Her American point of view is just as elitist as their Brit hierarchy and far more self-aware.
The unsinkable Titanic is as good an example of industrial hubris as the perfectly safe nuclear reactors in Japan, the carefully safeguarded BP oil well platform, and the effective dike system that protected New Orleans. War both drives and derives from change, with industrialization making as much trouble as digitalization. The new season of “Downton Abbey” will show the stately house converted into a hospital for soldiers who have somehow managed to escape the WWI trenches alive. Somehow that seems to be a lesser tragedy to the English, or at least a more dignified one, than conflict-driven immigration from parts of the Empire never expected to come to England, though when those brown people lived in proper colonies, managing them was a way to get ahead.
My mother-in-law rather felt she was living in a colony. After a few decades that feeling wore off -- I think maybe it was WWII that made more of an American nationalist of her. Bob was born at the beginning of WWI while she was still longing for Quebec. Browning was pretty raw early in the century but by WWII people were sort of finding their feet. Even today there is still a sense of aristocracies -- not one system, but several that intersect and contradict each other, according to one’s sense of what the criteria are. The Blackfeet in white beaded buckskin parade outfits, the ones who constantly went back to Washington, D.C., are one system. The earliest white people, mercantilists, have not fared so well, except for the ones with children who intermarried with the “brown” people and then went on to succeed in professions. But there were always a lot of people who paid little attention to hierarchies, they just went on rowing side-by-side in the life boat.