The Upsides of the Downton Abbey
by Sebastiano Bazzichetto
TORONTO – Le ton indicates a prescribed and accepted code of social behaviours; it literally sets the bar for the degree of formality during ceremonies and official occasions. Also known as bon ton or etiquette, le ton is to a certain social class like architecture is to a historical period. In every century, to every social condition, etiquette changed and was adapted.
If you are a fan of tv series like the popular “Downton Abbey” and its never-ending six seasons, you might also be very familiar with the diktat that every occasion, in an aristocrat’s daily life, corresponds to a specific attire, type of gloves, walking cane, ladies’ hat’s size, conversation subjects and so forth. At a dinner table there is always a strict hierarchy to be respected (upstairs as well as downstairs); married women are allowed to breakfast in their private apartments whilst gentlemen gathering in the dining room tend to serve themselves (at least for that one time a day). Exhausting day-to-day activities include luncheons, afternoon teas, polo matches, hunting parties, stately dinners, bridge tournaments and, of course, gossiping as much as possible.
In recent times a very interesting reading has been “The long weekend”, a book by Adrian Tinniswood that, once more, sheds light on the life in British country houses between the two wars.
Although a large part of the modern audience (commoners) can barely boast a single drop of blue blood (like the majority of European aristocracy, since it had to breed with the galloping wealthy bourgeoisie to keep alive), yet the fascination with aristocratic lifestyle (whether British or continental) undeniably remains firm.
And why is that? Reasons may vary.
Without doubt, a majestic country mansion epitomizes a long list of royal ancestors and a dreamy life. The modern viewer tends to identify himself with the upstairs inhabitants of a pompous dwelling, wandering around the gilded (drafty) rooms of their homes. Nonetheless, it is often easier to sympathize with the downstairs characters, who provide a dose of human drama with their normal lives, spent (wasted) in the service of their masters. This apparently untouchable pyramid ultimately gives a sense of tranquillity and safety. Especially in times of profound crisis (for international economies, human rights and the environment), a tv drama about a perfect world, regulated like a Swiss clock, with its stillness and well-orchestrated social ladder cannot but grant a feeling of feasible peacefulness.
Although spending time shining silverware, moving it from one floor to another, or bathing in icy rooms with no running water, has become a captivating way to re-imagine the Edwardian and in-between-the-wars society, it is also true that the actual life of up– and downstairers was quite different (as many historical books and documentaries prove). Some sixteen years ago, the late, brilliant American director Robert Altman masterfully portrayed a handful of bored-to-death (some of them impoverished too) aristocrats that gathered during a weekend (at the time, it was known as a “Friday to Monday”) for hunting parties and leisure, at the expense of an army of servants and cooks. As one of the young lady’s maids says speaking of another female servant: «If her own mother had a heart attack, she’d think it was less important than one of Lady Sylvia’s farts». After the last few rays of the (second) golden era of the country houses, a much bigger flatulence would have wiped out that dream: the Second World War and the atomic bomb.
Whether you like it or not, the life in the shadow of a Victorian or Jacobean fireplace mantel (even aboard a doomed ocean liner), nibbling cold cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea from the colonies, keeps the grasp, and remains the (unachievable) dream for many people. The golden bubble wherein baronesses and duchesses live and break wind stands for the multifarious fresco of an augustus world hard to die.
And that is exactly the upside of such a dream.
In the meantime, while you wait for the “Downton Abbey” movie, you can cradle yourself with several takes on Queen Victoria’s life, resting assured that her tea would never be served too cold or too hot, just as ordinarily as required, for extremes are not contemplated, according to the very Victorian etiquette.