For the past year, I feel that I have been inhabiting a interesting mix of worlds. As a reader and film enthusiast, living in multiple worlds is not something strange. The appeal of many, particular classic, children’s books and novels is the entrance into and subsequent travel in a unique world — sometimes slowly down a river, quickly down a rabbit hole or sucked up into a London Underground. Even the appeal of some non fiction is the exploration of other worlds — “Living the Good Life” with the Nearings, “On the Run” from the police with Alice Goffman in a West Philadelphia neighborhood, or hiking in Cape Cod with Henry David. Mix in historical and science fiction worlds.
Like reading books, viewing films lets us escape to other worlds. Even in the 1930s adults and kids found the coin for a Saturday matinee. No cheaper way of escaping the depression. The variety of cinematic worlds is astounding — think today Harry Potter, Star Wars, Rocky, so different.
For years I have explored Great Britian, particular England. Diane has always been fond of English history — reading and watching costume dramas. In college, as an English major, I entered the worlds of Dickens, Austin, and Hardy. A copy of some Sherlock Holmes mystery was on my nightstand for decades. I have dozens of related Holmes books and many movies. I wonder how many hours I’ve closed my eyes and spent time in foggy, gaslit London listening to a passing Hanson cab, smoking a Calabash.
Last week’s final episode of “Downton Abbey,”was preceded by a number of similar PBS Bristish Dramas. I believe the first for us was “Upstairs: Downstains” in the
1970s. This has some obvious similarities with “Downton.” In fact last month I read the memoir of a servant, Margaret Powell’s “Below Stairs.” Some background for both. We loved “The Duchess of Duke Street” and “Lily.” More recently we’ve been captured by “Call the Midwives,” ” Mr Selfridge,” “Indian Summers” and “Foyle’s War.” All different trips into the greater British world.
For six years, like millions of Americans, Diane and I have been held captive in the world of “Downton Abbey.” I suspect there are many reasons. Our personal travels in England and visits to various castles. The decades of beloved Masterpiece shows I’ve mentioned. There can also be strong value in having a “series” — from serialization of Bristih novels, including Sherlock Holmes, 1930s radio, soap operas, and movies. We get to know the characters, watch them develop, see subplot fold into subplots. Characters exit and new entrances. Some remain season after season.
Overall the production values in Downton are fantastic — setting, music, performance. A year ago we went to Winterthur in Delaware to see the “Costumes of Downton Abbey.” I loved how the costumes were frozen in a set, maybe supported by photographs or drawings. Sometimes associated props. The on location shooting may not have been a cast favorite but the images of Highclere castle are unforgettable. I also like that the story of the real Highclere castle residents have become the subject of books and specials. The producers have produced a world.
That world opens with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ends in 1927 before the great crash. England, the World, particularly nineteenth century life styles are in transition. Technology and social norms are in turmoil. Athhough there are many themes in Downton, the strongest is the decline of the great estates in the changing world. Some are being sold, downsized, or opened to tourism. Diane and I caught this theme real when we traveled in England in 1976. The Cawleys struggle to adapt to this new world.
We watch as characters grow, some challenging family and tradition. Lady Sybil’s marriage to the chauffeur. Mary’s increased involvement in the running of the estate. And Edith’s professional career and out-of-wedlock child Marigold. Although Mr. Carson is appalled at the changes; other servants search for a better life, increased equity with the upstairs. The intrigues, loves, twists and turns as the years pass.
All these images and characters move through my subconscious. Being able to enter the world of Downton soothes me to sleep. I can lay back to night and escape other worlds, some more immediate. I join the Cawley’s in a world of tradition and transition.
The other worlds I’ve been inhabiting in the past year have not all been so reassuring and safe. I’ve spent about six weeks in the hospital and rehab center. For five months I’ve adapted to recovery at home in Yardley, another challenging world. Probably most bizarre is a world I glimpse online, Facebook and TV — the state of the nation, the Presidential election, the candidacy of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Every night I lay back, close my eyes and enter a world, real, fictional, old, new, safe, frightening. Right now I try to enjoy the present; until tonight when I enter another world.