My plan to write and post a review of the new season of Downton Abbey (PBS Masterpiece, Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT) was superseded by a surprise: I received an advance copy of Downton’s memoirs, dictated by the estate to a ghostwriter named Andrew David Stelmley.
I assumed, probably correctly, that readers would be more interested in what Downton herself had to say about this fourth season than my own thoughts.
This excerpt begins in 1922.
How empty my rooms felt without the presence of Cousin Matthew and Lady Sybil among the Crawleys. They had both been claimed by what Henry James called “the distinguished thing,” and by that I don’t mean Hollywood. And O’Brien, the source of such malevolent fun, had decamped. I would have replaced her with one of those monsters from The Walking Dead – they would have been faster at answering the bell – but I have never had any real influence upstairs or downstairs.
Which is odd, considering I am upstairs and downstairs.
On a typical morning, I would feel the warm sun streaming through my windows – always an elating sensation for an old, badly heated country house – and eavesdrop on Lady Mary, Tom the former chauffeur, Lady Edith and Lord Grantham in the breakfast room. I would hear the munchings and polite slurpings of four pasty, thin-lipped faces devouring toast and tea Tom occasionally muttering out of the side of his mouth about never surrendering his socialist convictions (at which point I would send up a murmur from the east wing: “Oh, please”) and Lord Grantham, looking up from a letter, announcing: “It’s from the solicitors.”
Consider my morning buzz killed.
Meanwhile, Lady Grantham took her breakfast in bed.
Leave it to an American to know how to have fun.
The Crawleys had now been joined by their young, high-spirited niece, Lady Rose. So much like Lady Sybil in her thirst for breaking convention! The only difference was that, by comparison, Lady Sybil was Madame Curie. I very much wanted to lead Rose into the hedge maze and leave her to find her way out.
It was the sort of mean trick you could have gotten O’Brien to do with a few cigarettes.
Things were not much better in my lower quarters. Everyone was going on and on about finding a new job for late Cousin Matthew’s manservant, Molesley. Now, I would have been very upset if Carson or Mrs. Hughes were suddenly fired. But I never enjoyed having Molesley in the house. Or on the grounds. Actually, if he could have been barred from the village or even England, that would have been okay. The man had so little charisma or dignity. He always reminded me of a turkey plucked of its feathers and frantically looking around for a towel to cover up.
Instead of wasting our time, he should have done the Roman thing – fallen on his sword or flung himself under Ben-Hur’s chariot. Whatever.
Events did gradually gain in importance and interest. New suitors began fluttering around our Mary. She registered their flattery and attention with her usual air of amused reserve and bored contempt. Frankly, it was sometimes hard to tell what she felt. Edith, too, flung herself headlong into an affair with her editor, the one who looked a very distinguished Keebler elf.
But, let’s face it, Edith flinging herself headlong was most other people’s putting a hand out to feel for rain.
It distresses me to speak harshly of the Crawleys and their staff, but when you have had to shelter and serve as an oversized ornament for the same bloodline for generations, you from time to time start to find them too familiar.
Why, for instance, did no one spare themselves Lady Violet’s relentless sarcasm by keeping conversation to questions that required “yes” or “no” answers?
What cause did she have to be sarcastic, anyway? She always got to wear the best hats.
You see, it is not always a good thing to be a magnificent estate on a hit British TV series. People love the romance of British decline, I suppose: We all know that over the decades I would see my acres sold off to developers and be opened to the paying public Tuesdays through Saturdays.
In fact, as I compose these memoirs for publication in 2014, I have been converted into one of those Scientology celebrity centers.
How much more swiftly things would have moved, and with how much more variety, if I could have been a glass-walled office suite at Lockhart/Gardner, or one of those cheaply but enthusiastically decorated walkups on Girls.
I was one of the grand estates of Britain, crowded with nobility and staff. And yet I felt like a petting zoo for two dying species …