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During the late 18th century, early 19th century, trains on gowns were de rigueur. I chose to show the two gowns below, since the styles were popular when Jane Austen was a teenager (first image) and wrote the first editions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice (second and third images).

1785-90 Sheer embroidered cotton muslin lined with pink silk taffeta - Galliera

Sheer embroidered cotton muslin, lined with pink silk taffeta, 1785-1790. Galliera

Silk Dress 1795 The Kyoto Costume Institute

Silk Dress, Kyoto Costume Institute, 1795

Robe ayant appartenu, 1797

Robe ayant appartenu, 1797

As Regency styles evolved and the 19th century  progressed, trains were worn largely on evening dresses.

 

1805-1810 French evening dress, V&A museum

1805-1810 French evening dress, V&A museum

I have often wondered how delicate muslin gowns survived the harsh laundering that was required to remove stains made from dusty floors and muddy pathways. Even the grandest ladies wearing the most expensive dresses promenaded on gravel walkways or shopped along city or village streets. How did they manage to keep their hems clean in an era when paved roads and sidewalks were almost impossible to find?

Dirt road, a view near New Cross Deptford in Kent, 1770. artist unknown Yale University, Mellon Collection.

Dirt road, a view near New Cross Deptford in Kent, 1770. artist unknown Yale University, Mellon Collection.

Until macadam roads became widespread, roads across most of Great Britain remained unpaved. Village roads were especially notorious for becoming muddy quagmires during rainy days. The deep ruts in this village scene, illustrated just five years before Jane Austen’s birth, say it all.

Detail

Detail of  the road in New Cross Deptford

Dresses worn by working class women stopped at or above the ankles, and for good reason! These women wore sturdy leather shoes that could withstand the dirt.

recto

Paul Sandby drawing of two vendors, 18th c.

City streets were barely better than country roads. While sidewalks protected dress hems, roads were still made of dirt. People tossed out garbage from their windows, and horse droppings made crossings all but impassible for pedestrians.

Dirt road_St. George, Bloomsbury

Dirt road, detail of St. George, Bloomsbury

Crossing sweepers were stationed along major intersections, sweeping a clearing for anyone willing to give a tip. Not only did horses pull carriages and wagons, but drovers led animals to market through village and city streets. The stench from their droppings must have been unbelievable.

street sweeper and wheeled plank Vernet_street_print

This enterprising street sweeper places a wheeled plank at strategic points to help pedestrians cross dirty roads. Print by Carle Vernet.

 

With time, machines began to replace manual labor, as this unhappy street sweeper notes.

By 1829, machines began to replace manual labor, as this unhappy street sweeper notes in “The Scavenger’s Lamentation.” Observe the piles of horse and animal dung left behind.

Jane Austen mentioned wearing pattens when she lived in Steventon. These devices elevated shoes above the dirt, but by the turn of the 19th century, pattens were no longer considered fashionable and were largely worn by the working classes, such as the midwife below.

Rowlandson, Midwife going to a labour.

Rowlandson. AMidwife Going to a Labour.

 

early 19th century pattens. Museum of Fine Art, Boston

early 19th century pattens. Museum of Fine Art, Boston

I always view contemporary images for clues. Diana Sperling created some wonderful watercolours around the topic. In this painting, you can see how the trains of the dresses have somehow been hitched up in the back, especially with the first and third women.

dirt road_hazards of walking sperling

Hazards of walking, by Diana Sperling

After Elizabeth Bennet walks to Netherfield to visit her sick sister, Jane, Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Bingley speak disparagingly about the state of her dress:

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”

“She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office.” – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8

Bingley’s citified and nouveau riche sisters were horrified at Elizabeth’s lack of decorum. To them, appearances are more important than sisterly devotion. One imagines that they would not have ventured out until the sun had dried the mud and they could be assured of a carriage. From the image below, one can readily see why Elizabeth’s hems were in such sad shape after her long walk in fields made wet by heavy rain.

Dirt roads

One wonders how helpful pattens were when dirt roads became quagmires. Although she was young when she painted these watercolours, Diana Sperling demonstrates a decided sense of humor in her paintings.

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella and Catherine became quickly inseparable, even calling each other by their first names in an age when only intimate friends and family could be on such terms.

They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. 

They pinned up the trains of each others’ evening gowns to prevent tripping, but also staining, I suspect.  (It must be noted that guests changed from their street shoes to dancing slippers before entering a ballroom, which probably reduced the amount of dirt trailed inside.) Nothing could stop the girls from seeing each other, not even “dirt” or muddy streets.

There were many ways to protect trains. In this film still, Gwynneth Paltrow’s Emma hitches her train on a loop over her wrist.

Note the train in this image of the 1996 version of Emma

Note the train in this image of the 1996 version of Emma

These French images from the late 18th century provide the best evidence in how ladies would protect their delicate dresses out of doors. While we assume that ladies did not expose their ankles to the public (they certainly did not in the Victorian era, but the Regency was a different time), the illustrations point out the practical habit of hitching a train over one’s arm.

corte de pelo a la victima

This French fashionista with her short, pert hair cut, reveals her roman style slippers as she promenades with her train carried over her arm.

Les Merveilleuses, by carle vernet

While this 1797 satiric image by Carle Vernet is making fun of fashionistas, one can surmise that the habit of carrying long skirts over the fore arm was widespread.

Wind and open windows swept dirt and dust continually into houses and visitors trod in dirt. No wonder maids needed to sweep floors daily!

Regardless of the efforts to keep streets, sidewalks, and floors clean, one wonders about the condition of the hems on women’s garments. Clothes were expensive before the advent of mass-produced cloth and were carefully recycled, even by the well-off.

Laundresses took an enormous amount of effort to keep clothes clean. One can only assume that the majority of women wore clothes with stained hems, and that only the rich could afford the expense of keeping their clothes looking spotless. Eleanor Tilney wore only white gowns, which told contemporary readers more about her economic status than pages of explanations ever could. In Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris frowned on maidservants wearing white gowns. These white clothes were not only above their stations, but they would require an enormous amount of time spent on maintenance.

Also on this blog: Trains on Dresses

 

 

Mary Brunton

Inquiring readers, frequent contributor, Tony Grant from London Calling, has written an interesting article for this blog about Mary Brunton.

In 1814 Jane Austen wrote a letter to her beloved niece Anna Lefroy.

Anna Lefroy

Anna Lefroy

To Anna Lefroy

Thursday 24th November 1814
“……Mrs Creed’s opinion is gone down on my list; but fortunately I may excuse myself from entering Mr……as my paper only relates to Mansfield Park. I will redeem my credit with him, by writing a close imitation of, “Self Control” as soon as I can;- I will improve upon it; my heroine shall not merely be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself, she shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, and never stop until she reaches Gravesent.-“

From this extract it appears that Jane was sensitive to criticism about her novels. Mr, (the name on the original letter is missing) is critical, and it seems, not in a positive way, about Jane’s work. She senses that he is the sort that would enjoy more melodramatic novels such as the one she refers to, “Self Control.” There does seem to be an element of cynicism towards, “Self Control,” in Jane’s comment. At the time it was published, 1811, the same year Sense and Sensibility was published, it was popular. It went to a number of editions. It had very strong moral overtones. Fay Weldon, the English author and feminist has stated that she likes it. There are definitively feminist overtones.The main character, Laura Montreville, partakes in rugged and manly exploits. In some ways it was a rival of Sense and Sensibility and Mary Brunton herself, was a rival of Jane Austen. They were competing for the same market. In 1813 Jane had mentioned Mary Brunton’s novel before and in slightly more flattering terms. It also appears that she read it more than once.

Mary Brunton

Mary Brunton

“I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does. – Jane Austen (1813)

Here is the part of, “Self Control,” near the end of the story, that Jane mentions in both quotes. It’s obviously the part of Mary Brunton’s story that struck her the most.

“…………she beheld close by her an Indian canoe. With suddenness that mocks the speed of light, hope flashed on the darkened soul; and, stretching her arms in wild ecstasy, ‘Help, help,’ cried Laura, and sprung towards the boat. ………………………………………………………………………………..

Each object hastened on with fearful rapidity, and the murmuring sound was now a deafening roar.

Fear supplying super-human strength, Laura strove to turn the course of her vessel. She strained every nerve; she used the force of desperation. Half-hoping that the struggle might save her, half-fearing to note her dreadful progress, she toiled on till the oar was torn from her powerless grasp, and hurried along with the tide.

The fear of death alone had not the power to overwhelm the soul of Laura. Somewhat might yet be done perhaps to avert her fate, at least to prepare for it. Feeble as was the chance of life, it was not to be rejected. Fixing her cloak more firmly about her, Laura bound it to the slender frame of the canoe. Then commending herself to heaven with the fervour of a last prayer, she, in dread stillness, awaited her doom………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

With terrible speed the vessel hurried on. It was whirled round by the torrent—tossed fearfully—and hurried on again. It shot over a smoothness more dreadful than the eddying whirl. It rose upon its prow. Laura clung to it in the convulsion of terror. A moment she trembled on the giddy verge. The next, all was darkness!

Can you imagine Jane Austen writing like this? I can’t. Jane’s writing appeals to us through the generations and touches the human condition. This extract, I can understand how Mr…. would enjoy this sort of writing, is a pot boiler, an airport, W H Smiths offering to keep the executive employed on a long haul flight. It’s the sort of plot that combines outward bound pursuits with feminine whiles. Something revolutionary in scope for the time.

Jane was kind about it and saw its appeal, “my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.” but she notices too, it doesn’t address the real human condition.

So what of Mary Brunton ?

Mary Brunton and Jane Austen were the same age and both died nearly at the same age.

Mary Brunton , born Mary Balfour, was born on the 1st November 1778 in Burray in the Orkney islands. Mary was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick and Francis Ligonier. Like many girls of the period, her education was limited but her mother thought it proper for her to learn music, Italian and French. In about 1798 she met and fell in love with the Reverend Alexander Brunton, a minister of the Church of Scotland.  She eloped with Brunton on the 4th December 1798. He took her from the Isle of Gairsay in a rowing boat. Her penchant for dramatic situations obviously helped her later in her writing career. The excitement of this rowing adventure spilled over into her novel writing. Her excitement for action was something Jane Austen did not adhere to. Jane explored the subtle interactions between human beings. Mary often explored the dramatic interactions with her environment.

Greyfriars Church

Greyfriars Church. Image @Tony Grant

Alexander Brunton was the minister at Bolton until 1797. He then moved with Mary to Edinburgh where he became the minister at two Edinburgh parishes, Greyfriars in 1803 and at the Tron Kirk in 1809. Both these churches are entwined strongly with Scottish and Edinburgh history.

In 1637, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles I and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, met with a reverse in their efforts to impose a new liturgy on the Scots. The Covenanters whose ideas later lead to Presbyterianism, formed their own covenant. In 1638 the New Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Church. After the English Civil war and Charles had been beheaded Cromwell persecuted the Covenanters and some were imprisoned in Greyfriars churchyard.

Tron Kirk. Image @Tony  Grant

Tron Kirk. Image @Tony Grant

The Tron, situated prominently in The Royal Mile, near St Giles Cathedral, came about during this struggle of the Scottish Church against Charles and Archbishop Laud . They turned the High Kirk into St Giles Cathedral and in retaliation the Scottish Bishops built a new church near to St Giles called, The Tron Kirk which was begun in 1636. The Scottish nobility, The Lord High Chief Justice of Scotland and many more moved their worship to The Tron Kirk. Many famous Edinburgh people have been married there. Alexander Brunton was no ordinary minister, being the minister of these two key important churches, he was also the Professor of Oriental languages at the University of Edinburgh, a short distance from The Tron in South Bridge Road.

Guided by her husband, Mary Brunton began an interest in philosophy. She wrote to her sister while living in Edinburgh that she was in favour of women learning the ancient languages of Greek and Latin and that they should learn mathematics too. These studies were male preserves and it was revolutionary and unheard of that women should study them. Mary eventually became pregnant at the age of 40. She gave birth to a still born son and she died soon after on the 7th December 1818. Her novels did not keep their popularity and soon were no longer revered.

Edinburgh University. Image @Tony Grant

Edinburgh University. Image @Tony Grant

Edinburgh, Old Town, up to the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century was an unhealthy place to live. It was prone to diseases and infections. The town had been built along the ridge, that stretches like a tail down from the great rock, an ancient volcanic plug, on which Edinburgh Castle is built. This is a typical medieval town design. In a medieval town, the town spreads out like a tail from the castle along a main street that leads directly from the castle gate. This area would invariably be walled for protection and this was so with Edinburgh. From this long main street where shops, workshops and manufacturing would have been located, small alleyways lead off at right angles. These alleyways, known as courts, closes and wynds, were not much more than dark narrow paths about two or three metres wide. They were the location for the houses, called tenements, in which people lived. The tenements were built with granite and basalt rocks quarried from the surrounding terrain. The poor people lived on the ground floors, the wealthy lived above them. Some of these houses in Edinburgh were built up layer after layer over years and some might reach fourteen storeys. To get from one floor to the next, rickety wooden staircases were constructed against the walls of these buildings. These courts, closes and wynds had no sanitation. They sloped sharply down from the high street, nowadays known as The Royal Mile, to the left and the right of the volcanic ridge. Rubbish, human excrement, urine and all sorts of effluent flowed down these streets to lakes and marshland at the bottom of the slopes. To the north the marsh was called N’Or Loch.These marshes filled up with effluents. Edinburgh did not get the nick name,”Old Reekie,” for no reason.

Eventually in the late 1770’s a new town was begun across the valley on the other side of the N’Or Loch. A design competition was held in January 1766 to find a suitably modern layout for the new suburb. It was won by 26 year old James Craig. He drew up a grid pattern with parks and squares and circuses, similar to the circus at Bath. These were spacious new houses. All the wealthy people began to abandon Edinburgh Old Town and move to this new area. The lake was drained and Princes Gardens, still sometimes called N’Or Loch, was created with Princes Street running along one side with new town behind it.

Eventually the Old Town was virtually abandoned until it was allowed to expand beyond the old ancient city walls. The fact that all development of the old town had been restricted to the area within the old walls and that there was a growing population, the problems had only been exacerbated. Once the old town was allowed to expand it too developed into a habitable place once more.
In a way, it is no wonder Mary Brunton died, living in the unhealthy conditions of the Old Town.

Self Control by Mary Brunton, Project Gutenberg

The Royal Kitchens at Kew

The Royal Kitchens at Kew were opened in May 2012 to visitors for the first time in over 200 years. They were virtually untouched since the mid-1700s, during the era of King George III. This introductory video, The Royal Kitchens at Kew: a food history, provides a brief overview of the kitchen in 1788-1789, showing all the features of a typical Georgian kitchen:

The following video helps you step back in time to 6 February 1789 when George III was given his knife and fork back after his first bout of ‘madness’. Using similar cooking utensils as the Georgians, working in a Georgian kitchen, and making the soupe from an 18th century recipe, the chef hopes to recreate food that has the look and taste of cuisine 200 years ago. During this period, soup was often served by the male head of the household. We can easily imagine Rev. Austen or Mr. Bennet performing this office.

Mutton was a staple back in the Georgian era. This video demonstrates how one can make Mutton smoured in a frying panne. I am struck by how easy the ingredients are to come by today. I would love a charcoal stove like the one depicted, but would be afraid to burn my house down!

This video demonstrates the making of a rich chocolate custard tart. During this age, chocolate was used as a drink. Chocolate bars would not be “invented” until the 19th century. I love the chef’s messy style – it reminds me of my own cooking.

The kitchen is closed for the winter and is set to reopen March 29, 2014. To print the Georgian recipes in PDF format, click here.

These days I am scouring Netflix, Amazon Prime, Acorn, and Xfinity to find a serial costume drama to keep my free nights as satisfyingly occupied as my viewing time with Downton Abbey. I know I have been harsh with my reviews this season. Consider this: One Top Chef’s judge’s explanation of his harsh reviews of the dishes he sampled by the excellent chefs competing on that show was that all the chefs served outstanding dishes. It was his job to find the one dish that stood out from the rest. In that light, I viewed Downton Abbey Season 4 as a sterling show and each episode as a separate dish. The season started out tepid and somewhat disappointing, but finished strong, pleasing my palate and leaving me hungry to see Season 5. Let’s face it, there aren’t many outstanding shows like DA out there, not if you like your characters to be polite, beautifully clothed, and moving in breathtaking interiors and scenery.

downton-abbey-season-4

Cast for the Christmas Special

I admit to enjoying House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and Vikings – but these violent shows are far from polite, and I prefer my daggers drawn verbally, a la Violet. While I liked watching Mr Selfridge (soon to be aired), Call the Midwife, Sherlock, and other PBS Masterpiece specials, they do not compete with my DA addiction.

Last week, I found myself watching DA Episode 1, Season 1 with my sister-in-law, who rarely watches television, but who had FINALLY been persuaded to give the show a try. By the second night, she had watched the entire first season.

Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to ruminate over Season 4, what did you think of the final two episodes? Thumbs UP, Thumbs down, Meh, or Can’t Decide? Curious minds want to know.

Other posts about Season 4

Dowton Abbey Season 4: Episodes 3-6

Downton Abbey Season 4: Episodes 1-2

jane austen and food Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane is not a cookbook with recipes, but a well-researched, highly informative, and entertaining historical discussion about food, mealtimes, manners, and housekeeping in the age of Jane Austen. Lane examines Austen’s letters regarding food and drink, and how she uses both to define the characters in her novels.

Today, the Jane Austen and Food’s hardcover edition, which was first published in 1995, can be purchased on Amazon in hardcover or paperback for $85 to $129! But the kindle edition from Endeavor Press is available for a mere $2.99 – and it contains the same content as the hardcover and paperback editions. (Keep in mind that kindle apps are available for those who do not own kindles. I have downloaded the book on my iPad and android devices, for example.)

Let me explain what a bargain you will be getting with the kindle version of Maggie Lane’s thoroughly enjoyable and informative book. Jane Austen’s treatment of food yields new insights in which she creates character and establishes her moral values in her novels:

In Steventon, the glebe lands (which added to about 3 acres) supplied the Rectory with pork, mutton, wheat, peas, barley, hops, and oats and hay for the horses. The surplus in produce contributed up to £300 per year to the Austen’s income. They made their own mead and wines and preserved foods that were produced with foods in season. The only commodities that were purchased were expensive items like tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, spices, and dried fruits.

No gentleman, single or widowed, could run his own home. He depended upon a paid housekeeper to oversee his hearth for good dinners, or, like Mr Bingley, he required a sister to keep house for him. Mr. Rushworth depended upon his mother, while Mr. Collins was in need of a wife.  When Mrs. Austen was kept away in 1770 for a month to look after her sister in childbirth, Mr. Austen wrote that “I must bear … [for] about three weeks longer, at which time I expect my housekeeper’s return.” Jane never took the responsibility of a household completely, although she assisted whenever she was needed. Composing for her was difficult during such times, and she wrote, “Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.”

In terms of food and its purchase, the Austen’s move to Bath was a shock. Slow transportation changed the quality of the food that Jane and her family were accustomed to, and the very fact that they had to purchase all their produce made them anxious, for they had lost sources of revenue in the form of farm produce, pupils, and Reverend Austen’s clerical stipend. Milk was of a poor quality due to the cows being kept in unhygienic barns, and food, purchased at the bakers, grocers, butchers, poulterers, and fishmongers was quite expensive. In addition, its cost  fluctuated.

Mrs. Austen in particular never lost her love for working in a garden. She did so at Steventon and later at Chawton Cottage, where she dug up her own potatoes and delighted in her flower borders. According to one of her great-grand-daughters: “She wore a green round frock like a day-laborer’s.”

At Chawton Cottage, the Austen women were able to find their footing again, growing their own fruit and vegetables, rearing poultry, keeping bees, baking bread, and making wine and brewing beer. Villagers recalled in later years that their dog, Link, would carry home a pail of milk in his mouth. It must be emphasized that, although Jane Austen worried about financial security, she and her sister and mother were comfortable enough to eat well and, like Emma Woodhouse, to dispense charity to those less fortunate than themselves. If Jane envied others, it was for their freedom from perpetual contrivance. In the sale of her novels, she found some relief from such worry.

In later chapters, Maggie Lane describes the history of tea, coffee, and chocolate, and how these fashionable drinks were imbibed before and during Jane Austen’s day. Austen herself only mentioned chocolate twice in her letters, but Mrs Austen during her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey wrote that their breakfast at her ancestral home consisted of “Chocolate Coffee and Tea, Plumb Cake, Pound Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, brad and Butter, and dry toast for me.”

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper are described, but Lane emphasizes that Jane barely mentions these daily events in her letters and novels. She gives scant details, especially as to the preferences of her heroines, most of whom are not concerned with the daily details of food. There are hints here and there in her novels: Willoughby takes porter at an inn during midday, and Frank Churchill imbibes spruce beer on a hot day at Donwell.

Dinner times are moved up as the Regency era progresses. In 1798, Jane writes to Cassandra that they dine at half after three, and by 1808, “we never dine now till five.” This was a gradual shift in dinner-time that took place with most families during this era, although dinner in town (London) was taken fashionably later. In addition, dinners in the early 19th century were far less splendid than those in the latter part of the century. Edward Austen-Leigh noted that there was a “far less splendid appearance than it does now.” By the time Jane wrote Mansfield Park, silver forks emerged, as well as napkins and finger glasses. In 1808 Jane wrote, “My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate – a whole tablespoon and a whole dessertspoon, and six whole teaspoons – which makes our sideboard border on the magnificent.”

I could go on and on describing the enormous amount of information in this ebook. Lane goes on to discuss in great detail the attitudes towards food and domesticity in Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Mansfield Park – all of which excited this reader. The characters of Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Grant, Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Norris, Mr. Price, and General Tilney are elaborated in great detail in their obsession (or not) with food and general housekeeping details.

tea cups ratingIs Jane Austen and Food worth the cost of $2.99? Oh, yes. Definitely.!I paid so much more for my hardback copy several years ago and do not regret its purchase. I give this ebook a rating of 5 out of 5 Regency teacups.

Valentine Puzzle Purse, 1816

This image by Nancy Rosin (2007) from victoriantreasury.com  is of a puzzle purse dated February 14, 1816! By clicking on the link, you can read about these wonderful puzzle purses, and how and why they were made. (Sweethearts exchanged them as early as the 1790s.) Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers!

Valentine puzzle purse, February 14, 1816

Valentine puzzle purse, February 14, 1816. Image by Nancy Rosin

Please note: the ads placed below my posts are from WordPress. I do not make money from writing this blog, but will occasionally accept promotional materials for review.

Poor Matthew died as Season 3 ended. We all sat in our seats as if dumbstruck, certain that Season 4 would begin with a resounding bang, including our attendance at his funeral and wake. Instead, viewers have been treated to a season of tepidness. Julian Fellowes has taken us on a journey in a Sargasso Sea of his own making, circling around familiar story lines and swirling his characters in a holding pattern until he can find a way to break them out.

Indiana fireworks explosion @Daily Mail

Matthew’s death surprised us and set the stage for cataclysmic changes in the Crawley household. (Image: @Daily Mail)

Where are the high stakes conflicts? Where are the intriguing story lines that kept us on the edge of our seats from week to week? (And, no, the rape scene does not count. Sorry, Julian.)

Ian McKellen (King Lear), William Gaunt (Gloucester)

We were expecting epic upheavals. (Image: Ian McKellen (King Lear), William Gaunt (Gloucester))

Granted that Fellowes was not given enough time by ITV to rest on his laurels and breathe before meeting the next season’s writing deadlines.  Granted that the goings on at the Abbey still provide some of the best TV drama on our schedules, but none of us could have predicted the steady decline in the riveting story lines from earlier seasons. (Before I continue, I must share that my friend, Hillary, who watched each episode with me, thinks that I am being much too harsh on this season, and that my neighbors, whose judgments I trust, found this season to be an improvement over Season 3.)

Including a lack of time to develop his stories and characters, Fellowes’ decision to remove the writers who helped to make Season One a resounding success didn’t help matters. So, let’s examine the state of Season Four’s tepitude (Episodes 3-6 ), shall we? It is 1922, 6 months after Matthew Crawley’s death.

The Crawleys

The earl’s a nice old-fashioned man who gives a tenant farmer’s son a chance to pay back his daddy’s bills, but, then, in Epidsode 6, he’s shipped off to America to help his brother in law. We’ll see him in the Christmas special, but, still, tepid.

Cora is showing more backbone, but she still has no taste in ladies maids. She loves having her grand babies in the house, although Tom is threatening to move himself and baby Sybbie to America. Cora has no control over Rose, or Edith, for that matter. Tepid.

Rose is a flapper who likes to rebel. Her romance with beautiful Jack Ross (love his voice and brilliant white teeth) is, well, predictable.

Violet and Isobel are becoming strange bedfellow friends. Neither woman is given much to do, which has been disappointing. Violet’s been obsessed with petty theft of her things by a new young gardener (Pegg). She has very little proof, but she hates to be wrong and her stubbornness leads us into familiar territory. In the end she shows her good heart by rehiring Pegg, whom she had fired.  Then she gets sick and is nursed back to health by Isobel, whom she slowly starts to accept as a friend. Not a major story line, to be sure. And what happened to the hints of romance between Isobel and Dr. Clarkson in Season 3? He’s not even listed as a major character on PBS’s site for Season 4. Tepid. Tepid. Lame.

Belowstairs

Thomas is still a snake, but one without a riveting story line. He’s lost O’Brien, his ally in nasty schemes, and has been reduced to plotting behind the scenes via Baxter, Cora’s new ladies maid. Baxter’s obviously reluctant to play along. She’s capable and willing (showing others how her sewing machine works), but, frankly, her story line so far is … diddly, insignificant. You get the drift. As for Thomas, he’s been shipped off to America along with the earl, so we can assume that they’ll both show up in the final installment. Lame

Mrs. Hughes is a nice motherly figure with whom all can share their secrets. Mr Carson remains an old-fashioned fatherly figure who keeps everyone in their place. And Mrs. Patmore is anything but a futurist. No change here. Their story lines are predictable, but, in this case, is that a bad thing?

Bates learns of Anna’s rape, relieving her of the guilt of omission but raising her anxiety that he’ll eventually go out and shoot the bastard, which he will, if Bates’s dark ruminations are an indication. “Your husband’s a brooder, and brooders brood.” Every time we hear their “theme”, we are reminded of the dark side to their story line.  (They can never be happy for long. Even their night out is fraught with difficulties, except for Cora’s interventions.)  Episode six ends with an image of Bates casting an evil eye in Mr. Green’s direction, leaving the viewers with a sick feeling that Seasons Two and Three are about to be repeated in the Bates/Anna “woe is us” story line. These star-crossed lovers are still rotating in a Sargasso Sea of repeated plot lines.

The Clueless Chauffeur

In yet another moment of stupidity, Tom Branson beds Edna Braithwaite, the scheming maid who was laid off last season for bedding him in the first place, but who inexplicably returns as O’Brien’s  replacement as Cora’s lady’s maid.  Tom was a chauffeur, right? So what’s to prevent him from driving outside of the village to find nookie at a safe distance? This plot line is stupid to the nth degree. Plus, does anyone really think that we’ve seen the last of Edna? Tom’s entertained the idea of taking himself and baby Sibbie off to America for a new life, which leaves Cora in a tizzy. We do get a whiff of a new romantic interest when Tom attends a political rally in Ripon. Despite many possibilities, Fellowes has poor Tom whirling around a Sargasso Sea of repeated plot lines. Where is the old Tom’s political fire? We miss that.

Edith. Oh, poor, poor Edith.

Edith finally gets her man, but then he disappears into the bowels of poverty-stricken, post World War One Germany. In his absence, she’s worried that she might be pregnant after a night of illicit love. What was Fellowes thinking? This season was Edith’s chance for a breakaway story line that would turn her into a strong and independent woman, instead we merely get … the same old, same old. Edith’s chance at happiness is snatched away when she finds out she’s pregnant and staring at the possibility of carrying a bastard and facing society’s censure. Fellowes missed a major opportunity to elevate Edith’s growth as a character to another level. He has her rotating around a Sargasso Sea of repeated plot lines – that of the loser sister. Disappointing.

Lady Mary’s story arc: a trio of men and a passel of pigs

Mary, Lord Gillingham, Evelyn NapierGood grief. What made the Mary/Matthew romance riveting was the sexual tension between the two characters. They were attracted and repelled at the same time, and viewers sat on the edge of their seats waiting for their fights to end, their first passionate kiss, first reconciliation, first breakup, second reconciliation, second breakup … well, you get the drift.  Their romance was played out against a backdrop of serious, catastrophic events – the sinking of the Titanic and loss of Downton’s heir, the possibility of losing the entire estate due to bad investments, World War One, Matthew’s engagement to another, the influenza epidemic, etc. When the couple finally married we all sighed a collective breath of relief. Aaaah. And then they conceived the heir, George. Aaaah.  But then a truck drove into Matthew’s path and splat! – the end of an epic romance and abrupt end to Season 3.

At the start of Season 4, we were not even privy to his funeral (bad decision), but given just a glimpse of his grave. This season began six  months after Matthew’s death, with Mary walking around the Abbey like a zombie. She’s sad. She’s grieving. She can’t move. Her lower lip is as stiff as the upper. Tepid and predictable.

Then a  childhood friend waltzes in (Lord Tony Gillingham) and she sorta, kinda perks up. No spark. No sexual tension. This new beau is no Matthew.  I was expecting an actor on the order of a Benedict Cumberbatch or Richard Armitage.  What we got instead was Anthony Foyle, a handsome man, to be sure, but one who’s chin I find worrisomely on the weak side. He’s in love with Mary, who’s still in love with Matthew, so, realizing she’s not about to budge, he puts Mary on the spot and says something like:  Before I leave, promise to become my wife. If you do,  I won’t get engaged to Mabel, a woman I don’t love. If you say no,  you know my situation, I must get married. Mary resists. Smart woman. She manages a twinge when she thinks about her lost opportunity, but we suspect it was just indigestion. This lifeless story line can’t compare to the real character conflict offered up in previous seasons.

Yorkshire pigs wallow in mud at the poplar spring animal sanctuary in Poolesville, Maryland/ Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Yorkshire pigs wallow in mud at the poplar spring animal sanctuary in Poolesville, Maryland. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Then there’s Evelyn Napier’s return. He who is interested in Mary but introduced her to Pamuk. ‘Nuff said. His interest in Mary is still palpable, but she rebuffs him at every turn. Napier never was an interesting character to begin with, except in his role as facilitator. This time he brings a guest in the form of Charles Blake, his boss and a government administrator. Blake, who served during World War I alongside Tony Gillingham, studies whether large estates can adapt and survive in a post-war society. He frankly doubts whether this can be accomplished, especially at the Abbey. Worse, he fails to share Napier’s enthusiasm for Mary, who, to give him credit, comes off as stiff as an ironing board. But there is chemistry between the two, which was sorely lacking with the other two gents. Sparks fly twixt Mary and Blake as they disagree on every topic, and while they might be failing to “connect” socially, they are surely noticing one another.

Image of scrambled eggs @wikimedia

Image of scrambled eggs @wikimedia

The pigs arrive just when Tom is attending a rally in Ripon and no farmer is around to care for them. During an after dinner walk, Blake and Mary discover that the pigs, who are hopefully going to save the Abbey’s bacon, are dehydrated from lack of water. For hours Mary and Blake toil to save them. Mary mired in muck attracts Blake’s interest. They have a mud fight. They laugh. The fact that she can scramble eggs really twirls his cookies. By this time, Mary, a six-month widow, has acquired three suitors. Napier’s obviously out of the running. Gillingham piques her interest now that he’s engaged. But Blake? Well, his indifference-turned-to-admiration is sure to earn a widow’s heart. Or will it?  Isn’t all this romantic intrigue  over Mary while she’s still grieving for Matthew too soon? You decide.

Belowstairs again

Good grief. How sad is the quadrangle Fellowes conconted? Daisy’s angry. Daisy’s sad. Daisy mopes around. All because of Alfred, who aspires to be a chef now that he realizes he can’t have Ivy, a very uninteresting scullery maid. Jimmy’s story line intersects with theirs and it’s … you guessed it, tepid. He’s just another humdrum character. Alfred, who, as he leaves, acknowledges to Daisy that her romantic interest in him will never be returned, says goodbye to them all. Ho-hum. Yawn.

Where’s William’s daddy when you need him, and why hasn’t he come around to visit Daisy and tempt her with the real possibility of running her own farm and becoming a woman of substance? Hints were made all last season, but the result up to Episodes 6  is … nothing. I had imagined that our resourceful Daisy would make a success of herself this season and haggle with Mrs. Patmore over the price of fresh produce. A missed opportunity – big time.

The costumes. Do the 1920′s costumes really compete with Edwardian clothes? Click on my Pinterest boards and decide for yourself. I rather think that the Crawley women look dowdy compared to seasons past.

Reading the PR spin on PBS’s website, one would have thought that our high expectations would have been met. Were they? Have I left out anything important? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Feel free to leave your thoughts, pro or con.

Now, let the sparring begin!

Image links and attributions:

Image, Indiana Fireworks Explosion@ Daily Mail

King Lear Image, McKellen.com

Image of Mary, Lord Gillingham and Evelyn Napier

Pigs wallowing in mud, Wikipedia

Scrambled Eggs, Wikimedia

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