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At Downton Abbey

      I just returned from seeing my old friends, Lord and Lady Grantham. They, along with members of the Crawley family and most of their household staff, are “touring” in America. Of course, they brought the accouterments of their lovely country home in England with them. Quite a transatlantic undertaking, to be sure. I had spent six seasons with them since 2011, and have terribly missed seeing them these last couple years, so I was delighted to be able to enjoy their company and their way of life once again.

     I am, of course, talking about Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which is now touring the United States after opening in New York City to rave reviews last year. Currently, The Exhibition is on display in West Palm Beach, Florida, in a huge space (once a Macy’s department store) downtown at CityPlace. The Downton Abbey series , created and written by Julian Fellowes, ran on PBS for six years, garnered 15 Emmys, and by any measure became the most successful British television costume drama since the 1981 series of Brideshead Revisited (based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel). Downton’s international appeal fostered a fiercely-devoted, worldwide fan base that has now spawned a whole Downton franchise of products and publications; the Exhibition serves to keep that fan base and franchise alive, as well as providing exciting pre-publicity for the Downton Abbey full-length feature film to open in September.

     Hey, it all works for me! In case you missed it — if unfortunately you fell into a coma or lived off the grid somewhere — Downton Abbey was an original six-year long series that followed the lives of the Crawley family, headed by Robert, the 7th Earl of Grantham, and his American-born heiress wife, Clara, the Countess of Grantham. Through roughly 12 years of historic change and social upheaval in post-Edwardian England, these aristocrats struggle to maintain not only the Downton Abbey estate and the way of life within, but also to supply employment and meet their obligations to the villagers who live on that estate. For the most part, they have managed to do that through the considerable dowry Clara brought to her marriage, but the rise in socialism, the increase in taxation, and the changing technology of farming and trade brought sudden and significant challenges to the influence and power, and to the finances, of the ruling class (which is why so many of the well-born were willing to exchange their titles for money in marriage to the daughters of self-made American millionaires). 

     To further complicate the situation at Downton, Lord Grantham has three daughters, but no sons. Only a son had the right of inheritance to an estate and a title.  For the 7th Earl of Grantham, whose property had been in his family for 500 years, the single most important goal in his life was to preserve his legacy and pass it on to future generations. That goal was shared by ALL the families at Downton, by the way, both the blood-related Crawleys upstairs and the work-related service staff downstairs.  In point of fact, between the two World Wars, aristocratic land owners became increasingly unable to achieve that goal, so their estates were broken up and their assets sold off for the first time in centuries. That spelled disaster and displacement for everyone concerned. According to The Exhibition catalogue, “Between 1913 and 1939 more of England changed hands than at any time since the Reformation in the 16th century.” (p.33)

     Evidence of such reduced circumstances endure today, even in Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed. The 5,000 acre estate has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679, including the famous 5th Earl of Carnarvon who accompanied archeologist Howard Carter in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. But, by the 21st century, Highclere had become largely uninhabitable forcing the current 8th Earl and his family to live in a modest cottage on the grounds. Ceilings had collapsed, stonework had crumbled, and repair estimates soared at £12 million — a state of affairs that the 8th Earl himself attributed to the careless mismanagement by his ancestors.

     But then Highclere was discovered! Along came film crews, along came paying visitors, and along came a change in fortune that the current Countess of Highclere gratefully attributes to the on-site filming of Downton Abbey. Today, much of Highclere has been renovated and repaired, the family once again lives downstairs in the castle, and the estate is open to the public for visits and special events during the summer months. 

     And it was this state of affairs that actually made the fabulous Downton Exhibition possible, because while all the outdoor scenes were shot on location at Highclere, the everyday scenes of daily drama were difficult to film inside due to tight spaces, poorly maintained interiors, and the priceless arts and antiques that could be damaged. So, room sets, precise and authentic down to every detail, were recreated at Ealing Studios in London. It is these sets that have travelled and been reassembled for The Exhibition, and they are incredible: the servants’ quarters, Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, Carson’s pantry, Mrs. Hughes’ sitting room, Lady Mary’s bedroom, and the truly magnificent formal dining room, complete with table setting and dried floral arrangements (photo above).

     And then there are the costumes, exquisite in detail and workmanship, authentic in fabrication and embellishment, and made specifically for the actors who would wear them. Being a seamstress, I was as mesmerized by the construction of the attire of the butler, footmen and maids as I was by the wedding gowns, day dresses and “hunting pinks” of the aristocracy; being a student of history, I was enthralled by the clear evolution of style that indicated changing times. 

     Most of all, though, Downton Abbey: The Exhibition brought me back to those Sunday nights of romance and relief when I could escape into a bygone world of elegance and etiquette and forget, at least for an hour or so, my own worries and the tensions and divisions erupting in the world around me. And, as I think about it, we here in the early part of the 21st century are very much in the same state of upheaval and transition as the Crawleys were in the early part of the 20th century. The only difference is that we can no longer rely on common rules of manners and civility to keep our behaviors in check. 

     “Why do the rituals, the clothes, and the customs matter so much?” Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who ultimately marries the Earl’s daughter, Sybil, asks Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) at one point.

     “Because without them we would be like the Wild Men of Borneo,” she replies.

     And so we are.

     Note: Reference P.T. Barnum for the “Wild Men of Borneo.”

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