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Highclere Castle as Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey’s connection to Jane Austen is through Lord Carnarvon, whose descendents still own Highclere Castle, where the PBS Masterpiece Classic mini-series’ interior and exterior shots of the fictional country house were filmed. (Read about Andrew Lloyd Weber’s recent attempt to purchase the castle.) In Jane’s day, Lord Carnarvon was Henry, the 1st Earl. Jane wrote in a letter to Cassandra Austen, Saturday25 – Monday 27 th,  October 1800 :

“This morning we called at the Harwood’s & in their dining room found Heathcote & Chute for ever – Mrs Wm Heathcote & Mrs Chute – the first of whom took a long ride in to Lord Carnarvons Park and fainted away in the evening…”

Highclere Castle as it looked in Jane Austen's day

The 5th Earl

Lord Carnarvon’s park, which Jane writes of, is the grounds to Highclere Castle. The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, although the Castle as we see it today sits on the site of an earlier house. (Click here to view a short film about the Castle’s history.) A beautiful 6,000 acre park designed by Capability Brown between 1774-7 surrounds the Castle.

In 1842, the 3rd Earl commissioned architect Sir Charles Barry (also responsible for building the Houses of Parliament in Westminster) to redesign the Castle.

One of the most interesting fact about Highclere Castle is that the golden death mask of King Tutankhamun is featured in its gallery today.

Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in Egypt

Lord Carnarvon of Tutankhamun fame (George, the 5th Earl) was an Egyptologist who sponsored Howard Carter,  the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. It is said that when Canarvon and Carter broke into Tut’s tomb, they unleashed the mummy’s curse. But the story goes more like this:

 

Howard Carter cleans the second coffin. Image @Harry Burton

This popular legend was born when Lord Carnarvon, the English Earl who funded the Tutankhamun expedition, died less than six months after the opening of the tomb. Despite the fact that Lord Carnarvon was a sickly individual, and that no such “hieroglyphic curse” was found inscribed on the tomb, this legend persists today. . . Lord Carnarvon had been in a car accident many years earlier and had never fully recovered. About a month after entering the tomb, he cut open a mosquito bite while shaving and infection set in. Blood poisoning and pneumonia quickly followed, and within a few weeks, he passed away. Newspapers reported that mysterious forces unleashed from the mummy and its trappings had caused his death. – King Tut

This image of Howard Carter’s grave was taken by Tony Grant, who lives near the cemetery in London. (Thank you, Tony, for the photo and for the quote from Jane Austen’s letter!)

Howard's grave. Image @Tony Grant

Watch Downton Abbey at your local PBS station Sundays, January 9, 16, 23, and 30, 2011 at 9 PM. Read my other posts:

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At the start of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham sadly learns of the death of his cousin and cousin’s son on the Titanic. This event places the Earl and Countess of Grantham in a tragic and unexpected situation, for both men – the heir and the spare – were in line to inherit Downton Abbey.

The earl (Hugh Bonneville) reads about the Titanic

The earl had never anticipated such a tragic turn of events. He had married Cora, an American heiress, in a marriage of convenience in order to maintain his landed estate in the manner in which it had been run for centuries. During the marriage negotiations, the old Earl of Grantham struck a hard bargain and Cora’s fortune became completely tied up in the entail. This  was no great matter to the young couple, who were certain they would produce an heir. While the earl eventually fell in love with his beautiful bride, they were unable to produce a son, their union resulting in three daughters.

The countess (Elizabeth McGovern) learns of the tragedy.

And so the plot of Downton Abbey thickens, for lovely Lady Mary, the earl’s eldest daughter, was engaged to the younger heir, Patrick. But Patrick died and now Matthew Crawley, the earl’s third cousin once removed, stands next in line to inherit. Unlike the previous heirs, who were accustomed to the ways of the upper classes, the very reluctant Matthew must learn how to run a great estate from the ground up … and Lady Mary, by dint of being a woman and as the result of an unbreakable entail, is left out in the cold.

Lady Sybil, Lady Mary, and Lady Edith

The plot line of Downton Abbey weaves the stories of the privileged who live upstairs with the lives of those who serve them, and involves the intricacies of the entail and running the estate. Of the three sisters, only Lady Mary plays a major role. But the other two, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, faced challenges that were typical of upper class women of the era. As Jane Austen astutely observed, “ There are not so many men of fortune in the world as there are pretty girls who deserve them,” a fact that the middle sister, Lady Edith, comes to know too well, and one that Lady Sybil ignores, for she has modern notions of a woman’s place in Society.

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World

Upon learning of the death of her fiance, Patrick, Lady Mary is not as sad as she should be.

Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockerey)

The eldest of the three girls, and the most beautiful and self-assured, is Lady Mary Crawley who knows her worth. Upset that the entail cannot be undone, she realizes that her only way to marry “up” or to financial security is to find a wealthy man with (preferably) a title. The new heir, Matthew Crawley, in no way interests her. From the moment they meet, snobby Lady Mary looks down her patrician nose at the upstart heir, who, she doubts, even knows how to hunt. (Lady Mary might have no use for Matthew, but he has more than a passing interest in her.)

Lady Mary meets Matthew and ... is not impressed

Ever the opportunist when it comes to snaring a suitable mate, Lady Mary sets her sights on a duke, as well as Evelyn Napier, a gentleman who is besotted with her.  But then a handsome and exotic visitor catches her eye and makes her heart flutter uncharacteristically,  and Lady Mary’s safe and secure world will never be the same again.

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World

Lady Edith reads Lady Mary's private letter

Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael)

Lady Edith can hardly contain her jealousy of Lady Mary’s beauty, her easy popularity with men, and her status as elder daughter. As the second daughter, she feels invisible. Lady Mary barely mourns her fiance, which triggers Lady Edith’s resentment of her older sister and her cool reaction to his death. Not that she is entirely to be pitied, for her jealousy drives her to snoop on her sister, and tattle tales that should never be shared.

Lady Edith looks hopeful as she is courted unexpectedly

The complex, nasty relationship between the two sisters is a result of the keen pressure that women still felt to marry up and well in the Edwardian era. Upper class women, as Amanda Vickery pointed out in her excellent series, At Home With the Georgians, were raised to live passive lives and accept the fact that they were second-class citizens. While Lady Edith plots and schemes to find a husband (if even from her older sister’s romantic leavings), Lady Sybil, the younger sister, is forging a role for herself.

Lady Sybil helping Gwen, the housemaid

Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay)

Lively, upbeat, and compassionate, Lady Sybil plays no role in the spiteful drama of her two older sisters. She is too busy admiring suffragettes, supporting Gwen, the housemaid, in her ambition to become a secretary, reading political tracts and attending forbidden rallies. Even her taste in clothes is flamboyant, and one suspects that as Lady Sybil matures she will become a character with a capital “C”.

Lady Sybil shows off her new frock

In Downton Abbey, Lady Edith and Lady Mary demonstrate the dependent role that women still played in the early 20th century. But Lady Sybil was another creature altogether.  After the end of World War I,  she would no doubt be dancing the Charleston in flapper clothes, and after turning thirty, exercising her right to vote and earn her own living.

 

Edith, Mary, and Sybil

More about Downton Abbey, to air on Masterpiece Classic, Sunday, January 9th at your local PBS station:

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Downton Abbey, a PBS Masterpiece Classic mini-series, is as much a tale about the servants below stairs as about the noble Earl of Grantham and his family who employed them. With the recent airing of the updated version of Upstairs Downstairs in Great Britain, I am sure a debate will long rage about which series portrayed their eras and class differences better. In both cases, the viewer is the winner.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle, an “Elizabethan Pile”) Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Images Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

No matter how expertly this mini-series of Downton Abbey tries to portray this bygone era, it is nearly impossible to capure life in an Edwardian country house exactly as it once was. The viewer should be aware that we can glimpse only a faint, musty, museum shadow of the complex and thriving community that a great English estate once supported.

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The Crawleys and the servants of Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Images Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

It is a well-known fact that grand country houses could only be run with a great deal of help. As early as the 18th century, Patrick Colquhoun estimated that there were around 910,000 domestic servants (in a population of 9 million). By 1911, the number of domestic servants had risen to 1.3 million. Eighty percent of the land during the Edwardian era was owned by only 3% of the population, yet these vast estates were considered major employers.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The earl (Hugh Bonneville) and his heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), survey his vast estate. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

In the grander and larger houses, the ratio of servants (both indoor and outdoor) to the family could approach 1:7 or 1:10, but as the industrial revolution introduced improvements in laundering, lawn maintenance, and cooking, the number of servants required to run a great estate was greatly reduced.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The earl and his heir, Matthew Crawley, survey the cottages and outer buildings on his estate. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

After World War One and the rise in taxes for each servant employed, many great families no longer kept two sets of house staff. They began to bring servants from their country house to their house in Town, leaving only a skeleton crew behind to maintain the family seat in their absence.

Grounds of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)

Country estates were designed to showcase the owner’s wealth via collections of art, furniture and other luxurious possessions, such as carriages, lawn tennis courts, and the like. The main house sat at the end of a long and winding drive through acres of beautifully landscaped park lands.

Downton Abbey.

The Duke is greeted by both the family and the servants. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The spectacle did not end there, for approaching the house, guests would see a grand facade or an equally imposing flight of stairs that led to the first floor (or both). In Downtown Abbey, the family awaited the arrival of the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox) along with their servants, who were arrayed in line according to their station.

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World

The servants await their new masters at Norland. Sense and Sensibility, 2008.

Such a display of staff was also evident in the 2008 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, when Fanny and Robert Dashwood arrived to claim Norland Park.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Grand interior hall of Downton Abbey, floor leading to the private rooms. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Once introductions had been made, the guests would ascend the imposing stairway and enter an equally impressive high-ceilinged hall that contained yet another grand staircase, which led to the private rooms upstairs. The ladies customarily brought their own maids, who would also require lodging. (In Gosford Park, a poor female relation had to make do with one of the hostesses’ house maids to help her with her dress and hair.)

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the first footman, is chosen to act as valet to the duke. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The guests’ servants were expected to enter the house through a separate, back servant’s entrance, and shared quarters with the regular staff. The host supplied his own butler or footmen to help serve as valet to his male guests.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The Earl of Grantham’s impressive library/study. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

A host’s willingness to lavishly entertain his guests did not necessarily reflect the family’s daily schedule:

In 1826 a German visitor to England remarked that: it requires a considerable fortune here to keep up a country house; for custom demands… a handsomely fitted-up house with elegant furniture, plate, servants in new and handsome liveries, a profusion of dishes and foreign wines, rare and expensive desserts… As long as there are visitors in the house, this way of life goes on; but many a family atones for it by meagre fare when alone; for which reasons, nobody here ventures to pay a visit in the country without being invited, and these invitations usually fix the day and hour… True hospitality this can hardly be called; it is rather the display of one’s own possessions, for the purpose of dazzling as many as possible.(3)” – The Country House: JASA

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World

Travel in winter, Henry Alken, 1785

Guests stayed for a long time for a variety of reasons. In the 17th and 18th centuries, travel over a long distance was laboriously slow and difficult, for roads were notoriously poor and dangerous. Long visits, such as Cassandra Austen’s visits to her brother Edward in Godmersham Park, became a custom. Even during the Edwardian age, when travel was much improved, guests tended to stay for the weekend (Saturday through Monday). In Downton Abbey, the Duke of Crowborough arrived amidst much hope and anticipation, until he discovered that the estate had been entailed to a third cousin not the earl’s daughter, whom he had come to woo, and he cut his visit to one short day and evening, making an excuse that did not hold water.

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World

Catherine Morland (Katherine Schlessinger) and Eleanor Tilney (Ingrid Lacey), Northanger Abbey 1986

Even during the 18th century, when long-term guests were expected, some overstayed their welcome, like Jane Austen’s anti-heroine, Lady Susan Vernon, whose hostess (sister-in-law) despised her but was forced to tolerate her because she was ‘family.’ Desirable guests, like Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, were invited to extend their visit. In Catherine’s instance, Eleanor Tilney, a motherless young lady who lived without a female companion, found the young girl’s company delightful. By the time General Tilney discovered that Catherine was no heiress, she had been with the Allens in Bath and the Tilneys in Northanger Abbey for a total of 11 weeks. As previously noted, Edwardian hosts, while generous, expected house guest to stay for only three days. During this time every luxury was lavished upon them, but it was considered bad form if they stayed longer than arranged or without invitation.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Breakfast was a substantial meal served at 9:30 a.m. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

At set times, Edwardian guests would congregate in the common rooms, which included the drawing room, music room, dining room and breakfast room, the library or study, the gallery (where ancient family portraits were hung), the billiard room, and the conservatory. Vast lawns and gardens were laid out for promenading; guests could ride or walk through the parklands to view picturesque follys or dine alfresco (outdoors), take tea under an awning, or paint a vista or two.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Taking tea alfresco. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The reputation of a host rested on the entertainments, which helped to pass the time – walking, riding, shooting (in winter), and hunting (in fall) for outdoor activities; and card parties, musicales, and dances for indoor festivities. A fox hunt, such as the one depicted in Downton Abbey, required riding skill and stamina, for the chase would take riders over hills and dales, and hedges, and over long distances for much of the day.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The hunt required riding skills and stamina.Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Billiards made an appearance during the 17th century, and by the 19th century billiard rooms had become a staple. Private libraries offered a variety of books and periodicals. In the summer, Edwardians enjoyed lawn tennis, croquet, cricket, and golf (by the men).

The male guests in Regency House Party (2004) could pretty well behave and move around as they pleased.

Ladies and gentlemen tended to spend the day apart. Male guests were more active and could engage in almost any activity during the day, except at the time reserved for dinner, when they were expected to show up. In an Edwardian house, men did not escort their female dining partners into the dining room. Rather, after the host served cocktails in the drawing room a half hour before the meal, the group moved to the dining room where they were seated according to a set pattern, with guests sitting between members of the family and their neighbors.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The new heir of Downton Abbey (Dan Stevens) sits next to his hostess, the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

After dinner, the ladies would remove to the drawing room, which became increasingly larger and more feminine over time, while the gentleman relaxed at the dining room table, drinking port, smoking their cheroots, and discussing manly topics.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The drawing room at Downton Abbey was large and feminine. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

While an 18th century gentlemen would have talked about horse flesh and carriages, Edwardian guests would have included automobiles and their rapidly changing technology, road improvements, and the availability of petrol as well.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Transportation was changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Unlike the gentlemen, a lady’s day was more restricted and confined. She spent her day following a set routine, starting with breakfast, and wearing appropriate outfits and getting into them and out of them. Mothers spent some time overseeing the nannies and the care of their children (if they were brought along). Ladies, married or not, would also receive visitors, sew, gossip, read, walk, participate in charity work, observe the men at sport (if invited) or take a ride in the carriage. They did join in on more active, outdoor games at set times during the appropriate season, such as cricket, croquet, lawn tennis, lawn bowling, and the like, but they would have been properly dressed for the occasion.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The head maid (Joanne Froggatt) dresses Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) hair for dinner. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Imagine poor Eleanor Tilney in the late 18th century, alone in a grand house without female companionship, having no-one to talk to and forced to live a constricted life. No amount of walking, charity work, practicing the piano, or overseeing the household would have made up for her boredom, and thus Catherine Morland’s companionship was so welcome.

Manor House (2002), dressing Lady Olliff-Cooper. Image @PBS

In Regency House Party (the 2004 mini-series), the modern women who portrayed Regency ladies chafed under the strict rules of protocol, forced chaperonage, and daily tedium. A lady’s routine did not much improve during the Edwardian era, although towards the end of this period changing one’s gown for afternoon tea became obsolete.

Tea gown, circa 1908. Image @Vintage Textiles

In Manor House, the 2002 mini-series set in the Edwardian era, Lady Olliff-Cooper’s spinster sister, the lowest-ranking member of the family, had so little to do and so little say in how she could spend her time, that Avril Anson (who in real life is a professor) left the series for a few episodes to maintain her sanity.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) eye their rival before dinner. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Lady Olliff-Cooper … [needed] to change her clothes five or six times a day. And very few of these dresses would be what today we’d call practical. Not only did each meal carry its own dress code, but if she needed to receive a visitor, pay a call or go riding, she’d have to change both her clothes and often her hairstyle as well.” Manor House, clothes

Anna Olliff-Cooper, who portrayed the lady of the house in Manor House, spent an enormous amount of her day changing into new gowns and having her hair dressed. She would stand passively as her maid did all the work. Anna noted how constricting the dresses were, and cried as she described how the tight sleeves of her gowns prevented her from raising her arms above her shoulders or from closely hugging her eleven-year old son. Even the fashions conspired to keep a women passive!

The Dinner Party, 1911, Jules Alexandre Grun

After they had finished their cigars and port, the gentlemen were obligated to rejoin the ladies for cards or music, or both, to while away the evening. The Duke’s behavior in Downton Abbey was egregious, for instead of joining the group for the rest of the evening, he went to bed early. The house party would stay up until 10:30 or so (unless a grand ball had been arranged, and then the guests would stay up until the wee hours of the morning).

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Male conversation after dinner over port and cigars. The duke and earl have a frank conversation. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

In either case, the last people in the house to retire for the night would be the servants, but their lives and schedule will be described in another post.

Look for Downton Abbey, Part One to air on PBS Masterpiece Classic on Sunday, January 9th! Once again PBS will host a twitter party! Stay tuned for details.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

End of the day at Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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Images of Downton Abbey Season 1: Credit Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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With The Old Curiosity Shop, Masterpiece Classic aired its last special for the 2009 season last night. Which film was your favorite? Curious minds want to know.

the-old-curiosity-shop-1b1d7ef6-7e9c-4c39-adea-f899b8e38345

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Dickens recounts how when his father and he went into the prison they both wept very much and his father warned him that if a man had 20 pounds a year and spent 19 pounds, 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. – A.S. Byat, Within Those Walls

Born in prison

Born in prison

The first surprise I encountered watching Little Dorrit on Masterpiece Classic was to see little Amy born in the Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison to which her father had been sentenced for owing £400. William Dorritt, also know as the “Father of the Marshalsea”, was incarcerated for 23 years, slowly rotting from the inside out and living a life without hope of becoming a free man again. He was allowed to bring in his family, a tradition of those bygone days. Sadly, Mrs. Dorrit died before her husband could repay his debt. Amy has never known a life other than in prison.

Life without hope for William Dorrit

Life without hope for William Dorrit

John Howard, a reformer, visited Marshalsea eight times between 1774 and 1783, and made the following observations:

There are in the whole near sixty rooms; and yet only six of them left for common-side debtors. Of the other rooms – five were let to a man who was not a prisoner; in one of them he kept a chandler’s shop, in two he lived with his family; the other two he let to prisoners….The chamber rent wants regulation, for in several rooms where four lie in two beds, and in some rooms where two lie in one bed, each pays 3 p 6d for his lodgings.

The prison is greatly out of repair. No infirmary. The court is well supplied with water. In it the prisoners play at rackets etc., and in a little back court, the Park, at skittles.

In March 1775 when the number of prisoners was 175, there were with them in this incommodious prison wives and children 46. – The Chronicles of London, Saint and Darley, New York, 1994, p 150.

william-dorrit

The prison had not much changed when Charles Dickens lived there, for William Dorrit’s nightmare was his own. In 1824, when Dickens was twelve, his father, John, had been taken there for debts he could not repay. Instead of going to school, Dickens left the Marshalsea each day to work at Warren’s boot-blacking factory, where he was paid six shillings a week.

The family [Dickens] writes, lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it, They were waited on still by the maid of all work from Bayham Street, the orphan girl from Chatham workhouse from whose sharp little worldly, yet also kindly, ways I took my first impressions of the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop. Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford

His father’s experience in the Marshalsea left an indelible impression. Dickens must have written these lines from the heart: “She looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen, with her father in it.” Unlike William Dorrit, who spent nearly a quarter of a century in prison, John Dickens walked out after six months when one of his relatives died and left enough money in the will to pay off the debt.

"It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

"It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

Once a man of substance, William Dorrit (played by Tom Courtenay) tried to live with some dignity inside the high spiked walls, but much of his self-consequence came at the expense of his youngest daughter, Amy (Little Dorrit), who devoted her young life catering to her father.  “In his deepest heart he knows that he’s made an utter mess of his and his beloved children’s lives, but he would never openly admit to this failure. For his sake, the family all keep up the pretence of respectability.” ( BBC)  Even at his lowest ebb, William Dorrit finds comfort in the title of “Father of the Marshalsea.” He adheres to social standards, blinding himself to his son’s Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and daughter Fanny’s less than acceptable career as a dancer,  and dines in state on the food that Amy has set aside from her own repasts.

The family’s ability to come and go from prison within the curfew hours so surprised me that I wanted to research the topic. Only the debtor remained imprisoned. In reality, as Dickens attests, life inside those walls was not much worse than life outside it – for the destitute. The friendship between Amy and John Chivery was genuine. John performed his duties with humanity, and Amy recognized that the Assistant Turnkey was simply following orders.

Leaving the Marshalsea in state

Leaving the Marshalsea in state

Even when freed, William Dorrit does not step outside his prison. When he is finally released, due to an inheritance found through Arthur Clennam’s perseverance, his heart is as pinched as his confined world had once been.  Charles Dickens wrote about the character:

Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out. If he had been a man with strength of purpose to face those troubles and fight them, he might have broken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he languidly slipped into this smooth descent, and never more took one step upward.

Instead of thanking Arthur, he avoids him and puts on airs of grandiosity. His children are given lessons of deportment by Mrs. General as they traipse across Europe on a Grand Tour. They are lessons in futility, for Fanny and Edward are beyond help, and Amy is uninterested in the trappings of wealth. And yet despite his opulent surroundings, William was unable to escape the effects of the Marshalsea and his mind remained imprisoned. He returns to London, but instead of enjoying the high life, he is constantly plagued by reminders of his past and falls into a great depression.

William Dorrit in London

William Dorrit in London

In real life, a man who was confined in the Marshalsea just like William Dorrit, reacted to his imprisonment in a much different way. John Howard recalled:

Mr. Henry Allnot, who was many years hence a prisoner here, had during his confinement a large estate bequeathed to him. He learnt sympathy by his sufferings, and left £100 a year for discharging poor debtors from hence whose debts do not exceed £4. As he bound his manor of Goring in Oxfordshire for charitable uses, this is called the Oxford charity.  Many are cleared by it every year. – The Chronicles of London, p. 150

remaining-wall-of-the-marshalsea-prison

Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1842, and all that remains today is a long brick wall and two gated arches.

In 1856 whilst engaged in the purchase of Gad’s Hill, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the Marshalsea, then in the course of demolition, to see what traces were left of the prison of which he had received such early and vivid impressions as a boy, and which he had been able to rebuild almost brick by brick in Little Dorritt by the aid of his wonderfully retentive memory. He writes to his friend John Forster, “Went to the Borough yesterday morning before going to Gad’s Hill to see if I could find any ruins of the Marshalsea. Found a great part of the original building now Marshalsea Place. I found the rooms that had been in my mind’s eye in the story…There is a room there still standing that I think of taking. It is the room through which the ever memorable signers of Captain Porter’s petition filed off in my boyhood. The spikes are gone and the wall is lowered, and any body can go out now who likes to go and is not bed ridden.”  Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford

My other Little Dorrit Reviews:

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clairefoycourtenayCharles Dickens wrote Little Dorrit during the mid 19th century, but he placed the story at a time when his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison. PBS will be airing a 5-installment series of Little Dorrit starting tonight at 9 p.m. EST and ending April 26th. If you have missed any episodes, you can watch them online at this link.

The film is stunning; the acting is outstanding; and this story of greed, ponzi schemes, lost fortunes, insurmountable debts, and wrecked lives resonates in today’s financial climate. In the next few weeks I will be posting a series of thoughts and reviews about this film, which is set in the Regency Period. The links sit below this slide show.

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Sense and Sensibility will have its second airing on PBS Masterpiece Classic tonight at 9 PM EST. For those who prefer not to watch the Super Bowl, this film provides a fine alternative viewing. Click here for my review, Sense and Sensibility Makes Sense for the Most Part. Click below to view the trailer for Part One:

I have since added more images from this adaptation to my collection.

The opening scene was a bit confusing. Who was making love and why?

The opening scene was a bit confusing. Who was making love and why? Does not this actress resemble Hattie Morahan?

The Dashwoods lived in a grand house when Mr. Dashwood unexpectedly died.

The Dashwoods lived in a grand house when Mr. Dashwood unexpectedly died.

Poor Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne were still in deep mourning

Poor Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne were still in deep mourning when ...

Fanny Dashwood was suitably creepy and mean

. . . John and Fanny Dashwood (who was suitably creepy and mean), showed up with very little notice.

She deserved to eat this unappetizing fish

Fanny deserved to eat this unappetizing fish ...

and to wear this terrible hairdo

... and to wear this terrible hairdo.

Edward was handsomer than expected

Edward was handsomer than expected ...

and so was Colonel Brandon

and so was Colonel Brandon.

In fact, both were more attractive than Willoughby, which is not what Jane Austen intended.

In fact, both were more attractive than Willoughby, which is not what Jane Austen intended.

Sir John Middleton ...

Sir John Middleton ...

... had quite a handsome family. We see them in so few movie adaptations.

... had quite a handsome family. We see them in so few movie adaptations.

Mrs. Jennings was vulgar and effusive as ever.

Mrs. Jennings was as vulgar and effusive as ever.

Barton Cottage was quite a comedown from Norland Park.

Barton Cottage was quite a comedown from Norland Park.

But they managed to make the best of the situation.

But the Dashwood ladies managed to make the best of the situation.

Stay tuned for more images next week … at this link.

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