Something like eight million of us watched Downton Abbey this past weekend, now in its third season, written by that incomparable actor-writer, Julian Fellowes.
Downtown Abbey is the ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham. Robert and Cora Crawley are parents of three daughters Mary, Edith and the feisty Sybil. My take on Downton Abbey is that it is a delectable satire on the aristocratic Edwardian lifestyle. I realize that this may be a purely American interpretation and not one shared by our contemporary British compatriots.
I think I was drawn to this series because I envy the Edwardian style of living. Who wouldn’t if they had access to lady’s maids, butlers, footmen, personal cooks, valets, chauffeurs and a wine cellar rivaling that of Robert Mondavi.
Watching the Crawley Family dress and assemble for an Abbey evening dinner was great fun. Forget the facts that Lord Crawley’s dress shirts had been purloined earlier in the day or that cousin Matthew Crawley’s evening coat had been sabotaged with an acid drip in place of a spot remover.
The formal dining room set-up was typical of this period with every detail supervised by the meticulous butler, Mr. Carson.
However as the teleplay hummed along I was able to detect a few irregularities in etiquette that I thought worth mentioning. I think I’ll use Will Cuppy’s definition of etiquette as “a means of behaving yourself a little bit better than is absolutely essential.”
Careful examination showed that the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, used her meat fork (shock) while eating her salad. There was also a trace of saliva dripping from her mouth probably related to the fact that she was talking with a mouthful of food (double shock.)
We also caught daughter, Lady Edith, the languishing one, dunking her table roll in her gravy. She thought no one noticed.
Lady Mary, the really gorgeous daughter, meanwhile was noticed by this alert viewer to have failed to stifle an eructation after scarfing her cut glass goblet-full of red wine.
Lady Sybil the third and sexy-voiced, cute sibling meanwhile comported herself well during the early meal. Unfortunately she imbibed too much wine and during desert was noted to be licking her fingers. Shame.
Nevertheless, I really envied the class and style of this dining scene at the Abbey. The show of manners was truly enlightening.
Watching the meal progress, or should I say unravel, I did wonder just what the well-born gourmands were eating. Liver? kidney? pigs intestines? I believe in those days “people (would) eat anything if it was cut into small enough pieces” (Leonard Powell.)
At one point during the meal, Mr. Carson, the butler, entered the dining room and cast a scathing look at the newly-hired footman who had just spilled wine down the décolletage of Countess Cora. (This happened slightly off lens and only the receptive, mainly male viewer, noted it.) Countess Cora did not seem to mind because she had, known only to her facilitating lady’s maid, been nipping Chardonnay in her boudoir all afternoon preparing herself for the news that her husband had just lost her entire (American) fortune on a bankrupt Canadian Railroad. Tsk, tsk.
About this time during the repast a messenger arrived announcing that WW11 had just started and life as they knew it was over.
Not to worry…just pour another round of schnapps.
As the meal comes to an end another faux pas was detected by this keen-eyed viewer. The Dowager Countess had developed an oral imperfection characterized by a trapped piece of what appeared to be spinach lodged in the upper two central incisors of her dentures. She was blissfully ignorant of this despite the machinations of Countess Crawley who kept gesturing frantically toward the Duchess’ mouth with her dessert fork.
No one but me seemed to notice that when Lord Grantham stood before his chair, at the end of the meal, that his top pant button popped loose and like a rocket flew across the table landing on Lady Sybil’s desert plate. Fortunately the Heimlich maneuver was not needed since Lady Sybil had just finished licking her fingers and turned to talk with her multiple- inheriting-but-hating-it-unconvincingly-cousin, Matthew.
In my opinion we lost a lot in this country when we eschewed the gentle manners of the Edwardian period. Would it not be better if we dressed formally for evening meals instead of showing up in running shorts and Sauconys? How many of us do the fingers assist while eating ?… you know pushing one’s food onto the fork with a clever little digital maneuver. How about foregoing the cracking of knuckles, picking of teeth, and constant cell phone checking for a more Edwardian experience?
In America, Mr. Fellowes, we have just three classes: the middle class, the upper middle class and the lower middle class. But we are working hard to put everyone in the lower middle class. Just one big happy family. We are perversely snobbish.
Goethe said, “there is not a single outward mark of courtesy that does not have a deep moral basis.”
So remember Goethe the next time you are tempted to pick your teeth at a formal dinner party.
Sir Julian, please forgive the Colonies for our lack of Edwardian manners. We are indeed ashamed that Erma Bombeck admitted that in her family, “gravy was considered a beverage.” We’re not quite sure if it is OK to pickup a half eaten pork chop in our fingers and finish it off. We still sometime crack our knuckles and… a …well …belch at the dinner table.
We continue to have a lot to learn from the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.
Please keep the training films coming.
Maybe in a hundred years PBS will do a Mini Series about manners and lifestyle in the U.S. post Edwardian-Obama period.
Lets hope not.
I must apologize and appeal to the sublime sense of humor of the very talented writer, producers and cast of Downton Abbey.
You have indeed succeeded in showing me a proper respect for good manners.
Peter M. Kelly
All rights reserved Jan. 2013