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Dear friends,

("Think of me as the dead or absent maid" in continuation):

I was tempted and fell.  I had told myself I would not watch the 2nd season until I had properly blogged about the first, but there I was, 11:30, too early for bed and unable to read, and I had it there, so watched.

I have time only to point out this season has delivered us a truly evil woman, not simply malicious, In this episode we had OBrien up to her old tricks, humiliating other people, as in the new maid, Ethel, who has a good opinion of herself -- well, how dare she? ho ho ho was the way the others treated this, getting their kicks too.

But this is but minor fun. The real horror was Mrs Bates -- she is repellent, ever so much too fat, with greasy skin, come to torture Mr Bates (that noble soul) and she succeeds. She threatens to reveal the terrible scandal of Lady Mary's having had a rich powerful man's son die in her bed perhaps in the midst of a fuck.  She just grins with pleasure as she watches this man squirm. She wants him back and on her terms. She regales herself with all she demands.  And he is to give up his job, tonight, today, now.

Oh this is America today -- the worst thing that can happen in each episode is to be sacked. I would want to see the poor woman sacked says Mrs Hughes more than once.

Mr Bates loves his job, his employers.  Mrs Bates revels over the somehow small Anna, all trussed up in her outfit. Mrs Bates's clothes are ever so loose.

There is the problem of Mr Bates's character. He knuckles under. Allows Lord Grantham (that good man) to berate him for quitting without notice and will not explain himself at all.  (Lest he sully the wife of his bosom.)  He just gives up the dream life he and Anna had planned.  It doesn't quite make sense. I think perhaps Fellowes has in mind a man who exposes how false the macho myth of maleness is, a vulnerable type who rarely makes the screen, certainly not in this guise. He would be the second drunk in a bar, not valet. But there are other improbabilities here.  But I've no time to think it out.

I've got to read a couple of essays and reread a book I have on American soap opera to understand where the character of Edith comes from too. And I suspect Lavinia will turn out to be no good either.

I don't know why someone does not stamp this species out. Women.  They used to burn them in the 17th century as witches. Downton Abbey shows us why.

I had a black friend quite a while back (40 years) who used to say he loved to watch Amos 'n Andy. He never missed an episode. (It was being re-run in the early 60s on channel 9 in NYC - mornings.) He'd regale me with Lighthouse: just think how he shuffles. And then he's laugh and laugh, this peculiar laugh. I'd cover my eyes. Well I'm begining to understand my old friend's predeliction, his fascination. Sometimes I feel I am like my black friend watching Amos 'n Andy as I sit through Downton Abbey.

From Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant: Maid collecting water from pump. perhaps helped by groom. One of many laborious tasks carried out by servants of the era.

  One girl remembered her first job as a "tweeny" as "hell:"  "But I did not suffer at the hands of my emloyes, but at the hands of fellow servants. There was far more class distinction and bullying and misery below stairs than can be told in a letter."

Journalizing: The Nation weighs in: Escapist Kitsch Posing as Masterpiece Theater

From Trollope19thCStudies.  We had some talk about an anibundal guest blog on the understaffing at Downton Abbey:

Tim to me:

I don't think DA is designed to be accurate, more a confection to frame a soap opera. However, having said that, yes, some people are obsessed with it – probably the costumes, Maggie Smith in particular has some wowsers. The blogger you link to is probably right in suggesting DA is understaffed for the time period and size of the place. Somewhere in reading about the inter-war period, I came across a mention that the Astors economized at their country home by reducing the indoor staff to 30, and Whitley Court (now a spectacular ruin maintained by the National Trust) had an indoor staff of 60, including 12 in the laundry and 12 in the kitchen and bakery – and another 30 in the gardens and stables. It just boggles the mind to consider the resources required to maintain
and operate one of those structures – I can't really call it a home. As for the Crawleys, Lord Grantham might just as well get his mail addressed "Current Occupant", he simply exists to serve and preserve the House – and if he isn't available someone else will do as well to be 'in service' to the house.

I back again:

Patently the blogger did take the program seriously. We need to return to Orwell: "All art is propaganda." What is put into the public media shapes people's norms and knowledge, and jarring and obvious as Downton Abbey is (and it's not from the soap opera aesthetics but the content of the caricatures and story), it's an influence. I haven't kept up with the politics of funding of PBS; but the last time I read about it, it was mostly corporations who want to cater to faux nostalgia. I've defended these programs for presenting an alternative mood or feeling to that we suffer under in both the UK and US: a brutal determination to say there is no such thing as society (or community), we all go it alone and a number of the stories of this series actually mirror contemporary miseries:
including the fear of losing your job, the power of individuals in rich coteries.

The disappointment some of the blogs about it are feeling is that they can't take the typologies of 2012 Search for Tomorrow women; it doesn't answer to them. Characters are slut-shamed regularly on these daytime serials; the people watching DA are really looking for something better. Had I the time I'd like to watch the old Upstairs
and its presentation of WW1 (which was definitely anti-war).

One reason for the hollowness of this one is Fellowes is not up to it; and he hasn't source text to hide behind, use, nor apparently a director or producer to provide a counterweight.

The way costume drama is usually denigrated does paradoxically enable this political use. It can be dismissed. Were the surface content say a story of contemporary Syria then people would be alert to the outlook. Syriana by George Clooney was understood.

To the specific issue:

Sure they are woefully understaffed at Downton; in earlier lavish costume dramas, you will get at most a few servants (1995 P&P): it costs to hire extras. That this may be read politically can be seen by one of the few 1980s Austen films to present adequate staff and make them part of the story marginally (not as a parallel downstairs but a different universe): Alexander Barons' 1980s S&S: he was socialist labor, rather like Orwell probably in party allegiances. (Baron did a lot of the finest film adaptations of the 1980s, many Dickens ones Bob
might like to know.)

I suggest that unerringly, John Helpern is spot on:

Escapist Kitsch posing as good programming at Masterpiece theater

I am grateful to him for supplying the life story and outlook of Julian Fellowes:

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey’s creator and writer, is an odd duck obsessed with the nuances of class and social etiquette. He is the Nancy Mitford de nos jours, minus the noblesse oblige. The parvenu son of a Shell executive and former diplomat, he married Emma Kitchener, a distant relative of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, and former lady-in-waiting, or official companion, to Princess Michael of Kent (known as “Princess Pushy”). Astonishingly, Fellowes has tried to claim that upon the death of the surviving Earl Kitchener, who was childless, the laws of succession should be changed so that his wife could inherit the title.

Fellowes once described himself as “bottom of the top.” (Not quite upper class, you see). In an effort to belong among the toffs, he even changed his surname to Kitchener-Fellowes. It’s as incredible as anything you’ll find in Downton Abbey. Yet, for many years, he was that classless thing—a jobbing actor. In desperation, he even went to Hollywood in search of work and was shortlisted to take over from Hervé Villechaize as a butler on Fantasy Island. He later played the role of the intriguingly named Lord Kilwillie on the British sitcom Monarch of the Glen and penned a novel, Snobs, about social climbers in search of a title. He also wrote bodice rippers under the pseudonym Rebecca Greville. (Hence the bodice ripping in Downton Abbey).

It wasn’t until Fellowes was in his fifties that his break came with Robert Altman’s 2001 Gosford Park (the goings on of the aristos upstairs and the plebs below stairs again). He won an Academy Award for the script, and his checkered life since then has been gilded. He recently completed a new version of the Titanic disaster (first class
and steerage again); he also wrote the successful stage version of Mary Poppins; and Downton Abbey will soon enter its third season with the unlikely entrance of m’lady MacLaine.

So Gosford Park was a sport, an anomaly shaped by the presence of Altman. On the other hand, I have to say the idea that this is posing as a masterpiece production is silly. Many masterpieces productions are poor and/or bad. Some are brilliant. A recent Didkens adaptation of Great Expectations was terrible, laughable; the 1999 Our Mutual Friend by Sandy Welch was a masterwork which conveyed Dickens filmically.

On servants, a good book: Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the victorian Servant: the tone is through rose-colored glasses, but the story is told. My mother-in-law's experience is at the time of the "fall" - when those in servitude could find other and real paying jobs with independent time off where they could afford to purchase their own space



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 8th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
While I agree that Mrs. Bates is perhaps an overly simplistic negative
portrait, I feel the second season really does quite a bit to humanize
O'Brien and the new maid Edith, not to mention many of the other female characters. I finished the first season generally disliking O'Brien - though she starts to show something other than pure malice in the last episode - but her relationships with others in the second season really develop her into a character with both kindnesses and hatreds, and I really appreciated it. Ian
Feb. 8th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
My point was more general than that, Ian. As Amos 'n Andy was loaded
with caricatures of black people, so Downton Abbey is loaded with
caricatures of women (Edith is another) and servants (the lower
orders). I noted that Matthew is of course having a nervous breakdown
and going half-mad; Moseley wants to avoid service; and William a
total naive; our upper class males have just the right proportion of
bravery and not too much fear.

Sylvia ("Think of me as the dead or absent maid")

Edited at 2012-02-08 07:47 pm (UTC)
Feb. 8th, 2012 08:55 pm (UTC)
Ellen -

Not dead nor the absent maid, rather the burr under thought's saddle

Feb. 8th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
Very funny parody
Someone who read this blog has sent me a parody which has a couple of hilarious moments. The narrator is Michael Gambon.

Feb. 9th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Hitting a real nerve
People are really obsessed. Look at the amount of detail in this
study. A guest blogger 9also a woman) at anibundel:

Feb. 9th, 2012 01:19 am (UTC)
Hitting a real nerve
From another friend who read this blog:

Some wound where the scabs are too thin, some desires which elsewhere
get no articulation:

Feb. 9th, 2012 11:56 am (UTC)
Yes, Ellen, true. It's 100% corn (maybe a bit hammy, too), but so compelling. Any thoughts about why? Rachel
Feb. 9th, 2012 11:57 am (UTC)
To be really honest, I don't know. Simplistic presentations of costume drama have been done before. My hunch that the types we see in Lady Mary, Edith, Anna come from today's soap operas in the US might lead to some insight. One of my books has a couple of essays which talk about how these soap operas always have really nasty women and mostly good men but I'd have to reread. I've noticed the dissatisfaction voiced in this season's series is about how the heroines are being treated or how they are behaving, especially over Anna. There's a real level in which it's a mystery to me why all women aren't feminists in the sense of wanting to be treated with real decency and humanity, given equal respect; why want to be a sex object -- I know the reply is some women really believe sex gives them power; if so, that delusion surely can't last long. So I don't know because a huge audience and parody suggests it's not just shallow frivolousness.

I love costume drama myself and some of the reasons why (I'll try to outline them) are why this one is liked. Those mocking it probably include those who despise the form. For my part, DA reminds me of _Cranford Chronicles_ in being so for community and in our times that may hit a general chord.

Edited at 2012-02-09 11:58 am (UTC)
Feb. 10th, 2012 01:10 pm (UTC)
We may not know what it means until it's long over. I do like the parodies. They are pretty close to the original. I don't know anyone who takes it seriously; do you? As I said, it's very corny stuff.
Feb. 10th, 2012 09:46 pm (UTC)
Water carriers
"Hmmm... nobody at Downton Abbey ever seems to have to worry about water (carrying water, heating water for baths, etc. etc.). Only one kind of plumbing matters there--the kind that gets an heir..." Judy Shoaf

Edited at 2012-02-10 09:48 pm (UTC)
Feb. 10th, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
Water carriers
I often put pictures on the groupsite pages of my yahoo list and nowadays am sometimes at a loss for new ones. What I'll do is scan in some of those from Horn's book. They give a real feel for the servants' lives.

I wish I could remember a moving poem by a recent woman poet (title and author escape me) where the point is how for millenium bringing in water was a central activity for women's lives and in many places in Africa that is so still.

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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