Monthly Archives: February 2012

Farewell Downton (for now)

I’ve truly enjoyed covering season 2 of Downton Abbey, and I thank all of you who visited the site to get my take on the series.  It was great to tie in the research I’ve done on the time period for my first novel to the events taking place on the show.  Like you, I can’t wait until season 3 (and what a long wait it will be!), but until then it’s time to move on.

So, while there will be no more Downton Abbey posts for now, there will be more posts relating to the time period.  Check back for a series about how UNC-Chapel Hill transformed itself from a school for higher learning to a military training camp during World War I.


Filed under Downton Abbey

The World of Downton Abbey

As mentioned in the previous post, I am suffering from D.A.W. (Downton Abbey withdrawal).  In my search for a cure I procured the season 2 DVD set (see my thoughts on it here).  But there’s another great treatment option: The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (the niece of series creator Julian Fellowes).  It’s the companion guide to the first two seasons of the show, but it’s more than just behind-the scenes information.  Fellowes provides us with colorful historical context so we can better understand the social system the characters of the show live in, and how that system went through tremendous changes during the early 20th century.

The book covers such topics as the Buccaneers, the wealthy American women who came overseas in order to marry cash-strapped Englishmen with titles.  This gave the husband the money he needed to maintain his estate, while catapulting the wife into the upper echelons of society.  Fellowes relates this arrangement to the situation with Robert and Cora.  So while she discusses factual events, she tells them from the perspective of the fictional characters.

There are interesting side stories throughout the book as well, including the real-life historical figures that inspired such characters as Lady Cora and Sir Richard Carlisle.  And of course there’s page after glossy page of beautiful photographs from the series.

The book’s chapters focus on topics such as style, family life, life in service, changes that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, and the impact of World War I.  There are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits scattered throughout, as well as an entire chapter devoted to the subject.  It’s a fantastic read, and it helps you appreciate the series’ attention to historical detail even more.

You can get a taste of what’s in the book on PBS’s website.

Jessica Fellowes will be doing a live chat interview on PBS’s Masterpiece website on Monday (Feb. 27) at 1:00 PM.  Click here to go to the page and find out more.

You can also listen to an interview with Fellowes about the book that was conducted earlier by NPR here.


Filed under Downton Abbey

Downton on DVD

I admit it, I’m going through Downton Abbey withdrawal and it hasn’t even been a full week since the last episode aired.  So I broke down and bought Season 2 on DVD.  I’m glad I did–just  like with Season 1, PBS cut out parts of the original UK edition.  I haven’t seen all of the episodes yet, but here are a few examples.  When Carson talks to Mrs. Hughes about becoming Lady Mary and Sir Richard’s butler, he tells a really cute story about Mary when she was a little girl.  The inclusion of this story made Mary’s cold response to Carson when he tells her he cannot go with her sting even more.  There’s also a scene when the ladies with the white feathers first arrive and give one to Branson, who cheekily informs them that he’s already in uniform (chauffeur’s uniform, of course).

There are also some excellent special features on the DVD: Fashion and Uniforms, Romance in a Time of War, and House to Hospital.  They reveal how makeup artists took the dirt from the filming location of the trench scenes in order to have the color match up with the makeup they used on the soldiers.  How Julian Fellowes felt that Lady Sybil would want to marry Branson not just because of love but because it “suits her rebellious nature.”  And why Michelle Dockery(Lady Mary) believes that if wealthy and powerful Sir Richard had shown up at the beginning of Season 1, there never would have been a “Matthew & Mary” relationship.  Oh, and you also get to hear Maggie Smith say “been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.”

So for those of you going through Downton withdrawal, do yourself a favor and buy the unedited UK edition of Season 2–certainly worth it in my opinion.

If you still need help overcoming your withdrawal symptoms, check out my post on The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, the companion book to the first two seasons of Downton Abbey.

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Filed under Downton Abbey, Period Pieces

Downton Abbey Season 2, finale recap

Season 2 of Downton Abbey drew to a close as the household ushered in a new decade with hunting, dancing and a Ouija board.  Wait, what?  Yes, the parlor game panchettes (or in the US, “Ouija board”) was popular by the 1920’s, but made for an odd plot device in this otherwise excellent finale.

Warning: spoilers ahead

Where to begin?  Episode 6 left us in the spring of 1919, so approximately eight months or so have passed in “Downton time.”  Lady Sybil is married to Branson and living in Ireland, and gasp! is already pregnant, and it sounds like Robert is going to cave to Cora’s demand that she not be kept from her grandchild, so we’ll likely see Sybil again next season (I really missed her during the Christmas episode).  Lady Mary is becoming increasingly agitated by Sir Richard and his constant “when can we set a date, already?” question.  Mr. Bates is on trial for his life, casting a gloomy shadow over Anna’s world.  Thomas and O’Brien are up to their scheming once again.  And Aunt Rosamund comes to visit, bringing her lady’s maid with her and another Ethel-like sub-plot that seemed almost entirely unnecessary (other than to highlight how many of the British aristocracy had serious financial troubles after the war–but wasn’t that point already hammered home when Richard and Mary were searching for an estate?).

Bates listening to Mrs. Hughes's testimony

Let’s start with the dominating plots of the show.  First, Mr. Bates’s trial.  For a man who uses his words sparingly, Bates certainly managed to utter some choice phrases that did not come off well in the courtroom when O’Brien, Mrs. Hughes, and Lord Grantham were forced to repeat them.  Anna’s strangled scream after the guilty verdict is pronounced was heartbreaking, as was Bates’s haggard face as he’s dragged off to meet his maker.   But news later comes that is in Mr. Bates’s favor–some of the details call into question the case for a premeditated murder, reducing his sentence to life imprisonment rather than hanging.  Now there is a chance of proving his innocence–which means this plot will be spilling over into the third season.  Makes me wonder if perhaps Sir Richard may have to testify, as he heard Mrs. Bates make a very clear threat against her husband after she learned she had been paid off for the Pamuk story.

Anna and Mr. Bates discuss the future.

The other main plot had a (thankfully) much happier ending.  The Matthew & Mary “will they/won’t they?” dance seems to have come to an end.  At least, I hope so.  I won’t feel at ease until I see those two at the altar, exchanging vows and pronounced husband and wife.  Matthew and Mary are miserable for most of the episode, Matthew due to his insistence on honoring Lavinia’s memory (even though that’s not how she wanted it honored), and Mary dealing with her abrasive, controlling fiancee.  The only time the two do seem happy (shockingly enough), is when they are together.

A rare smile from Lady Mary

Finally, finally, they begin to listen to outside advice.  After learning of the Pamuk scandal, Lord Robert tells his daughter to break with Carlisle, as a month’s worth of scandal is not worth a lifetime of unhappiness.  Mary then receives similar advice from Matthew (I bet that was an awkward confession–too bad they cut away and only came back to show Matthew’s reaction).  Now that Mary’s decided to give Sir Richard the boot (good riddance–though I’m sure we’ll see him again next season), the only thing standing in the way is Matthew, who is still unconvinced that the Spanish flu killed Lavinia rather than the kiss he shared with Mary.  Cousin Isobel at last makes herself truly useful by telling her son that no one his age should be unhappy, and if he believes there is a way to change that, and doesn’t do it, well, the war has simply taught him nothing.

Matthew receiving some motherly advice

Lord Robert seems to give Matthew the final push by telling him he did nothing dishonorable and was a man of his word as he had every intention of marrying Lavinia.  Robert adds that Matthew should not blame himself for feelings he cannot control (I suppose he speaks from experience after the “Jane affair”).  Lavinia makes a final appearance from beyond the grave, sending her blessing through the Ouija board, to Anna and Daisy’s surprise (does this mean Lavinia’s spirit now haunts the halls of Downton?)

"May they be happy. With my love."

So, after waiting for two agonizing seasons, we finally get the fairytale scene we’ve been waiting for: Matthew down on one knee, asking Mary to be his wife, who very happily accepts.  A perfect ending to the second season (now please, Julian Fellowes, please let them get married and have lots of babies and live happily ever after…please?)

There were several other great sub-plots featured in this episode.  Lady Edith goes after her love interest from the first series, Sir Anthony Strallen.  It was awfully nice of Lady Violet to set up a reunion between the two (which she then quickly discouraged after realizing his arm was lame–really Granny?  Almost all of the eligible bachelors are dead from the war or maimed in some way or another.  Let Edith have her happiness where she can find it).

Edith pays a call on Sir Anthony

Thanks to the Ouija board’s urging, Daisy pays a long overdue call to her father-in-law on the farm.  In a poignant scene Daisy finally wraps her mind around the fact that William thought she was special, and that he wanted his father to have someone to call family after he passed away.  And now Daisy has a rational guiding voice to listen to, which prompts her to ask for a promotion in the kitchen.

"I've never been special to anyone."

It was nice to see some of the old-school plotting and scheming by Thomas this episode.  But stealing a man’s dog?  That’s just wrong.  And then to be rewarded for it with a trial run as his valet?  What sort of lesson is that to teach?  At least we see Thomas showing some concern for the dog’s absence when he finds her missing from the shed he locked her in.  Still, you know a scheme is particularly underhanded when it garners O’Brien’s disapproval (even though it hatched from her own advice).

Searching for Isis

So that’s a wrap for season 2!  I really found this to be one of the best episodes of the season, with more focus on the principal characters.  I also liked the “lighter” parts thrown in, such as “the game” (aka charades) and the servants dancing with the family members (Mrs. Patmore’s face was priceless while dancing with Matthew).  What did you think?  Did the finale live up to all the Downton hype?  Any predictions for next season?

A gratuitous photo of the happy couple, just because you know you want to see them again.


Filed under Downton Abbey, Period Pieces

Interview with Downton Abbey costume designer Susannah Buxton

With the finale of the second season of Downton Abbey just hours away, TIME has published an interview with Downton costume designer Susannah Buxton.  Buxton discusses how fashion changed during the war period and how the characters’ costumes reflected this.  Skirts began to relax, becoming less constrictive and more practical.  Colors were more somber for the most part.  The ladies still would have dressed in their finery in the evenings, because, as Buxton states, “they would have lasted.  They would have two or three and repeat in real life.”  Thus the reason you see the Crawley sisters with just a few different evening gowns during the second season .

Buxton discusses some of the costumes from the first series as well, including Lady Sybil’s infamous harem dress.  The bodice was made from original fabric of the period, and Buxton describes how delicate it was.  “She came down for the first scene and after the third take the whole panel started to split at the back. Fortunately we did have another piece of it, but watching a dress part from itself in front of your eyes on camera is pretty scary.”

Also interesting is the information she reveals about the staff costumes.  The pink striped dress that we often see Daisy in is an Edwardian original, one that had never been worn before.

It’s a great interview with some excellent insight into the costumes of this smash hit series.  Read the article here, and be sure to click on the slideshow of photos from the series.

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Downton Abbey Season 2, ep. 6 recap

This episode opens in 1919, as Edith watches the last medical vehicle leave the property of Downton, signalling that the home can finally return to normal.  Downton Abbey’s definition of “normal,” that is: this two-hour episode was packed with drama, culminating in a wedding and a funeral.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Now that the war is over, the inhabitants of Downton are ready to move on, or rather, move back to the way things used to be (much to Lady Sybil’s dismay).  As Cora goes about looking for new work to put her energy into, her husband continues to mope about, feeling his life no longer has purpose.  He apparently finds that purpose in one of THE oddest hookups in Downton Abbey history with the housemaid Jane.  Honestly, I know the man’s lost, but this seems so far out of character for Robert that I just couldn’t buy into it.  And his wife is in the other room battling for her life no less!  Who is this man and what has he done with the Earl of Grantham, caring husband/father/lord of the estate?  Fortunately, Jane decides it best for both of them if she turns in her notice, but not without giving Robert a goodbye kiss to remember her by first (in the library, really?).

Of course, that’s not the only social-barrier-crossing romance that reaches its conclusion in this episode.  After much deliberation (and a great deal of patience on Branson’s part), Lady Sybil finally decides that she cannot go back to her life before the war.  We see her sitting in the grand drawing room, staring off into space while others chat around her.  The wheels in her mind are turning, and she goes to Branson, telling him she’s made her decision, and he’s her ticket out of her old life.  Her statement left me feeling that Sybil is using Branson just as much as Branson seemed to be using Sybil in previous episodes.  But I had to respect the resolve of the couple, which never wavered despite a botched elopement and retrieval by Edith and Mary, and a large amount of blustering by Papa (who apparently is okay with double standards).  So maybe there’s love there, after all.

But of course the big news of the episode (besides the fact that Dr. Clarkson made a mistake in his diagnosis of Matthew’s spinal injury) is the development in the driving “will they/won’t they” plot between Matthew and Mary.  The dance scene between the two of them (the one that Lavinia unfortunately witnesses) is one fans have no doubt been waiting for all season.  Thanks to Granny’s advice, Matthew has been left to mull over the unsettling thought that he is marrying the wrong woman, but out of obligation and duty he feels he must marry Lavinia, who sacrificed everything to be with him.  Even though he doesn’t really want to.

And what of poor Lavinia?  It is somewhat disheartening to see your fiancee embracing his former fiancee just days before your own wedding.  She takes to bed with a case of the Spanish flu (of which Cora and Carson are also afflicted), and has a heart-to-heart with Matthew, and even she has to admit that Matthew and Mary are a better match than the two of them. She takes a sudden turn for the worse, and lives up to her predictions from previous episodes that she will not be able to live without Matthew.  On her deathbed she informs him that it is better this way, and she wants him to be happy.  I’m sure her intentions were good, but her words left Matthew wandering around the estate, wracked with guilt.

Matthew and Lord Robert discuss funeral arrangements

After the funeral Matthew informs Mary he feels certain that Lavinia died of a broken heart (while I yelled at the TV “NO!  It was the Spanish flu!”).  Because of her parting words he knows he and Mary can never be happy together.  A devastated Mary leaves the graveside on the arm of skeeze ball Sir Richard (you know, the one who tried to bribe Anna to spy on Mary for him).

"We are cursed, you and I."

Amidst all this, Bates and Anna’s relationship is taken to the next level when evidence surfaces of Bates’s possible involvement in his wife’s death.  Anna refuses to let him go through it alone, and basically orders him to go ahead and marry her, which he does.

The two get one night of happiness together before he’s carted off to prison on the charge of willful murder.  I’m still of the opinion that Mrs. Bates’s demise was self-inflicted, and she set up the letter and other evidence in order to frame her husband, but I suppose the upcoming trial will shed some light on what really happened.  Poor Bates and Anna, will these two kids ever catch a break?

Bates being handcuffed, with a helpless Anna watching on

Hard to believe it, but next week wraps up season 2 with Christmas at Downton.

Interested in learning more about the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19 featured prominently in this episode?  You can read my post about it here.

Miss any of the other episodes?  Read my recaps here:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5


Filed under Downton Abbey, Period Pieces

Spanish Influenza Pandemic: 1918-19

The First World War claimed the lives of over 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians.  However, a more devastating killer came in the form of an unseen virus, sweeping across the globe and claiming between 50 and 100 million lives between June 1918 and December 1920.  This pandemic is considered one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

Unlike many illnesses, the highest  mortality rate from the Spanish influenza was in the 20-40 year old age range.

Three waves

The influenza struck in three successive waves.  The first, in the spring and summer of 1918, was relatively mild with a very low death rate.  The deadliest wave hit in the fall of that year.  Soldiers on the front came down with the flu, and were packed into crowded train cars and shipped to crowded infirmaries, which only worked to spread the disease.  This second wave traveled quickly, causing epidemics in communities around the world.  A third wave and final wave occurred in the spring of 1919.

Why “Spanish?”

The pandemic was given the moniker “Spanish flu” because of the perceived notion that Spain was one of the hardest hit countries.  Newspapers in Spain reported openly on the effects of the flu in the country, as Spain’s neutrality in the war meant no censorship had been placed on the media.  The US, Great Britain, France, and Germany would not allow stories to be printed that would lower morale.  In addition, these nations did not want their enemies to read their death tolls from the flu.  As a result, Spain’s coverage of the flu gave the illusion that it suffered more than other countries.


The Spanish flu typically struck suddenly.  A high fever accompanied by body aches sent those afflicted to their beds.  They might also suffer from a headache, sore throat, cough, and sometimes a very bad nose bleed.

The illness was often unpredictable.  Some made a full recovery.  Others died within hours of taking ill.  Then there were some cases in which a patient seemed to have recovered, only to suffer a relapse which was often fatal.


Most treatments offered by practitioners at the time were largely ineffective against the virus.  Patent medicines, available at most local drug stores, were widely prescribed, including Vick’s Vapo-Rub.  While doing research for my novel The Education of Eve, I found that the local newspapers ran weekly ads toting the healing properties of this product against the Spanish flu.  Unfortunately these patent medicines did nothing to help.

Some fell back on home remedies.  Selena W. Saunders of North Carolina followed a trained nurse, offering her assistance.  She noted:

[The flu] struck suddenly, spent itself quickly in a burning three-day fever, often leaving its victim dead. The people lost faith in the remedies they had relied on all their lives, and they became frantic.

Practitioners became desperate, resorting to archaic treatments to help “balance the humors.”  Patients were sometimes wrapped in blankets so that they would sweat, and sometimes cupping was used as a way to bring out the excess blood.

Doctors worked around the clock to help those in their communities, often making house calls.  During the height of the epidemic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dr. Wingate Johnson reported that his “days” usually lasted between 30-40 hours.  He would sleep for 4 hours, then call a nurse for more tongue depressors and medicine before going out for another “day” of visiting patients in their homes.

Public reaction

Communities struck by the Spanish flu would often panic.  Selena Saunders described the public reaction in North Carolina:

Some of them locked themselves in their house, and refused to open the door for anyone…. Merchants nailed bars across their doors, and served the customers one-at-a-time at the doorway. We found whole families stricken, with none able to help the others.

Gauze masks were recommended by physicians

Besides quarantining those who were ill, many communities also placed bans on public gatherings in hopes of preventing the spread of the flu.  In some cases even public funerals were banned for fear that mourners would transmit the disease.  Gauze masks were recommended when going out in public, as physicians knew that the spread of the illness came from coughing and sneezing.  Posters were created and distributed, reminding people to cover their mouths when coughing.

Dan Tonkel, who was a child growing up in North Carolina during the 1918 pandemic, remembered how scary that time was:

I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I was afraid to go out, to play with my playmates, my classmates, my neighbors. I was almost afraid to breathe. I remember I was actually afraid to breathe. People were afraid to talk to each other. It was like—don’t breathe in my face, don’t even look at me, because you might give me germs that will kill me…Farmers stopped farming, merchants stopped selling. The country more or less just shut down. Everyone was holding their breath, waiting for something to happen. So many people were dying, we could hardly count them. We never knew from one day to another who was going to be next on the death list.

In November the worst of the second wave was over, and the US Public Health Service sent out reports that the number of influenza cases were declining.  Public panic subsided, and quarantines were slowly lifted, gauze masks discarded.  Public events were once again held, just in time for everyone to gather and celebrate the end of the war.

If you live in the United States, you can learn more about how your state was impacted by the Spanish influenza by going to the US Department of Health and Human Services page about the pandemic.

Sources: World War I Casualties, 1918 Flu Pandemic, The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919


Filed under World War I