I can't think of any television show from the 1970's that stands out more vividly in my memory than "Upstairs, Downstairs." It aired from 1971-1975 and on Sunday nights it filled the living rooms of Anglophiles like me with all things wonderfully English. I even bought a sofa that looked like the one in the drawing room of the house at 165 Eaton Place in London, the home of the Richard and Lady Marjorie Bellamy.
"Downton Abbey," a new mini-series created and written by Julian Fellowes, premiered last week on Masterpiece Classics and I was thrilled. It feels reminiscent of "Upstairs, Downstairs," with its depiction of two worlds, that of the servants and that of the aristocratic family that resides in the house.
Lately, I have once again been immersed in all things English because I have been reading the wonderful "Wait For Me" by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. She is the youngest of the Mitford sisters, Nancy Mitford being the most famous for her books such as "Love in a Cold Climate." Adding this new British television series to my current English studies is a lovely addition.
"Downton Abbey" opens up with the Earl, Robert Crawley and his American heiress wife, Cora and their three daughters getting news of the sinking of the Titanic. So right away we know where we are, post-Edwardian Britain, 1912, just a few years before WWI, the era of servants and great estates, the land of "Upstairs, Downstairs." Robert Crawley married his wife for her money many years ago to save the estate, though they have a happy marriage. But now after the death of the Earl of Grantham with the sinking of the Titanic, a crisis of inheritance threatens to displace the resident Crawley family because Robert Crawley has only three daughters and no son. It's all about entailment. A word that springs off the pages of most of Jane Austen's novels and was obviously an issue in 1912. Because the estate is entailed to Lord Crawley's heir, a distant cousin, the assumption is that when Lord Crawley dies, the bulk of the estate will go to his cousin, rather than his wife and his daughters. Entailment laws required that the inheritance go to the eldest son, and if there was not one, then to the next male relative.
Eldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith
Cora, Countess of Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, and another daughter
Part of the "downstairs" staff
I can't wait to see what happens in the upcoming episodes.
Being immersed in "Wait for Me" by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, I have been learning about another great British estate, this one Chatsworth, which is where she lived for 46 years. The story of this estate and how the duchess and her husband saved it after World War II is fascinating.
As is the story of her family. Lord and Lady Redesdale had seven children, six girls and one boy. Nancy Mitford has immortalized this family in her famous books "Love in a Cold Climate" and "The Pursuit of Love." Being the youngest, Deborah had a unique position in the family to be an observer of her already famous siblings from when she was quite young. And so Deborah's perspective on this family is a new and valuable one, especially because we get to know her this time.
She describes her arrival in 1920 to this already huge clan as anti-climatic and sees herself as mostly invisible in the light of the rest of the dominating characters in this family. When the telegram announcing her birth was delivered to her family home, her sister Nancy announced to the others, "We Are Seven." Then Nancy wrote to her mother "How disgusting of the poor darling to go and be a girl." And yet, as we discover in her memoir, she came into her own and led a fascinating life. She married Andrew Cavendish, son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, and counted amongst her friends and acquaintances major movers and shakers in politics and the arts. For example, she was good friends with the Kennedys, particularly Jack and his sister Kick, and she writes about attending President Kennedy's presidential inauguration in 1961. (By the way, this week on January 20th is the 50th anniversary of that inauguration.)
The Mitford family
Deborah Mitford, debutante, 1938
Marriage of Deborah Mitford and Lord Cavendish, son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, 1941
Chatsworth House, home of Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire
As I make my way through this book, I am enjoying the story of the how she and her husband rescued Chatsworth and restored it to its current glory. She grew up in the shadow of her famous sisters, but the identity she forged for herself was quintessentially English. She loved hunting, sports, her horses. And part of that English identity was the love of the land and this house. And not surprisingly, she is also a very good writer.