Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 4: Pig Cheeks

Seven weeks into the project, everything is great now that the new scullery maid is at Manderston.  The daughter of a farmer, Ellen is actually used to hard physical labor and doesn't shy from the nastier tasks like plucking fowl.  Since she arrived, the kitchen has been humming, and Monsieur Dubiard and Antonia are so happy and relaxed, and...

Where did she go?

It turns out that Ellen and Kenny are enjoying a clandestine relationship.  Despite Anna and Bates carrying on with the full knowledge of both the staff and the upstairs, it turns out that servants are expressly forbidden to have relationships.  If Ellen and Kenny had been caught together in Edwardian times, she would have lost her job and he would have been disciplined.  But since this is 2001 and the staff don't want to hire yet another scullery maid, Edgar can only give them a stern talking to.  However, all of their secret trips to smoke cigarettes are causing them to neglect their work, to the point where the rest of the servants gather to figure out how to deal with the problem.  They decide to "punish" Kenny by removing the screen that separates his bed from full view, so he has no more privacy.  At the same time, the other servants envy his and Ellen's intimacy, as it reminds them of the intimacy they once had with their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the upstairs are planning to invite over guests for a weekend "sporting party" of hunting, fishing, and shooting.  This despite the fact that the Olliff-Coopers have found that the constant diet of animal meat has made regular bowel movements a challenge.  Sir John therefore requests that Monsieur Dubiard prepare modern meals with more fruit and leaner meat.  Monsieur Dubiard bristles at Sir John's willingness to deviate from Edwardian standards whenever it suits him, and instead chooses to serve the upstairs an Edwardian delicacy for dinner -- pig cheeks.  To be precise, Monsieur Dubiard cooks an entire pig's head in the oven and right before the family's eyes, the cheeks are sliced up and served.  Ugh.  This show might make me a vegetarian yet.  Sir John is more than a little unnerved to see his dinner staring at him, and orders the staff to take the pig's head away.

Edgar states mournfully that he is certain Sir John feels betrayed by him.  Which is unfortunate, because Edgar has become practically a surrogate father/brother/best friend to Sir John, even giving him his morning shave.  Likewise, Miss Morrison has become Lady Olliff-Cooper's BFF, to the point where they are comfortable doing a joint presentation on the way ladies' underwear works.  It's actually rather fascinating for the uninitiated.  Though women of that time period wore tight corsets and legs hidden under multiple skirts, there was, um, a gap in the crotch area.  The gap leaves the woman's lady parts completely exposed (albeit under a ton of skirts), allowing for greater ease when squatting over the chamber pot.  It certainly beats having to lift those skirts to pull down your undies.  But doesn't it get a bit chilly... well anyway --

So while Edgar and Miss Morrison have grown ever closer to Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper, the rest of the family is becoming alienated.  Jonty writes in his mother's diary asking for some private time to have a chat with her, as he has hardly seen her for eight days.  Guy has quickly soured on Edwardian life, so lacking in computers and family interaction.  Funny, I had almost forgotten about him -- so much for the "cute kid" taking over the show like I feared.  Guy prefers hanging around with the downstairs staff to building model ships in bottles upstairs, or whatever upper-class children did.  Lady Olliff-Cooper notes that she does not want Guy to get too close to the servants because when he inherits the estate, he will have to be their employer.  Then she realizes that Guy will never inherit the estate.  But for that one moment, she lost herself in the Edwardian fantasy...

The one suffering the most from the rigid class system is Miss Anson, an independent PhD in real life.  In Edwardian times, she would not be expected to hold an opinion about anything, and would be completely under her brother-in-law's thumb.  The set-up has created a distance between Miss Anson and Lady Olliff-Cooper, who used to be very close.  To hear Dr. Avril Anson describe it after the fact, her sister and brother-in-law really did internalize the values of the day and did think of her as less valuable for not having a husband.  Miss Anson mentions with disgust that Sir John once said that it was worthless to spend money educating women.  If that is John Olliff-Cooper's true opinion, and not just Sir John's, one wonders why he married a doctor.  Then again, some men claim to be attracted to strong women, but still insist that those women put aside their ambitions to cater to them (*cough* Paul McCartney).  The only freedom Miss Anson has from this system is escaping on her bicycle out into the countryside.

Still, even that outlet isn't enough, and Miss Anson soon reaches her breaking point.  She is released from the project for a time in order to recover her bearings at a "spa".  In fact, Dr. Anson states that the reason for her "breakdowns" and departure was because she had food poisoning.  I'm surprised more people didn't suffer her fate.

Finally the hunting party guests arrive, and lots of loud rifle shooting commences.  Some of it is just practicing with clay targets propelled into the air, but after a while, they're shooting the real thing.  Not surprisingly, the narrator proclaims that hunting parties were predominantly male.  We watch as bird after bird falls from the sky for the hunters' pleasure.

Then they are brought to the servants, where they are cooked up for the grand dinner.  Unfortunately, so much work was put into cutting the fowl to make it look attractive, it lost some of its heat -- something that Sir John is quick to notice and complain about.  Edgar notes that Sir John just humiliated his chef in front of his guests.  In a sad voice, he proclaims that the more the servants give, the more their masters expect, and the less gratitude they show.

Downton Observations

Poor Old Fellow(es).  I've been a bit hard on Julian Fellowes, setting him up as a straw man whom I can pelt with my criticisms.  From what I've read, he seems to be fairly aware of how untenable the norms of Downton truly were.  The same person who created Lord Grantham and Carson also created Mrs. Hughes, who tells Carson: "I don't worship them as you do."  If Downton Abbey never acknowledges the dark side of the power imbalance between master and servant, at least Godsford Park does.  And it's nice that Fellowes recognizes that even the lowest servants (like Daisy) may have desires beyond their station.

That said, I still object to him painting Downton Abbey with such a bright, cheerful brush.  Oh sure, there are serious dramatic conflicts downstairs, but it never concerns the nature of their work -- just their personal relationships.  And despite knowing that a gross power imbalance exists, Fellowes may be no more aware of the extent of servants' hardship than Sir John.  It is nice to say that a good master would help a servant in need, and no doubt there were good masters who wouldn't shy from helping the scullery maids and hall boys.  But if the system presented in Manor House is accurate, most masters would have never heard of, much less met, these lower servants.  The system designed it that way.

Women's World.  It's good to see that on Downton, the "spinster" is finding ways to be self reliant.  Although the enormous psychological cost, not to mention the sheer waste of talent, of demeaning women can never be overstated, it should be pointed out that some "spinsters" of that time period did manage to overcome their social restraints.  Florence Nightingale is a notable example.  During the Victorian era, she founded modern nursing, improved health care, and paved the way for modern statistics among other things.  However, it should also be noted that not only was she born to a wealthy family, but she also received critical support from her father.  Even among wealthy women, having the father's support for greater achievement was rare.  Without such support, many women with similar aims were left to founder.        

Doesn't Anyone Work?  One thing both Downton and Manor House do equally is present an impression that no one upstairs did any meaningful work.  No doubt there were masters who only knew how to wallow in pleasure -- that's how they lost so many of those great houses.  And at least Downton acknowledges that Lord Grantham's complete uselessness is not a virtue, but a danger to the estate's long-term viability.  However, I don't know if Sir John's life is portrayed completely accurately.  Just as Lady Olliff-Cooper would probably be more hands on in real life, I think that Sir John would still be heavily involved in his business.  Such was the case with other people in his position, like Sir John Guest and Baron Belper.  (Again, giving commoners titles for striking it rich did not start with Edward VII.)  There would be hunting and shooting, but also lots of time spent touring factories and dealing with employees and contracts.

So Now That There's Romance...  Should we expect Kenny's insane ex-wife to appear and threaten to kill herself unless he takes her back?

Next Time: Episode Five.  Time moves forward to 1911, and the upstairs encounters racial tensions.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched the series on Amazon and I really enjoyed it. I wish they'd spent more time with Miss Anson. She was interesting. As so many women decide today not to marry, it would have been illuminating to know her frustration better. I wondered at the end why the license plate on "her" red sports car read "H8PNS" which made me think it was personalized for a lesbian... but since it was a loaner, perhaps just a coincidence or a joke played by the crew?