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Dear friends,

I had an astonishing good day here when I posted my blog on Maggie Smith, Damascus, Oakland and Downton Abbey (not to omit Colonel Bogus): over 800 hits. I never had so many in any of my blogs before, ever. I did want to follow up with another posting prompted partially by thoughts of DA (mostly the result of conversation on Trollope19thCStudies), but was too tired last night to work up my resume of Episode 7 of Season 1: I've outlined the episode and discovered something that interests me.

the allegorically-named (think Thackeray) Matthew and Isobel Crawley (Dan Stevens and Penelope Wilton) after she has learnt Cora Lady Grantham is pregnant and he that Lady Mary Grantham is reneging on her acceptance of his marriage proposal (Episode 7, Season 1)

My interest in doing this is I've been writing a book on costume dramas in effect (the Austen ones -- I call my six chapters thus far A Place of Refuge:  The Austen Films). I've long loved the form in all its mini-series varieties, including the detective type and recently the police procedural turned serious grave family drama upside down (Five Full Days) and inside-out (Prime Suspect).  Only lately has it been acceptable in film studies as a genre to study seriously -- its association with women (soap opera aesthetics and types), TV, and the support of the establishment an chariness with respect to unconventional sexuality elements here. I've been watching two lately too: masterpieces, Welch's Our Mutual Friend and Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala's The City of Your Final Destination from Peter Cameron's book.

So I had a very recent basis of comparison. I demonstrated to myself how many more stories are told per say 10 minute period in DA than either Welch's or the M-I-J film, comically more and how more obvious the dialogues (the occasional crudity here partly a result of this time frame). Episode 7 was again about loyalty (we are to admire personal loyalty above all, though at the same time not blame those who are ambivalent when it asks too much, e.g., Lady Mary is actually justified (so the modern analogy is soothing; you don't have to be loyal to your friends if money and position means you need to give a close association up. And between Mrs Bird and Daisy this is made explicit. Mrs Bird forgives Daisy for her loyalty; the dialogue is so explicit. Nothing like this on OMF and Final Destination.

Also that all the stories are guessable; stories that are not original. New charater types (slightly), say a disabled man, say a homosexual blackmailer, say near rape and death, but the action is the usual: one must marry for money; one is at risk of firing; shall I marry for love.  In the films I've mentioned, the stories are much much more unusual, not predictable. This makes the series widely popular, easy to take in.

Finally, and aesthetically interesting is how each scene is DA is doing something in the plot. Not one scene no matter how moving say or well done is not there to give us some piece of information in a couple of the stories at once; no lingering, no scenes there so to speak for themselves, no psychology allowed to work itself out.  It's quite ingenious, showing an alert sophistication (comparable to Altman's Gosford Park also written by Julian Fellowes) This I think is the real crux of the issue; this contrived reality leads to the dumbed down feeling it leaves one with and jarring effects as the ambivalence of the form's adherences are put before one with little smoothing over. For those who carry on despising the form, the mini-series then confirms all their prejudices against it.

Well to come today: this morning on Trollope19thCstudies someone posted a URL leading to Robert Ebert's column on Downton Abbey. I am grateful to that person who did it, for now I have real insight into Ebert's identity politics, how he sees himself. I never had this before and can apply this to reading his other usually insightful reviews. This is not a dumb one:

Think of me as the butler, Carson

Roger Ebert buys into the fantasy. He thinks life goes on in comfort for all. It never did. He identifies with the butler; the top male below. The man who got to fire people -- with or without the owner's say-so usually -- as for example, in Mary Reilly (one of the great costume dramas). I don't identify with any of the roles or characters in Downton Abbey (I did with Mary Reilly herself). I don't think I'd have lasted even the year and one half my mother-in-law did. "Service" to my mind is another word for "servitude," and as for the aggressively surreptitious sexual atmosphere of such places, as I've told friends who are also 18th century specialists, had I been so unlucky as to have lived then I'd have been long dead, of some pregnancy (miscarriage) outside childbirth or (yet worse perhaps as women had no rights and could be beaten until the 1890s) within. "Politically correct" is a way of bad-mouthing sincerely-held principles. Ebert's amused by the negative portrayal of the one homosexual (who however never gets to bugger anyone) and the maid so I assume he's not gay and clearly not a woman. I do wonder what the series has against Daughter No 2, Edith - or who in daytime 21st century soap operas she corresponds to. I know from my study of costume drama that the types in recent soap opera often transparently show us what many women are most despising this year.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) getting back at her sister, Edith, for having written a slanderous letter about her and "ruined" her chances say with Lord Napier (Trollope type male) -- the silly sod Edith was after, another thankless emasculated role played by Robert Bathurst, was easily turned away by the idea she was laughing at him and really preferred another. No more backbone than a worm.

Edith (Laura Carmichale) confronted does not deny having sent it: my hunch is she's made sullen, a man-chaser, she'll take anything is implied. My hunch is she stands for the kind of woman who presents herself as more moral than others, who seems to act from decenter principles and there's a drive to expose as just weaker. But then why not treat Anna, chief maid, similarly?

I'm told the second season is not jokey but more gravely serious. I came across a blog filled with unfavorable comments on this  second season. It gave me great hope, paradoxical delight, many attacks and dissatisfaction with the film I've been reading this morning. This to me is a sign Fellowes and his film-makers, actors have left off seeking cliched popularity and producing something much better now that they've garnered their audience and a bigger budget (one sign is 9 rather an 7 episodes). In this season there's been not much wit but what wit there has been has been sharp and pointed comments, rare but a relief, a few bon mots from Maggie Smith and one (unexpectedly) from Mrs Bird: "his lordship ... she didn't know he was aware of her existence." I know Julian Fellowes has written great film adaptation- costume dramas, and before this without a book to adapt (Gosford Park is one I keep citing). So I've great hopes for the coming season (except Christmas, I fear we will be awash with meretricious sentiment).

Mr Ebert's fantasy made me think of Andrew Hacker's piece on the most recent issue of NYRB, "We're more unequal than you think,"

OWS keeps talking of 1% versus 99%; it's true (I've read some statistics) that 1% of US people are fabulously wealthy (and pay little taxes) but where this the case the unrest (to give it the conservative term, as "there is unrest in Syria" means the gov't is slaughtering its people in the streets) in the US would be much much worse and we might (99% of us) have some hopes of a change of gov't to people who will set up a gov't which will help the 99%. But it's not the case that it's 1 versus 99. No. Another 5% at the very top are super-rich, much richer than they were say 20 years ago and a compact has been set up, unspoken, between them and the 1%; they are the lawyers, CEOs, physicians, professors [though at the bottom of the 5% or more in a larger 10% of the top]. For the rest the numbers showing the inequality in the US is the second worst among the "developed" (what a funny word) countries: the worst is Singapore. Hacker does not tell us where Great Britain is (that's exclusive of Ireland). The review also goes over the death and suicide rate and correlates it to the inequality structure; here it's not just a matter of sheer money but humiliation (very big in the Downton Abbeys of the time), corroded self-esteem and anxiety fear.

Anecdote, purely personally observed; where I teach and we used to have 110 employees (English department) until about 3 years ago, I have counted 9 adjunct deaths and 1 tenured person. It's hard to count tenure-track or as they are now increasingly called full-time contingent because they do tend to leave. The department is now about 80 people because most of the teaching jobs are given to TAs; these are graduate students who make even less than adjuncts; it's the way the department offers them bones, but they are not allowed to call themselves employees; any attempt to do that and join a union gets them kicked out. There was a story of a young woman who tried that recently in some college or other and she was immediately sacked. Oops! not an employee, so I don't know what to call it. Similar curves have been compiled by people studying the medical non-system of the US.

The vision of myself as I'd have been, dead, or impoverished, endlessly pregnant and certainly without my present education brings to mind the brouhaha over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure (a hilariusly pointed name). It was this clinic which pressured a study group to change their findings that early mammographies did not reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer. As with the attempt to re-narrow the definition of mental disability and cut off a huge group of people from any help at all, so this public conflict seems to me to swirl around a group of unchanged painful attitudes underlying continual injuries stemming from a woman being looked at primarily as a sexual animal and the poverty of so many women.

It does seem that HOWLING on the Net helps. Some powerful corporations were going to silence the whole place and push 99% (then it would have been) back into exclusion and outside coteries but a day of blackouts did give congress (which has people who use the Net too -- a lot) pause. The Federal central place is rightest, reactionary, run by teabagger types. out of touch with their local clinics who do have women providing an array of health-care services at an affordable rate to many women.

Who is Vinnie? the wandering woman of A Month in the Country who Tom Birkin spends his life with. There is no still. My favorite character in Downton Abbey had been Anna, but now I'm not so sure. I did rather feel for Miss or Mrs O'Brien and just realized that we never learn her first name and she is not given the respect of her title by her mistress.

OBrien (Siobhan Finneran) -- although called Sarah in the cast list, in the dramas she has no first name and she's often not given the respect of her title -- tried beyond her strength. She's played by an Irish actress. How fitting (I'm remembering all that British society did to the Irish for a few hundred years)



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jenny Doughty
Feb. 5th, 2012 03:05 am (UTC)
O'Brien's title
In the rather strange milieu of the grand Edwardian country house in that period, calling O'Brien by her surname alone is an accurate placement of her in the social order. The only servants to be given a title are the cook and housekeeper (who were always Mrs, whether they were married or not) and the butler. Senior servants such as the lady's maid and the valet were addressed by their surnames. You'll notice that the junior staff call O'Brien and Bates 'Miss' and 'Mr'. Parlour maids, footmen and below-stairs maids such as the kitchen maid were addressed by their Christian names. In fact, in some grand houses the maids were given a Christian name to use so that during household staff changes the master and mistress did not have to learn new names. Also some names were felt to be too 'fancy' for servants and a plainer one would be given. Nobody's asking us to like or approve of these practices, but the depiction of them is historically accurate.
Feb. 5th, 2012 03:32 am (UTC)
Re: O'Brien's title
That doesn't make it any the less sickening. To put it in the tone you do is tantamount to approving. My point was I do identify on analoogous grounds: the configuration of the class system in the US today uses different stigmas and markers but both sets turn people into objects. E.M.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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