Lady Mary Crawley being dressed for dinner by Anna, the head housemaid in Downton Abbey
I loved the first season of Downton Abbey on PBS which tells the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants before and during the years of World War I, and wrote about it on the blog. Last night the second season started here in the United States but when I talk to friends about it I am surprised by how many are not familiar with the program. If you are not watching Downton Abbey by all means do tune in. It's a total pleasure and takes you away to a beautiful world.
The drama is shot in part at Highclere Castle, the home of Lord and Lady Carnavon who still live there today. The site has been home to the Carnavon family since 1679, and the castle was built in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry who was responsible for building the Houses of Parliament in London.
The production values including the costumes and interiors are gorgeous. The family members dress in ornate evening clothes for dinner, and downstairs, the servants in uniform are a monochromatic study in black, white, and grey. One of my favorite rooms is Lady Mary Crawley's bedroom, pictured at the top. A deep red pattern decorates the walls and there is always a fire ablaze in the fireplace opposite the bed. Sometimes the female characters are pictured in her bedroom in evening dress having a chat before dinner and invariably Mary says, "I'll be down in a minute." I am often reminded watching this series of John Singer Sargent's paintings, like this – Sargent's The Dinner Table from 1884.
or this oil sketch of Madame X giving a toast.
(watch my video tour of a recent Sargent exhibition in Cooperstown)
But of course the real world interupts the beauty of Downton when World War l breaks out in 1914, which is where we find ourselves in season 2, and honestly one is concerned for the welfare of these characters because you know that some of them will not survive the war. It reminds me of the autiobiography of the Duchess of Devonshire which I enjoyed so much reading last year. She lived through World War ll and noted how practically all of the young men she knew died in its wake – an entire generation.
At Downton Abbey, the war affects those left at home too. With some of the servants enlisted, the household becomes disorganized, and its refined manners and way of operating begin to crumble. The aristocratic art of living starts to crack. But Lord Grantham tries to reassure his servants and relieve them of pressure during wartime. "The world does not turn on the style of a dinner," he says. "Mine does," replies Mr. Carson the butler.