Downton Abbey & The English Country House

Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed.

So a whole bunch of us watched Downton Abbey, according to WGBH, which is my local NPR and PBS station and also a co-producer of Masterpiece Theatre. I thought the radio announcer was going to break through his bland NPR-patented nasal delivery and actually squeal with delight during his promotional spots for Downton Abbey, so blatant was the atmosphere of happiness at WGBH over the success of the series. And they should, indeed, be proud. I somehow missed the crucial detail that the series ran four weeks – not five, as I had expected. When the fifth Sunday rolled around without a Downton Abbey punctuating its close, I nearly wept with despair. Which is a perfectly appropriate way to phrase one’s emotional relationship with a costume drama television series. Since then my regular diet of HGTV shows and other, even sadder fare is not managing to fill the void. I can’t imagine why.

Let me interrupt all the Downton Abbey accolades to say that the second episode nearly derailed my regard for the series. Like her mother, I haven’t been able to look at Lady Mary quite the same way since she had a midnight romp with Mr. Pamuk. I realize this makes me sound rather priggish, and the fact that I use a word like priggish and worse, put rather in front of it – like Madonna in her high British period (no one told her that marrying a Brit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re marrying up) – makes me sound extra rather priggish, but so be it. I prefer the heroines of my favorite period novels to have flaws more in keeping with the conventions of their times, flaws like impulsively scolding a poor tenant or being careless of your silk slippers. Like Jane Austen’s characters. (I was going to try to write the entire post without once invoking her name. But it has proved to be an impossible task. Why am I using such phrases? I can’t stop.) I had assumed that Downton Abbey was based on some sort of Jane Austen-ish text, a second stringer on Masterpiece Theatre’s team roster of Dead-Authors-Who-Drive-DVD-Sales. So you can imagine my shock at the very un-Janeish sort of scenario that found Pamuk, candle in hand, dressing gown brushing his ankles, standing outside Mary’s door in the dead of night, a door which he was only able to locate in the maze that is an English Country House by blackmailing the gay footman, no less. It was all very upsetting. To Pamuk, who didn’t last the night for reasons not fully explained (at least the writer didn’t speculate about the exertions that led to his expiration, thankfully.), to Mary, to Lady Cora, to Anna the Head Housemaid, to Daisy from the kitchen. But most of all, to me.

I fully recovered in time for the next Sunday’s installment. The realization that the script was written recently – just a few days ago, really, when compared to when the original novels behind most historical dramas were written – helped me understand Downton Abbey’s more progressive plotlines. It helped a great deal, as they say. And in fairness to Jane Austen, lots of things were going on behind closed doors in her novels – especially in Bath, that den of iniquity – that were not spelled out to the reader. Which is the way I rather prefer it. Extra rather prefer it.

But in a strange coincidence that can only be explained by the subconscious power of listening to radio promos, it just so happens that at the onset of Downton Abbey series what should be in my possession (with the permission of the local library) but a copy of The English Country House. A weighty tome, with images taken from Country Life magazine, which, since it was established in 1897, has featured a country house weekly in its pages. So there are many, many country houses documented by the magazine, and, in turn, compiled in this book.

The existence of Country Life magazine has coincided perfectly with the years during which the English country house breathed its last, wheezing gasp, at least in the iteration that had sustained the institution – more or less – over many hundreds of years. It turns out that Country Life has, in a way, been presiding over the corpse of The Way Things Used to Be. And how grateful we all should be to have at least a partial visual record of the past, as these days a country house in the old style must have many patrons instead of one. And these patrons, for the price of a few meals at Applebee’s, can troop through one of these massive edifices, even stay the night – and all without having to scrub pots and pans or black anybody’s shoes.

This book is a beautiful compendium of all things related to the English country house. A lovely visual record (even some wallpaper samples are included), a collection of fascinating facts, and, with the contributions of a few historians, just enough of an academic touch to lend the enterprise an air of sobriety. A useful addition, as it serves to keep you from feeling purely voyeuristic. It’s a chronological record besides, with the last several country houses revealing the way modern residents live.

I wish I didn’t have to give my copy back to the library, but maybe someday I’ll have my own copy of The English Country House. I can’t aspire to the real thing of course. Who can – and who would even want to? But I can reach the goal of owning this book, or a DVD of Downton Abbey. Which will make WGBH happy. And I’m rather pleased about that, as Madonna might say.

For further information, check out the links below:

Masterpiece Theatre Country House Film Locations

Can Highclere Castle be Saved?

The English Country House through that giant online bookseller

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