Saturday, April 6, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 6: End of An Era

So here we are on the final days of the Manor House project.  Let me start by saying that I understand the appeal of spending three months living upstairs.  John and Anna Olliff-Cooper have gotten some flack for their comments about how they regret having to leave that world for the modern one, and while some of that flack is deserved, I feel that some of it misses the mark.

For three months, "Sir John" and "Lady Olliff-Cooper" got to put aside their cares and be catered to every hour of every day.  While we might scoff, is that not what most of us secretly aspire to?  Isn't that what most of us secretly wish for -- to become rich and not have to deal with the petty stupidities of life like waiting in line at the bank, or listening to the neighbor's leaf blower?  So for three months, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper got to be exactly what they had always worked so hard to be: so rich, they no longer had to deal with day-to-day cares.  And best of all, they did it while they were still young enough to enjoy it.  Their post-show comments demonstrate that they viewed it as a holiday, like going on an extended trip to the spa.  They seemed aware that this would never be their world permanently.  And if they had to do it for a year, I suspect they would have had more problems with the lifestyle.  Anna Olliff-Cooper would certainly become uncomfortable with seeing so little of Jonty and Guy.  John Olliff-Cooper would probably get bored with shooting.  They would both start craving modern conveniences like computers and televisions.  So in a sense, while they lived the life, they didn't really live the life -- it was just an extended fantasy to them.

THAT SAID, what this show illustrates is that people once did live that life every day for years.  While they got to put away their cares, at least in theory, it came with a very steep price.  So that they could have no cares, other people had to care for them at the expense of their own happiness.  Manor House does a good job showing that this simply was not sustainable.  That the fantasy life we all seek of moving beyond petty everyday human crap means that someone else has to assume the burden.  It doesn't just vanish. 

Anyway, back to show.  Not only is the project in its waning days, but so are the Aristocrats' Glory Years.  For the year is 1914, when World War I began and Innocence Was Lost Forever.  Hmm, not dramatic enough?  When Innocence Was Lost Forever.  That's better.

Sir John summons all of the servants into the hallway and announces that in the grand tradition of country houses, there will be a servants' ball on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day.  The servants will eat on china normally reserved for the family, and then a bonfire and fireworks will be held outside.  The servants are naturally thrilled with this idea, until Edgar informs them that the family will be invited as per tradition.  They then get to work creating a life-size human dummy to burn on the bonfire.  With its moustache, it is easy to see which member of the household it resembles.

We watch a lot of miscellaneous bits of Manor House life that may not have fit into the other episodes. In one scene, both upstairs and downstairs play card games while Edgar does lots of opining about how gambling was a big thing among the careless Edwardians, as if it started with them.  We also see both upstairs and downstairs watching themselves in "pictures" projected onto a wall.  It is pretty funny: in one, Monsieur Dubiard's shadow creeps up behind Kenny, and in the next scene, Kenny's head is on a platter.  For those who had their fill of Kenny's "honesty," this probably provoked quite a laugh.

Oh look, there's Erika.  I'd almost forgotten she was on this show.  She just does her work without complaining and hasn't hooked up with anyone, so she merits only the occasional shot in a group scene.

The servants are also having some qualms about leaving their Edwardian lives.  Yes the work is hard and the family often unappreciative, but they have created real family unit downstairs.  There is some comfort in the predictable lives; even though they may have more freedom in real life, it also means having to make more choices, and being unsure if each choice was the right one.

Finally it's Guy Fawkes Day, day of the servants' ball.  The servants get to ditch their uniforms and sit at a long, elegant table.  They wax nostalgic about their very first meal together, which was eaten in complete silence.  Kenny had not yet arrived -- if he had, I doubt that would have lasted more than a few minutes.  Regardless, it's clear that Edgar no longer needs to resort to such stern discipline to keep the other servants in check, that they respect him enough to follow his directions on their own.

After dinner comes the dancing.  The Olliff-Cooper family heads downstairs, Sir John seeing it for the first time.  The other servants pretend to be glad to see them, except for one.  Monsieur Dubiard has been quietly fuming for some time now over the way Sir John has deviated from Edwardian norms when it suited him.  First he rejected a dinner of pig cheeks, and later he objected to being served fois gras because he thought it was brains.  So when Sir John appears downstairs, Monsieur Dubiard decides to give him a piece of his mind.  He explicitly refers to him as "Mister" John and tells him that he is a fake Edwardian.  Only his speech is a bit jumbled, so Sir John dismisses it easily and carries on as if he never heard.  Later, he and the family gather with the servants outside to watch the fireworks, and to watch his likeness burnt in effigy.      
   
Despite whatever comforts they've (unexpectedly) derived from their positions, the servants know all too well that the past is better left behind.  During this period, many servants would have volunteered to fight in World War I, or might have even been "volunteered" by their masters to serve as batmen, the way Bates was Lord Grantham's batman in the Boer Wars.  The narrator notes that many men would have been barred altogether from joining up due to health problems caused by malnutrition... but that those who did were quickly slaughtered.  That includes even the upper-class Jonty types, who had a one-in-four chance of being killed on the front lines.  We saw in Parade's End how bad combat could get.  Jonty notes that even if he survived, he would have trouble coming back to a system like Manderston after having fought alongside his servants.

The narrator then embarks on a bleak assessment of where the servants would end up if this really were the World War I/post-war period.  If Kenny and Ellen stayed together, Kenny might be war fodder and Ellen might have to put their kids in an orphanage.  Edgar and Mrs. Davies would fare a bit better, with retirement cottages and a small government pension.  That's if they weren't victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 150,000 Britons.  Meanwhile, a woman in the post war might see one of her sisters get killed by George V's horse in an effort to advance the cause of women's suffrage.  And although women over the age of 30 got the vote in 1920, for those like Miss Anson, it was "too late" to enjoy any newfound freedoms, thanks to her limited education.

This last one I have a quibble with.  Miss Anson, 50 years old in 1914, would have probably been young enough in the 1890s to be a "New Woman" if she chose.  Moreover, women were starting to get university educations as early as the 1870s -- it's not like she reached adulthood in the 1860s, when educating women was still a largely foreign concept.  Again, advancement back then depended upon many factors, including critical family support, but it's not like she was doomed simply for being born too early.

At least Antonia, Becky, and Jess are young enough to have bright futures.  Jess might have trouble finding a husband with so many men dead, but hopefully her father won't prevent her from marrying a man with whom she is entirely compatible simply because he is older and has a bad arm.  If they remained in service, they would see their wages and rights increase, while their daughters got better educations and advanced to better careers.

Even the Sir Johns of the world would feel the change of the post war period.  The narrator proclaims: "The extravagant lifestyles that their owners thought would last forever would not survive."  Oh really?  You mean there are no more extremely wealthy people in this world?  People who drink wine like it's water and who burn through their fortunes for the sake of pleasure?  Who have completely lost touch with reality and have no concept of who their helpers are or how hard they work?  Those people no longer exist?

While it may be true that aristocrats lost power relative to the rest of society, in some respects, they were just replaced by people with newer fortunes.  And contrary to the narrators' claims, many aristocrats were aware of how fragile their lifestyles were -- hence the rush to marry wealthy American women that was highlighted in Downton Abbey.

Finally we reach the last day of aristocratic living for the Olliff-Coopers.  Lady Olliff-Cooper says darkly that she has come to feel at home in the more leisurely, grandiose Edwardian period, so when she returns to 2001, she "won't be going home."  When Sir John calls the servants into the hall for a last prayer, he cannot stop the tears from flowing.  The family then passionately thanks the staff, many of whom know far more about them than the other way around, and many of whom don't share their affection.

Then boom.  The Olliff-Coopers walk out the door wearing their 21st century clothes.  I understand where Lady -- now Dr. -- Olliff-Cooper was coming from when she lamented leaving the life because damn, those styles suited her much better than the current ones.  The one who has the fewest regrets about leaving is, of course, Miss -- now Dr. -- Anson.  After the family leave in one modern car, she turns around, gets into a little red sports car, and drives off in the other direction.

But then, in a moment I really wish the show had captured, Dr. Avril Anson returned and went downstairs in her modern clothes to thank the servants.  It took them a few seconds to even realize who she was, but when they did, they were finally able to really talk for the first time as equals, which meant a great deal to all involved.

Now Manderston belongs to the servants, who are leaving the next day.  And the first thing shown to highlight their newfound freedom?  Sigh, Kenny and Ellen snogging in an upstairs bedroom.  Though what elevate the scene are Edgar and Mrs. Davies' "pretending to be shocked" reactions to finding them.  Meanwhile, Becky mops the floor of the grand downstairs hallway, wanting to enjoy the one time it would stay clean instead of being immediately muddied by the upstairs' footprints.

Then, one by one, the servants return to the modern world.  Some clean up very nicely, others not so much (Charlie looked better in a suit).  Last one to leave is Edgar.  He was the one who opened Manderston to the project, and Edwardian butler to the end, he will be the one to close it down.           


Downton Observations

A Last Point of Comparison.  
So as I noted in the beginning, Manor House is Downton Abbey's mirror image.  While Downton projects the loveliness and certainty of the pre-World War I era, Manor House highlights its disadvantages.  The truth may lie somewhere in between, though I have a feeling it lies closer to the Manor House portrayal than the one on Downton.  If anything, even Manor House may have sugarcoated some aspects.

In any respect, I don't mind Downton's concoction of pretty fantasy intermixed with the occasional jarring death so long as no one takes it for representing how Things Were Better Then, when more people had fewer rights.  That's why I am glad that a show like Manor House exists, apart from other qualities that make it addictive viewing entertainment.


One final, more serious note: we like to think that we're better than the people of the earlier era, that now everyone is free and equal, and no one need endure the servants' hardships any longer.  While that may be true in theory, in reality it happens all the time... and we all benefit.  Many people wear clothes made in sweatshops, or employ nannies who are given virtually no time off, or eat food that was picked by people working 14-hour days for low wages.  While much of this treatment is illegal, it still happens all the time, as employers exploit loopholes and rely on the public's ignorance.  The next step in progress will be shining light on such exploitation... as well as other workplace abuses that happen every day.

So on that note, thanks for following!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for your reviews -- I'm just discovering them while discovering Manor House on Amazon Prime. Great comparisons with Downton Abbey. I found MA grittier and so much more realistic, obviously. Very enjoyable.

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  2. Just watched this series, really enjoyed your comments and insight. I wanted to think about the meaning a bit more after Episode Six and found your blog. It helped me to understand mixed feelings evoked by the hierarchy, emotions and behavior of the participants. Thanks for taking time to write out your thoughts on each episode.

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad you got so much out of my recaps.

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  3. Have just watched the show and find I strongly disagree on the Olli-Coopers. They aired some nasty ideas about equality. That said, it was important for the show to highlight the great fallacy that life has "gone downhill" since the "olden days". This is an idea voiced several times by John from his privileged position (in real life they are also wealthy) and often voiced today. What it means is that gaining equality for many meant that the few who had enjoyed the privileges of supremacy had to give up some of those privileges and they thought it sucked. Maybe it did for them, but it's not like they ended up in the poorhouse.

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