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Archive for January, 2011

Highclere Castle as Downton Abbey was a beautiful setting

Now that the last episode of Downton Abbey has aired, I can reflect back on the series and revisit some of the most surprising scenes. Indeed, the unexpected plot developments, which kept the viewers on their toes,  helped to make this series so unforgettable. Throw luscious costumes into the mix, stunning locations, a wealth of detail about Edwardian life, and great acting and you get one of the best costume dramas in recent years. Oh, the series had its faults with one or two too many stereotypical characters, but overall I give it a grade of A.

Reader alert: Spoilers!!

Surprise #1: Thomas kisses the Duke

Thomas (Rob James-Colier) and the Duke of Crowborough (Charley Cox)

This scene, which upset parents watching with their children, helped to seal the character of Thomas, the first footman, and clued the viewer into the the Duke’s motives for hightailing it to Downton Abbey when he thinks Mary will come into a boatload of money.

The duke learns the true situation of Lady Mary's finances from Lord Grantham.

The Duke finds and burns Thomas’s letters, which were the footman’s only means of blackmailing him, and then he scurries away the moment he discovers that Lord Grantham’s estate is entailed to the closest male heir, making his chance to marry into the Grantham fortune less than zero. Thomas goes on to demonstrate his sleazy character in many more ways, but his move on the Duke packed a real punch.

Surprise #2: Lady Mary is not just another cookie cutter heroine

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley

From the moment we meet her, Lady Mary comes off as a cold, calculating, and complex woman, whose vulnerability does not come into full view until the third episode. When the viewer meets her, she worries about having to wear black after the death of her fiance on the Titanic and only mourns the fact that she cannot mourn him. Haughty and immodestly aware of her attraction to men, her pursuit of a wealthy and titled husband begins to take on a hint of desperation, which is why her fall from grace with Evelyn Napier’s attractive Turkish friend, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), is even more shocking.

Surprise #3: Lady Mary, Lady Cora, and Anna share a terrible secret that cannot be contained

Lady Mary is in deep trouble after Pamuk dies in her bed.

The scene in which Pamuk dies in Lady Mary’s bed and the women secretly carry him back to his bedroom could have descended into slapstick comedy, but it did not due to great directing and acting. As I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or whoop it up. All I knew was that in no way did I anticipate this plot development, which would affect Mary’s story arc and uneasy relationship with her mother for the rest of the mini-series.

Consequences of Lady Mary's fall from grace. Anna and Cora carry Pamuk back to the bedroom.

Handsome Pamuk is reduced to a limp corpse. And Mary? What on earth was she thinking? When Matthew finally proposes, Cora reveals to Violet that Mary wants to confess about the circumstances of Pamuk’s death, prompting the dowager to exclaim:  “She reads too many novels. One way or the other, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden!”

Surprise #4: The Enjoyable Saga of One Upmanship Between Two Well-Matched Battle Axes

Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew's mama

Violet and Isobel: Two strong-willed women, both firm in their belief that they are right, one with modern notions, the other clinging to old-fashioned ways, provide a colorful but minor story line. Isobel Crawley, despite her comparative lack of social status (when matched against the Dowager Countess), manages to make her will known and felt. Violet can only sputter and rage at Isobel’s interference, and she finds scant satisfaction in proving Isobel’s diagnosis and treatment of Molesley’s skin condition wrong. But Isobel was not born yesterday, and at the Flowershow Death Match she shames Violet into giving the trophy for best roses to Molesley’s papa, instead of appropriating it as her own for the umpteenth time.

Violet graciously gives this year's prize to old Mr. Molesley.

In their scenes together,  Penelope Wilton  gave the incomparable Maggie Smith a run for her money. The enjoyable interplay between these two marvelous actresses was as surprising as it was worth watching.

Surprise #5: Cora’s Pregnancy

Lord Grantham's surprise at learning of Cora's pregnancy. (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

Did you see this scene coming? I did not, although it made sense, for this unexpected pregnancy explains much about the entail and why Matthew Crawley was only the presumptive heir and therefore essentially helpless in changing his situation. As long as the earl could possibly sire a son, Matthew’s claim to the inheritance would remain tenuous. The entail could not be broken for the Grantham was still  a healthy and virile man, as this scene shows. The pregnancy led us to discover…

Surprise #6:  O’Brien’s True Malevolent Impulses

Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) holds the fatal bar of soap

O'Brien shoves the bar of soap in harm's way.

Cora’s fatal flaw was in thinking that she and O’Brien had developed a mutual friendship and trust. While Cora receives glimpses of O’Brien’s true character, she never fully understood the anger and insecurity that her ladies maid harbored. O’Brien’s pang of conscience about shoving the broken half of the bar of soap from under the bath tub came too late, and Cora slipped and fell, losing the male heir that she and Lord Grantham so desperately wanted.  O’Brien’s dark impulse was for naught. Cora wasn’t actively looking to replace her, but only helping her mother-in-law in hiring a new ladies maid. This surprising news hit the viewer at the same time as it did O’Brien.

O’Brien’s momentary second thought comes too late. (Siobhan Finneran)

Surprise #8: The Spiteful Tug of War Between Two Sisters

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) realizes that her sister Mary was behind Lord Strallan's cool departure.

At first the viewer felt a great deal of sympathy towards plain Lady Edith, who was only to happy to go after Lady Mary’s leavings. But as the mini-series progressed, the viewer came to understand just how much animosity the two women felt towards one another and how far they would go to extract their revenge, Lady Edith writing the Turkish embassy about Mary’s part in Pamuk’s death, and Lady Mary sabotaging Lady Edith’s happiness with Sir Anthony Strallan, who was about to propose.

Lady Mary salutes her triumph over Lady Edith.

In the end, neither sister came up smelling like a rose. The surprise was that their story line was written so well that many viewers came away feeling sympathy towards both women.

Surprise #9: Lady Sybil’s Firm Stance Behind Women’s Rights

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) urges Gwen (Rose Leslie) to keep trying to find a job as a secretary

Lady Sybil’s story arc did not truly begin until the second episode and reached its full glory in episode four, when she is struck during an election rally and is carried from the scene bleeding.

Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil at the election rally

A smart, independent, and kind woman, one can only hope that Lady Sybil’s character gains traction in the second series that is currently being filmed. The surprise here is that quiet, sweet Lady Sybil is truly the most daring and courageous of the three sisters. Jessica Brown-Findlay has true star status, and any time she came on the small screen, she lit it up.

Lady Sybil's daring new harem pants.

 

The family reacts to Lady Sybil's harem pants. Priceless.

Surprise #10: The ending

 

Lord Grantham, "I regret to announce we are at war with Germany."

Obviously a second series is in the works, for the story line is left hanging. World War I has broken out, causing consternation among the group.

Matthew refuses Lady Mary's acceptance of his proposal after her baby brother's death, and vows to leave Downton Abbey to make his own way.

Lady Mary accepts Matthew’s proposal, but he refuses her, unsure of whether the baby’s death had anything to do with her acceptance, and he declares his intention to leave Downton Abbey and make his own way in the world. Lady Mary, in a Scarlet O’Hara moment, realizes too late that she waited too long to accept Matthew.

Lady Mary understands she has made a mistake in waiting so long to accept Matthew's proposal.

Bates,  who cares for Anna as much as she cares for him, refuses to discuss his wife’s whereabouts with her.

Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggat) find themselves in the throes of bittersweet love.

And so, the viewer must wait an entire year to see what will happen to the characters in Downton Abbey, testing our patience sorely.

None too soon, Thomas announces his resignation to Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes

In addition to my ten choices, there were other surprises and great story arcs in Downton Abbey: Cook’s failing eyesight and the operation that saved it, Daisy’s blindness towards Thomas’s true character, which leads her to lie,

Daisy is haunted by what she saw in the corridor and her lies about Bates.

Mrs. Hughes’s longing for her own family, which made her momentarily receptive to an old flame’s advances, and Mr. Carson’s past as a performer, of which he is ashamed.

Mrs. Hughes says no to Joe, an old flame (Bill Fellows).

For those of you who missed certain episodes or who would like to watch the series again, PBS has made it available for online viewing until February 22. DVD’s are also available for sale.

My question to you is this: Of all the characters and story lines, which was your favorite? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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The servants in Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @ITV and PBS Masterpiece.

Downton Abbey. Gosford Hall.  Manor House. Regency House. Each film follows the servants and takes the viewer up and down back stairways, into kitchens and butler’s pantries, and stables and courtyards. But how were the servants’ quarters laid out, and where were they placed in relation to the public and private rooms that the family used? Each house had a different arrangement, to be sure, but patterns did exist.

A narrow corridor leads from the kitchen. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece.

The interior and exterior shots of Downton Abbey were filmed in Highclere Castle,but because the servant kitchens and bedrooms below-stairs no longer existed as they once were, the servant quarters for the mini-series were reconstructed in Ealing Studios in London. The cost of reconstructing these “plain” rooms was relatively affordable. Imagine if one of the elaborate public rooms had to be reconstructed. As script writer Julian Fellowes observed: “The thing about filming in these great houses is that if you were to start from scratch, you simply couldn’t build this and if you did you would have used up all your budget in one room.”

Servant stairs in Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

The ground plan from Eastbury Manor House is representative of a great house. It shows the servant quarters at the right near tight round servant stairs, or back stairs, that the servants used instead of the grand staircase reserved for the family and their guests. Maids were expected to work invisibly and sweep and dust when the family was asleep, or work in a room when the family was not scheduled to use it. In fact, many of the lower servants never encountered the family during their years of service.

Unless they were polishing or cleaning the grand staircase, the servants would use the backstairs for all other occasions. A small housemaid’s closet would be located near the back stair on the bedroom floor to accommodate brushes, dusters, pails, and cans. In “modern” Victorian and Edwardian houses, such a closet might  contain a sink that provided water for mopping.  Some great houses boasted a linen-room on the bedroom floor, where clean bed linen and table linen were stored. In this instance, a dry environment was essential.

Late 19th c. maid and lad at the back entrance

Servants were expected to enter the house in their own entrance, even in smaller houses, such as townhouses.  The Regency Townhouse Annex shows a typical entrance below street level. If you click on the links on the various rooms, you can see the other servant areas in this site.

Stairs to servant’s entrance. Bath. Image @Tony Grant

In a country house, the entrance would be in the back of the building or from a courtyard, where supplies could be delivered. The philosophy of a smooth running household was that servants were out of sight and out of mind.

Belowstairs entrance, Bath. Image @Tony Grant

Upon entering, servants would walk along a long hallway to reach the servants’ rooms and other work areas such as the kitchen, scullery, servant’s hall, housekeeper’s room, butler’s room, storage room, etc.  Country were at least two or three stories tall. Servants climbed the stairs and came down them again all day long, cleaning, hauling water, carrying meals or coal for fires, and a myriad other duties. They rose before the family, often from top floor garrets with small windows, and worked long after their employers had gone to bed.

Interior, Upstairs Downstairs web page. Notice the tiny garret bedrooms.

In this image, you can see the small garret rooms reserved for servants in the attic of a townhouse. Men’s and women’s quarters were separated, as in Downton Abbey, with the women’s quarters called the virgin’s wing. The most common servant quarters are described below.

A meal belowstairs. Downton Abbey. Notice the servant bells on the back wall. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

Servant’s Hall:

The servant’s hall was a common room where the work staff congregated, ate their meals, performed small but essential tasks, like mending, darning, polishing, ect. A long table was its main feature, as well as a window that would let in enough light for the tasks that needed to be accomplished. This window is a feature in images of several servants halls, which makes me think it was essential, for many of their tasks (darning, polishing shoes, ironing, and the like) required good light.

1907 Watercolor of the windows in a servant’s hall

The servants would regard the hall as their living room, for they ate their meals there and congregated in the hall for the evening. Often the cook did not regard making the servants’ meals as part of her duty, and this task would be left to the kitchen maids. Servants would also receive the visitors’ servants here (as in Gosford Park), persons of similar rank, or their own visitors on a very rare occasion.

Image of Victorian servants eating dinner in the servants hall.

The servant bells were located in this area, as well as hooks for coats and uniforms.

Daisy puts on her coat as William speaks to her just outside the servants hall. Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS masterpiece

The servants followed a hierarchy downstairs as strict as upstairs, and the upper servants, the butler, housekeeper, cook, valet and ladies maid would be served meals and tea by the lower servants.  The highest ranking servant was the stewart, then came the butler and housekeeper.

Anna completes a task in the servants hall. Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

The ladies maid would defer to the housekeeper and the valet to the butler. Standing low down was the scullery maid or tweeny, who often was just a young girl of twelve or thirteen. Her hours were the longest, for she would make sure that the water was boiling for the cook before she began her day.

Kitchen:

The long work table is the focal point of the kitchen. Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

The kitchen even in great houses were utilitarian, and positioned away from the family quarters to keep cooking smells away yet near enough for the delivery of food. Kitchens were also located near an entrance were supplies could be delivered, and near the kitchen gardens (but not always. See below.)

Harewood house and grounds. The kitchen was a 20-minute walk to the walled garden.

Kitchens tended to be oblong and dominated by a large kitchen table, where the majority of food preparation was done. The window would be ideally positioned to the left side of the range, and the kitchen dresser, where essential equipment was held, would stand close to the work table.

Kitchen suite, 1900 house.

The cook worked under the housekeeper, but the kitchen was her domain. She saw to its cleanliness and neatness, and made sure the larders were well-stocked. Not only were the floors, shelves, and work spaces scrubbed, but they had to be thoroughly dried to prevent mold and mildew from contaminating food stuffs and work tops. The arrangement of the scullery and kitchen was convenient, so that one did not need to cross the kitchen to reach the scullery. Natural light in both rooms needed to be ample. 

This kitchen in the Royal Crescent in Bath needs renovation and preservation.

She (for by the end of the 19th century, most of the cooks in British households were female) oversaw the meals and kitchen staff, consisting of kitchen maids and the scullery maid.

Scullery and kitchen in the Fota House, Ireland

Scullery:

Cleaning in the scullery

The scullery was always located in a separate room from the kitchen so that food would not be contaminated by soiled water. Double stone sinks were the main feature of this room, where pots and pans and the servants’ crockery were rinsed and cleaned. The family’s fine china would be washed in a copper sink, whose softer surface prevented chipping. A cistern above the sinks was used to flush the drains, which led out of house. This was one reason that sculleries were located next to the outer walls and nearest the courtyards or an outer garden. Often, the scullery had no door into the kitchen (only a pass through), and one could enter the room only from the outside. An outside door in the scullery was also known as the “tradesmen’s entrance”.

Scullery, Image @Harewood House.

Food preparation also occurred in this area, such as chopping vegetables. Hygiene was essential in order not to contaminate existing food supplies, or the people within the house with soiled cutlery or water. This meant constant hauling of fresh water, scrubbing, washing, and cleaning. The scullery floor, made of stone, was lower than the kitchen’s, which prevented water from flowing into the cooking areas. Dry goods were stashed well away from the scullery, which also had to be kept dry in order to prevent mold. To prevent standing in water all day long, raised latticed wood mats were placed by the sink for the scullery maid to stand upon.

Panorama of a Victorian scullery with boiler and laundry features

Sculleries also contained a copper for boiling clothes on laundry day, washtubs, washboards, irons, and cabinets for cleaning supplies. In 1908, an eight-room house required 27 hours per week of labor, which did not include laundering clothes. One can only imagine how long a house the size of Downton Abbey took to manage.

Scullery sinks, Chawton

She stood at a sink behind a wooden dresser backed with choppers and stained with blood and grease, upon which were piles of coppers and saucepans that she had to scour, piles of dirty dishes she had to wash. Her frock, her cap, her face and arms were more or less wet, soiled, perspiring and her apron was a filthy piece of sacking, wet and tied round her with a cord. The den where she wrought was low, damp, ill-smelling, windowless, lighted by a flaring gas-jet……with many ugly dirty implements around her. – The History of Country House Staff

In this 17th c. image, the scullery maid stands upon a platform to keep her feet dry.

In Downton Abbey, the scullery maid is nowhere to be seen. (Daisy is the kitchen maid,  with vastly different duties.) Two modern women who played the scullery maid in Manor House quit the series, unable to pursue that role for the duration of the series. Only the third person, Ellen Beard, who had a better understanding of the scullery maid’s duties of endless washing, managed to remain at her station until the very end. Click on this link to hear a short podcast of a Scottish scullery maid, who described her job as slave labor.

The butler polishes the silver, 1868.

Butler’s room and Butler’s Pantry

The duties of the butler confine him to the drawing-room and dining-room. The dining-room, however, is his particular domain; he sees that everything is in order, that the table is laid correctly, the lighting effect satisfactory, the flowers arranged, and in short that the room and appointments are in perfect readiness for a punctual meal. In this work a parlor maid assists him by sweeping and dusting, and a pantry-maid helps him by keeping everything immaculate and in readiness in the pantry. The butler serves at breakfast, luncheon and dinner.” – Vintage Maids and Butlers

Butlert’s pantry, 1896. Staatsburg House, McKim, Mead, & White

The butler’s rooms, which included the Butler’s Pantry, were located in the basement nearest the dining room upstairs and back entry, and had no connection with the kitchen, except for service. When he was summoned, even in his rooms, the butler could appear quickly. In smaller establishments, such as Matthew Crawley’s house, the butler also acted as valet. In all instances, except for the steward, he was the highest-ranking servant, answering directly to the master.

One of the duties of the butler (Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey) is to account for the wine. In this instance, he notices a discrepancy in the tally and the books. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

The butler’s pantry was kept under lock and key, so that thievery was impossible at best, and at the very least deterred. A plate-closet or safe were placed there, as well as a private scullery for cleaning. The butler’s bedroom was a necessary (and lockable) adjunct in large houses for the protection of the plate.

Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson chat in her sitting room. Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

The Housekeeper’s Room

The housekeepers room in large establishments served as both a sitting- and business-room where she would take the directions of the day from the lady of the house. She would also entertain visitors of similar rank in her quarters. The housekeeper oversaw the female servants, and when she walked, a thick assortment of keys, symbols of her status and which dangled from her waist, would jiggle and certainly make a sound.

The housekeeper’s room in Uppark. At times the upper servants would congregate there for tea, and in some houses, for dinner.

Before dinner in the servants hall, the upper servants would assemble in the housekeeper’s room, also known as the Pug’s Parlour, and walk in for dinner, with the butler leading the way. This was known as the Pug’s Parade. After dinner, the upper servants would withdraw to the housekeeper’s parlor again for conversation.

Servant Bedrooms

Anna and Gwen confronted by O’Brien in their unlocked room. Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

In the latter half of the 19th century, servants slept in attic bedrooms. These were often cold and damp in the winter and hot in the summer, with little light coming in from small windows. Some male servants slept downstairs to guard the family silver. The furnishings in servant quarters were basic and essential. A servant might have a locked box in which personal materials were kept, but the rooms were open and subject to inspection by their employers.

The valet’s simple bedroom. Downton Abbey. Image courtesy @PBS Masterpiece

One source for servant quarters and duties of the servants cautioned that books about servant etiquette discussed ideal behavior. In reality, servant turnover was high, theft did occur, and servants did not always know their place. In this humorous Punch cartoon, the mistress arrived home unexpectedly, catching the servants eating upstairs and generally misbehaving. The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in between.

“Oh, hey, the missus! Servants eating a meal upstairs.” Cruikshank. Punch

Sources: (A long list that fleshes out the topic.)

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There Must Be Murder, a very nice story by Margaret C. Sullivan,

It is one year after Catherine has married her Henry. She still is sweet and naïve, but she now possesses the womanly knowledge that every bride with an adoring husband soon comes to know. Henry Tilney is as charming as ever and clearly loves his pretty Cat. The couple, only one year married, live in Woodston Parish with a cat named Ruby Begonia and an assortment of dogs, including a Newfoundland named MacGuffin. Catherine has redecorated the pretty parsonage, and the couple has a habit of cozying up together as Henry reads passages from The Mysteries of Udolpho. During one such occasion, Catherine fondly recalls her introduction to Henry in Bath by the Master of Ceremonies, Mr. King, and in no time Henry has arranged for a visit to that ancient city.

“Henry, you know perfectly well that I keep no journal. Besides, I did not know then that you were my future husband.”

“Some husbands would be injured at such an admission, but not I; after all, I did not know that you were my future wife. I remember that I was wandering about the Rooms like a lost soul, having no acquaintance there. The master of ceremonies, Mr. King, took pity upon me and asked if I would like an introduction to a clergyman’s daughter who was in need of a partner. In Christian charity, I could not decline; though from my past experiences of ladies described as ‘clergymen’s daughters,’ I expected to be presented to an elderly spinster with a squint. You may imagine my relief when Miss Morland turned out to be rather a pretty girl, and I considered myself fortunate that no other gentleman had already claimed the honour of dancing with her.”

Catherine’s eyes were shining. “You thought me pretty?”

“Indeed.” Henry reached for her hand and kissed it.

Margaret C. Sullivan, the author of this charming tale, deftly combines old characters (General Tilney and Henry’s sister, Eleanor) with the new – an apothecary named Mr. Shaw, a pretty but calculating woman named Judith Beauclerk, her mother, Lady Beauclerk, and Sir Philip, to name a few. Ms. Sullivan takes us on a sweet journey over familiar territory, paying homage to Jane’s characters while staying true to her own writing style. The book is illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Casandra Chouinard, which certainly enhance one’s enjoyment of the novella.

Catherine, Mr. King, and Henry Tilney. Image @There Must Be Murder

Fans of Jane Austen will recognize Margaret as the editrix of Austenblog, the longest surviving Jane Austen blog on the blogosphere, and as one whose knowledge of Jane and the Regency period is that of an expert. And thus the details set down in this tale are accurate and true to the time, including the use of arsenic in beauty potions. Margaret’s humor also shines through, and I found myself turning page after page until I had finished the story in one sitting.

Here’s her bio, with an example of her humor: Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of numerous Jane Austen sequels and editrix of AustenBlog. Her first book, The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible yet Elegant Guide to Her World, will be in bookstores this spring. She likes to think that Henry Tilney would dance with her at the Lower Rooms, although she is an almost-middle-aged spinster with a squint.

If you are intrigued by my short review, you may purchase the book in several ways. Girlebooks, an excellent source of free Ebooks, now offers original eBooks that have never been published, such as There Must be Murder. You have a choice of several platforms in which to download the book or purchase a printed copy. It is available for $9.99 at Amazon paperback and for free at Smashwords at this link .

The novella was first commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre, and you may read the book chapter by chapter in this link.

Enjoy! I certainly did.

Book Giveaway (Closed – congratulations to winner, Cecilia): If you leave a comment, you have a chance to win my hard copy of the book with all its charming illustrations. The drawing (by random number) will be held on February 5th.

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When Nicole Whitcomb’s car runs off a Colorado mountain road during a blinding snowstorm, she is saved from death by a handsome, fascinating, and enigmatic stranger.

Snowbound with him for days in his beautiful home high in the Rockies, she finds herself powerfully attracted to him. But there are things about him that mystify her, filling her with apprehension. Who is Michael Tyler? Why does he live in such a secluded spot and guard his private life so carefully? What secret—or secrets—is he hiding?

Review of Nocturne: From the desk of Shelley DeWees (The Uprising) …

“Never have I had such an intense relationship with books as when I was a young girl. I raged inside them and lived a double emotional life, half real girl, half inhabitant of a distant world, and I chose book neither because of, nor in spite of, their artistic merit, only for their ability to pull me through the looking glass.”
–Caitlin Flanagan, What Girls Want: Vampire Novels Illuminate the Complexities of Female Desire

It’s Saturday afternoon. The rain is lashing against the windows of your bedroom, obscuring your view into the outside world and in turn, hiding yourself from anything beyond your immediate surroundings. A delicious sense of solitude creeps through you, and you know you’ve got all day to sit and soak it up…no job, no husband, no nothing to distract you. Relieved and carefree, you toss yourself on the bed and carefully unfold the book you’ve been waiting to read, the book you’ve been toting around in your bag for weeks or clutching to your chest like some kind of emotional armor. You’re quickly absorbed once again, lying on your stomach with your legs in the air, and hours upon hours of unbroken silence pass before you know it while your brain floats on a cloud of imagination…

Typical Saturday? Maybe in our most magnificent fantasies. Or how about in our memories?

Losing yourself in a book is truly a remarkable thing. The moment when you look at the clock to realize that midnight has come and gone is a special one, not to be taken lightly. That is, of course, until you become conscious of that fact that, yes, you have to be up in 3 hours and to work in 5. And therein lays the problem. Somewhere along the path of growing up we lost the ability to retreat into our heads, forsaking our giggly girl-reader for a woman almost-reader with a car payment and a pension plan. We traded away the gift of reading trashy, poorly written books that take you somewhere else in favor of using our adult scrutiny to decide whether a book was “good.” When you were a girl, a book became “good” simply if it gave you the giddy feeling that 40-something men must get when they get an unexpected glimpse of pornography: “a slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, you thought you had subdued,” says Caitlin Flanagan, author of “What Girls Want: Vampire Novels Illuminate the Complexities of Female Desire.

Fortunately for us and our shriveled imaginations, it’s never too late to get it back. Thus, I’d like to introduce you to a vampire romance where the characters are predictable and the plot is laughably absurd. The weak woman falls hopelessly in love with a too-perfect man, surrounded by an idyllic setting where gender roles from the 1960’s abound….and no, I’m not talk about that other vampire series. Nocturne, the newest gift from Syrie James, is infinitely better written than that other thing, far better in terms of structure and development but equally silly and delicious.

Nicole Whitcomb, with her lovely red-headed beauty and underdeveloped common sense, drives off the road in a winter storm and is saved by the overly enchanting Michael Tyler. She wakes up in his perfect house among his flawless made-to-attract-her life and…big surprise…falls for him. But wait! He’s a VAMPIRE! What, didn’t you know that? Whoa. Their story unfolds just as you would expect, and the no-I-can’t-yes-you-can banter progresses just as it did in that other novel series. However, the sexual energy builds and the two characters finally succumb to their urges…very well, by the way.

I found myself glued to the pages of this novel, despite its definite installment under the “brain candy” column. A slight glimmer of the teenager I once was showed her face once again, and I dissolved into giggles and gasps like a silly school girl. My adult brain got to take a hiatus for awhile, sipping on margaritas while my imagination hummed into motion, and only shouting in protest at one or two points. It’s not artistic literature, but Nocturne will grip you like books once did, upstairs in your room, hidden away while still in plain sight. It was a unique moment, something that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit (but that must be my overachieving adult side talking).

Excerpt from Nocturne:

Nicole’s heart began to beat erratically. She’d heard scary things about mountain men who’d lived too long in isolated places. Who was this guy? He seemed cultured and spoke very formally, as if he belonged in the Queen’s court or in a palace surrounded by servants.

What was an Englishman doing in this remote corner of the Colorado mountains, unless he was hiding from something? But if he was a killer, surely he would have murdered her already, instead of carefully tending to her wounds. Wouldn’t he?

“You haven’t told me your name,” she said, straining to keep her voice even.

“Haven’t I? I beg your pardon. Michael Tyler.”

“How is it that you live up here? I thought this was national forest land.”

“It is. But there are pockets of private land scattered throughout.”

“Do you live here all year long?”

“I do.”

“By yourself, or …”

“I live alone.”

Her questions seemed to annoy him. He stood up and Nicole sensed that he was about to leave the room. In an effort to lighten the mood—or maybe just to put herself more at ease—she glanced at the grand piano and said with a forced smile, “So I take it it’s either you who plays that piano, or the resident ghost?”

A surprised twinkle lit his blue eyes. He sat back down in his chair with the first hint of a smile. “Definitely the ghost. Watch out for her. She plays at the oddest hours and has been known to leave candles burning in the most unlikely places.”

“She?”

“A raven-haired beauty. From her clothing and hairstyle, I deduce that she’s from the previous century. Which is strange when you consider that I only built the house ten years ago.”

Nicole laughed. His smile was charming. His accent was so lovely, she could listen to it all day long. Maybe there was nothing to be afraid of after all…” (Read a longer excerpt here.)

Syrie James

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Curious readers: Tony Grant (London Calling) has contributed an article about Kew Gardens and his beautiful photographs to go with it. Relax and enjoy this visual feast of gardens, walkways, and flowers.

The Royal Entrance at Kew. Image @Tony Grant

I have been to Kew Gardens, which is only a couple of miles from where I live, on the other side of Richmond upon Thames, many, many times for more than thirty years. When I first visited Kew gardens all those years ago the charge to get through those regal, ornate gates was 1p, a penny, a mere token payment. Kew is a government research centre and a leading authority on plants throughout the world. I think they felt in those far off days that a token payment, just to keep the paths swept, was all that was required. It was and is a government-owned establishment, and so by default, we, the British public, own it, (A little like The National Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery. Those paintings belong to me you know. So, why shouldn’t I get in free?)

Bumble bee at Kew. Image @Tony Grant

Nowadays, it costs an arm and a leg to get into Kew Gardens. I’ll whisper this; “it’s £13.90 for an adult.” The Government decided, to help finance research, and to develop further public facilities in the gardens, we should all pay to get in. It’s such a beautiful place and such an elemental place that, yes, I’ll pay to get in. No questions asked. I need my dose of Kew. And many, many thousands of others just love to pay to get in too.

Through the glass wall. Image @Tony Grant

Oh, by the way, if you are a mum with a baby and young toddlers in tow, it’s free for the children, totally free. An example of British quirkiness in action. The gardens are a great place to meet for morning coffee in one of the 18th-century orangeries, to have a chat and a place to let the youngsters roam.

The Chinese Pagoda. Image @Tony Grant

My first encounter with Kew, I must admit, involved fellow students, bottles of wine, cans of beer, some very attractive females (my future wife amongst them), and an appreciation of nature and trees gained by lying on my back looking up through leafy branches to a clear blue sunny sky beyond.

Approaching a palm house. Image @Tony Grant

Kew to me means pleasant tree-lined walks, elegant plant houses with their acres of glass and miles of fine wrought iron structural parts painted white and curved and curled into shapely structures. It is a place to look closely at beautiful flowers, contemplating their wondrous shapes and form, and their intense colours, and to take in their seductive perfumes. It is uplifting to observe the majesty of the many varieties of trees, with their beautiful patterned leaves, and their branch and twig systems like fine black lace against changing skies.

Environmental art at Kew. Image @Tony Grant

Kew calms the spirit. It is a meditative place. You can become one with yourself as you walk around or find a place on the grass to sit.

A Zen Garden. Be at peace. Image @Tony Grant

It is vast enough to give you personal space and there is tranquillity amongst the greens and shade.

Museum Number One, Economic Botany. Image @Tony Grant

The Importance of Kew

Kew is an important place. It has a seed bank that holds 10% of all the worlds’ plant species, and contains samples of nearly all endangered species. It also has a herbarium whose collection is being added to virtually daily. At the Joderell Laboratory at Kew, they research the molecular systems, and study the physiology and biochemistry of plants. They study the plants to find natural medicines, specifically for anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs. One department focuses on agricultural research, and there are also botanical illustration and photography departments. Kew is a world leader in conservation and plant technology.

18th century orangery. Image @Tony Grant

Development of Kew

The development of Kew began in the 16th century when Henry VII built a palace at Richmond just along the Thames from Kew. By the 17th century the area round Richmond had become established as a hub of political power for part of the year. Everybody who was part of the court and the government came there in the summer when the king was in residence. Later, James I combined all the royal land in the area, along with former monastic land, with the park that existed at Shene, and created a new hunting ground of 370 acres. Robert Stickles, the architect, built a hunting lodge called Richmond Lodge right in the middle of it.

Temperate House and pagoda. Image @Tony Grant

After Charles I was executed, and The Commonwealth had taken over under Oliver Cromwell, much of the Royal property around Richmond and Kew was sold off. However, those sales were reversed during the reign of William III. Robert Stickles’s Richmond Lodge had survived, and it was extended and turned into a royal palace. The old deer park was reassembled, and the land around Richmond Lodge was turned into formal gardens. So began what we know today as Kew Gardens.

The broad walk.Image @Tony Grant

In the 1690’s, George London created the Broad Avenue, a wide path that goes nearly the full length of the gardens connecting many of the main gardens features. Charles Bridgeman and William Kent, two great 18th century landscape gardeners, primarily created the layout and design of the original gardens.

William Kent

Capability Brown added to the design later. Because of these three great garden designers’ influences and ideas, the garden at Kew were watched and visited, so that new ideas in garden design could be disseminated. Kew was an important influence to 18th century garden design throughout Britain.

Shape, pattern, colour. Image @Tony Grant

This early 18th-century plan was overlaid by later designers, although some of the Capability Brown’s features still persist. It is also likely that some of the older trees might have been planted by Charles Bridgeman. In 1731, King George II’s son, Frederick, Prince of Wale,s leased Kew farm. In 1736 he married Princess Augusta of Saxe Gotha, and together they began some drastic changes at Kew. They commissioned William Kent to redesign Richmond Lodge. He added extensions and covered the façade in white stucco. It became known as The White House.

Monkey puzzle tree. Image @Tony Grant

Frederick and Augusta were garden enthusiasts, and they were helped by the Earl of Bute, who advised them on obtaining plants and landscaping. He later became the tutor to their son, who became George III. Unfortunately, Frederick died in 1751 due to a bout of pleurisy and a burst abscess in his chest. He wasn’t able to fulfil his plans for the gardens. At the time it was said his death was a great loss to the development of gardening in this country. George III, Frederick’s son, succeeded to the throne on the death of his grandfather, George II in 1760.

 

The Dutch House at Kew, Kew Palace. Image @Tony Grant

Capability Brown was commissioned to re-landscape the gardens. The royal family used Richmond Lodge as a summer home. When, Princess Augusta, George’s wife, died, the royal family moved to the White House, whilst The prince of Wales and his brother Prince Frederick lived in the Dutch House, which still exists today and is now called Kew Palace. The royal children were given lessons in botany and botanical illustration. During his bouts of illness, the King lived at Kew.

George III

During the Georgian period Joseph Banks became friends with George III and was the unofficial director of Kew Gardens. He became one of the most influential botanists of his time and began many of the work botanists do today.

Natural art beside an orangery. Image @Tony Grant

Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820)
In 1761he inherited his father’s estate in Lincolnshire to which was attached considerable wealth. His first voyage of discovery was to the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador on the ship HMS Niger. On his return to London in 1767 he was elected a member of the Royal Society at the tender age of 23.

Joseph Banks

When the society proposed an expedition to observe the transit of Venus in the Pacific in 1769, Joseph Banks financed his own expedition with his own team of scientists, including the botanist Daniel Solander and the artist Sydney Parkinson. HMS Endeavor under Captain Cook left England in August 1768.

Inside a green house. Image @Tony Grant

Joseph Banks’ botanical collection formed the basis of the Herbarium at Kew today. His original specimens an still be studied there. Later he mounted expeditions to Iceland, the Hebrides, and the Orkneys. Banks helped organise the first collections at Kew. Specimens arrived from all over the growing British Empire, a typical trait with Empire building.

Water lillies. Image @Tony Grant

The initial impulse were trade and wealth, but so many other things went along in parallel with that:  science, exploration, discovery, art, culture. The British Empire brought religion, government, and even citizenship along with it. You can see examples and parallels with The Roman Empire, the Spanish exploration of South America, and present-day empire building.

Inside the roof of the Palm House. Image @Tony Grant

Kew is a special place, and a visit there brings home the importance of plants, the keystone of our planet and very existence. They do so much for us, and their beauty brings us peace and joy. Is it such a strange thing to do – hug a tree?

Scots pine. Image @Tony Grant

More images:

Before opening. Image @Tony Grant

Environmental art at Kew. Image @Tony Grant

Inside the Palm House. Image @Tony Grant

Side entrance. Image @Tony Grant

Stairs inside the Palm House. Image @Tony Grant

Water tower. Image @Tony Grant

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The valet (rhymes with pallet) is a personal manservant who tends to his master’s every need, from a clean room to seeing to his clothes to making sure that his entire day goes smoothly from the moment he rises to the time he goes to bed. Also known as a gentleman’s gentleman, the valet is the closest male equivalent to a lady’s maid.

Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) dresses with the help of his valet, who stands ready to put on his coat. In this scene, Mr. Darcy changes his mind and chooses another coat before visiting Elizabeth at the inn. Image @Pride and Prejudice, 1995

Mrs. Beeton describes a valet’s duties in her excellent 1861 book on household management:

His day commences by seeing that his master’s dressing-room is in order; that the housemaid has swept and dusted it properly; that the fire is lighted and burns cheerfully; and some time before his master is expected, he will do well to throw up the sash [open the window] to admit fresh air, closing it, however, in time to recover the temperature which he knows hismaster prefers. It is now his duty to place the body-linen on the horse before the fire, to be aired properly;

Edwardian clothes horse. Image @Denhams.com

to lay the trousers intended to be worn, carefully brushed and cleaned, on the back of his master’s chair; while the coat and waistcoat, carefully brushed and folded, and the collar cleaned, are laid in their place ready to be put on when required. All the articles of the toilet should be in their places, the razors properly set and stropped, and hot water ready for use.

Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal). While the master shaves, his footmen assist him, making sure his implements are at hand. His valet would have overseen the arrangements and will sharpen the razor and clean the shaving brush after Barry has finished shaving. Image @Barry Lyndon

Gentlemen generally prefer performing the operation of shaving themselves, but a valet should be prepared to do it if required; and he should be a good hairdresser. Shaving over, he has to brush the hair, beard and moustache, where that appendage is encouraged, arranging the whole simply and gracefully, according to the age and style of the countenance. Every fortnight, or three weeks at the utmost, the hair should be cut, and the points of the whiskers trimmed as often as required. A good valet will now present the various articles of the toilet as they are wanted; afterwards, the body-linen. Neck-tie, which he will put on, if required, and, afterwards, waist-coat, coat, and boots, in suitable order, and carefully brushed and polished.”

Other valet duties:

Ian Kelly (Brummel) and Ryan Early in Beau Brummel (2006 play)

  • As his master goes out, the valet hands him his gloves and hat, opens the door for him, and receives his orders for the rest of the day.
  • He puts his master’s dressing-room in order, cleaning combs and brushes, folding clothes and putting them in drawers.
  • If his master has no clothes sense, the valet will select suitable clothes, making sure they are clean, particularly the collars, and maintained in good repair.
  • He consults with the tailor, perfumer, and linen-draper.
  • He awaits his master’s return, making sure that his drawing room is picked up by the maids, and dusted and swept by them, and that the room is made ready with a lit fire and candles.
Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Bates (Brendan Coyle) assists Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) in Downton Abbey. A valet and his master become close over the years. Image @Downton Chaser

  • The valet stands ready to help his master dress for dinner or any other occasion.
  • He makes sure that the washing table is ready, filling the ewer and carafe with fresh water, and placing the basin towels, brushes, hot water, and shaving apparatus near at hand.
  • In case of wet weather, when his master has returned from riding, the valet lays out a change of dry linen and clothing, and is ready to assist his master out of the damp clothing.
  • He helps his master prepare for journeys, packing enough linen and other clothing for the trip. At the Inns, he takes charge of his master’s comfort as he would at home, and has everything ready to assist his master in dressing and undressing.
  • If no footmen is available during the journey, the valet will also see to these services, even at table.
Bates at the moment he is informed that he must leave Lord Grantham's service. Despite their long association, it was imperative that a valet was physically capable of performing all his duties, including standing in as footman when the occasion required. Bates' reliance on a cane prevented him from carrying a tray. (We all have learned that Lord Grantham is a softie and kept Bates on.) Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Bates at the moment he is informed that he must leave Lord Grantham’s service. Despite their long association, it was imperative that a valet was physically capable of performing all his duties, including standing in as footman when the occasion required. Bates’ reliance on a cane prevented him from carrying a tray. (We all have learned that Lord Grantham is a softie and kept Bates on.) Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

The valet keeps his master’s clothes in good repair:

  • Hats are kept well brushed on the outside with a soft brush, and wiped inside with a clean handerchief.
  • Clothes placed in a wardrobe are covered with brown holland or linen wrappers to secure them from dust.
  • He places boots and shoes cleaned by the under footman in the dressing room.
  • Slippers are aired by the fire.
  • As soon as his master finishes shaving, the valet will clean the razor and brushes.
  • Before he hangs damp clothing by the fire, he rubs the cloth with a sponge until the smoothness of the nap is restored. If the clothes are allowed to dry before brushing, then later brushing might not remove the roughness.
Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

In Downton Abbey, Matthew resists Molesley’s services, causing an undue amount of stress to the butler, who also acts as his valet. Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Wall/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Valets in humbler households:

The butler in a second or third rate establishment takes on the duties of the house steward, valet, and footman as well. He is likely to pay market bills, assist his master in dressing, serve at table and oversee the wine and silver, and superintend other male servants.

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Tea is always served by the host/hostess or a friend, never by servants. Tea is never poured out, then passed several cups at a time, the way coffee may be, because it cools very quickly. Instead, it is always taken by the guest directly from the hands of the pourer.” – Etiquette Scholar

The ceremony of making tea is almost always included in costume dramas like Downton Abbey or a Jane Austen film, such as Emma. When Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham invited her daughter-in-law, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), to the Dower House for tea in Downton Abbey, the arranged time was most likely at four o’clock in the afternoon.

 

Cora and the Dowager Countess sit down to tea

In one particular scene, the two women entered the drawing room in which a small table had been laid out with an elaborate tea set, fine china, and silver spoons. An assortment of tiny sandwiches, cookies, and scones were arranged upon a beautiful batttenburg lace tablecloth that covered the table. Low tea (an Edwardian dowager would never have said high tea) was meant to blunt the appetite before dinner.

The duchess pours boiling water over the tea leaves in the tea pot

A tea ceremony provided an intimate setting between the hostess and her guests, for it was the hostess who prepared and served the tea, catering to each guest and handing them their custom-prepared tea one cup at a time. In this time honored ritual, one of the most important questions the dowager would ask was: “Would you care for weak tea or strong tea?” Cora’s preference would guide the Countess in the next stage of tea preparation, for if she said “strong tea,” then the Dowager would pour the tea as she had prepared it into Cora’s cup. Had Cora said “weak tea”, the Countess would pour a smaller quantitiy of the brew into the china cup, then top it off with hot water.

Cora eats a crustless sandwich as her mother-in-law prepares the tea

The Dowager would then ask her guest how much milk and sugar to add. She would have poured boiling water over the tea leaves in a tea pot, and steeped the leaves for three minutes, all the while conversing with her guests. At this point the water was no longer boiling. Then the Countess would pour in the milk. (If she poured it in first, she would have found it difficult to judge the strength of the tea by its color.) Hudson, the butler in Upstairs, Downstairs, said about pouring milk into tea: “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”

In this instance, the Dowager leaves her guest in the middle of serving tea, a faux pas

History of Low Tea

On September 25, 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded: “did send for a cupp of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before.” By June 1667, tea was considered to be a healthy drink. One day Pepys arrived home to find his wife making tea, which his apothecary had found good for her cold.

Emma, 1996 (with Kate Beckinsale). Emma and Harriet drink tea during Mrs. Elton's first visit

Samuel Johnson was a self-described “hardened and shameless tea drinker, who has, for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea muses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.” His chronicler James Boswell observed that “It was perfectly normal for him to drink sixteen cups in very quick succession, and I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relisht the infusion of that fragrant leaf than did Johnson.”

Silver tea set by Odiot, Paris, circa 1880. Image @A.Pash and Sons, Mayfair

Until the 1760’s, only the rich could afford teapots, which were made of silver. Then in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned Josiah Wedgwood to create a tea service made from his quality cream colored earthenware, which he named Queen’s Ware (with the Queen’s permission, of course) and gave to her as a gift. From that moment on he was the Queen’s potter. Wedgwood’s creamware was thin, attractive and durable. After receiving the Queen’s patronage, his firm became quite famous. The attractive new tableware quickly became popular, and by 1775 other manufacturers, including those on the Continent, had widely copied Wedgwood, imitating Queensware and creating increasingly fanciful teapots. It is said that this tableware was instrumental in spreading the popularity of tea.

Wedgwood Queensware, c. 1790. Image @Christies

In 1840, the Duchess of Bedford began serving tea with refreshments in the afternoon to appease her appetite before dinner, and the custom of afternoon tea, or low tea, took off. To read more about drinking tea between the 18th and mid-19th centuries, read my post about Tea in the Regency Era.

Some interesting facts about tea:

  • Notice, this is a change: The difference between high tea and low tea: Low, or afternoon, tea is served at four o’clock with light snacks, such as sandwiches, cookies, and scones. High tea is a full meal served with tea, including meat, bread, side dishes and dessert on a table of regular height. Hence high tea.

16th century tea bowl, Korea

  • Tea cups at first were fashioned after Chinese bowls without handles or saucers. In the mid 1750-s, a handle was added to prevent ladies from burning their fingers.
  • A saucer was once a small dish for sauce. During the Dowager Countess’s day, it was acceptable to pour tea into a cup’s saucer to cool the beverage before drinking it.
  • In the late 17th century, a lady would lay her spoon across the top of her cup to signal that she was through drinking. Other signals included turning the cup upside down, or tapping the spoon against the side of the cup.
  • Filling the cup with tea almost to the rim is considered a faux pas.

"Might I give you this cup?" The Dowager hands her tea to Moseley while visiting Matthew Crawley.

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