Retiring to my winter mansion

Posted: January 04, 2013

By Kathy Brennan

When I heard there would be a third season of Downton Abbey, I thought about doing one of those heel clicks, like the leprechaun who finds Lucky Charms magically delicious. (Only fear of what it would do to my tennis game kept me earthbound.) And when I heard it wouldn't begin until this weekend, I realized I had something to look forward to during the most dismal time of year.

Like life in Narnia, January in Philadelphia is always winter but never Christmas. But now I know I'll spend it with icy-hot Lady Mary, angst-ridden Matthew, and the dowager countess, Lady Violet. (Ever since I heard it, I've been trying to work one of her lines into a brisk riposte: "You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look!")

Why do so many of us love this show so much? How do we relate to the prewar splendor of this grand English manor and its denizens?

As the snub-nosed, freckle-faced daughter of Irish immigrants, raised in the comfortable sameness of a suburban tract home, I have no connection whatsoever to the lifestyle portrayed on Downton Abbey. My father would no more watch this show than pay full price for a new shirt. This is a man who emphatically declared the familiar breakfast bread to be "Irish muffins" and shouted at anybody who called them "English."

Notwithstanding, this glimpse into a stratified world, where everyone is born into her place and knows it, is addictive. When I do the laundry now, I think, Did my relatives do this a hundred years ago for some long-forgotten Lady Mary? Or were they landed gentry who had their linens ironed for them? (Not bloody likely, unfortunately!) At least, I conclude, I'm doing laundry for myself.

Most of us in America are both servants and masters, at least in our domestic spheres. In some ways, Downton Abbey shows us ourselves splintered into our several roles, like light passed through a prism: Each character has a wavelength, and never shall it vary.

In one episode, Lady Mary demands to know why her sister was speaking to the chauffeur. Her sister, who is planning to elope with the man, hems and haws before asking why Mary was speaking to the chauffeur. She is rewarded with a look of utter disdain from Mary, who replies that she "needed the motor." Why else does one speak to the chauffeur? Not for them the democratization of society!

I must confess a weakness for British shows in general. The dialogue is as plush as velvet and full of deliciously delivered zingers. The characters are often appropriately plain or downright homely - in contrast to American shows, in which female police officers look like contestants in the Miss Universe pageant and emergency room doctors look like lifeguards on Venice Beach.

Plus, one learns something: After watching The Tudors, I know all of Henry VIII's wives, and I have a special fondness for Nos. 2 and 6.

In the British comedy Are You Being Served?, the characters are ever yearning to rise just a notch above their station ("I beg your pardon: I live in a semidetached home!") And in the new Call the Midwife, a nurse teeters all over town on her bicycle, keeping her chin up, her upper lip stiff, and all those other British expressions that seem to involve controlling the lower face.

Bring on the next round. How about Ring for the Apothecary, Summon my Solicitor, or Benjamin the Beadle, Head of the Constabulary? I'd even watch a history of the lesser-known royal families: The Saxe-Coburgs: How They Turned Into Windsors During World War I to Sound More English - I'd watch all 18 installments, maybe more than once.

But Downton Abbey is my favorite, perhaps because it wraps many of these genres into one finely milled soap opera, starring some of the best British actors working today. And I can't wait to see Shirley MacLaine enter the teapot and no doubt cause a tempest.

So I won't be taking calls on Sunday evenings for the foreseeable future, Carson. Tell them I'll be indisposed, in my imaginary world, where I play all the parts.

Kathy Brennan is a writer and former Daily News reporter who lives in Huntingdon Valley. She can be reached at

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