Monday, January 23, 2012

Downton Abbey and H.G.Wells

Did you, like 99% of the civilized world, and 100% of the uncivilized world, watch the latest installment of Downton Abbey last night? No? Is it possible that you, like CSB and one or two other misguided souls, watched football instead? Or perhaps you played mah-jongg with your mother-in-law, or practiced Estonian irregular verbs, or prepared for that super-fun colonoscopy? Or perhaps you shoveled out the chicken coop because your chickens do not like getting their feet cold in the snow? Or perhaps you counted the ballast stones in the basement, for historical purposes, and found ossuary remains?
But if you did watch Downton Abbey chances are very good you are wondering: what would H. G. Wells have thought about this? What exactly was H.G. doing while the Crawleys are trying to hang on to their estate while remaining ignorant about the machinations of the wicked O’Brien and Thomas downstairs? (How can Cora, the American heiress, be so clueless about the nasty intriguing of her lady’s maid? Are we meant to think that because she is an American, she is less likely to be a good judge of the downstairs character?)
To begin:
DOWNton Abbey is a squarish pile of bricks and stone that is said to reside in Yorkshire, but is really Highclere Castle, seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, which is in Hampshire.

UPpark, where H.G.’s mother was housekeeper and where he sometimes stayed as a child, is a similarly squarish pile in Sussex. It is still there.
The grounds of Highclere Castle were designed by Capability Brown
The grounds of Uppark were landscaped by Humphry Repton.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was a passionate Egyptologist and colleague of Howard Carter; together they discovered the tomb of King Tut in 1922, spawning the Boy-King mega franchise responsible for chicken-like dance moves, a spike in gold paint sales and Disney’s Vinylmation 9” King Tut with mouse ears. My grandmother did not know Howard Carter, but she frequently visited digs around Cairo and I have a picture of her jauntily holding a 4000 year-old vase beside a tomb, which gives you an idea of how lax security was in those halcyon days of archeology.
Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh (pronounced “fa-ha”), who inherited Uppark in 1760, was a Regency buck and gave all indications of being a lifelong bachelor. Until the age of 70 when he married his 20-year old dairymaid, Mary Ann Bullock. Sir Harry sent her to Paris to learn some graces and lose her Sussex accent. She taught him everything she knew about milking cows and making butter. They lived happily together for 22 years, with Mary Ann’s sister Fanny as companion. Sir Harry died at 96. His much younger wife, Lady Fetherstonhaugh, stayed on at Uppark with her sister, keeping everything exactly as it was in Sir Harry’s time. She survived him by 29 years; Fanny lived until 1895. Fanny Bullock first hired Sarah Neal, mother of the not yet world famous H.G. Wells, as her maid. They were the same age and of similar backgrounds. Then in 1880 Fanny asked Sarah Neal to return to Uppark as housekeeper. Just like Mrs. Hughes. And that is how H.G. Wells came spend part of his childhood, downstairs at Uppark.

But the comparisons do not stop there, not at all.
For instance, on August 4th, 1914, the Crawley family is hosting an elegant garden party on the grounds of Downton, when the Earl receives a telegram informing him that Britain has gone to war.
On that same day, H.G. Wells and his family and houseguests walked to the annual fete hosted by Lady Warwick. Also on that same day, H.G.’s son by Rebecca West (26 years younger* and not his wife) is born.
There is more.
At Downton Abbey Lady Mary’s lover, the Turkish attaché Mr. Pamuk, dies in her bed, and scandal hovers in the air.
In London, Hedwig Gatternigg, a past lover of H.G.’s, bursts into his flat, throws open her coat to reveal that she is naked beneath, and brandishes a knife. She threatens to kill herself if H.G. does not make love to her immediately. Scandal hovers in the air.
Both H.G. and Lady Mary are saved by quick-thinking servants.

The Earl of Grantham marries an American heiress in order to save his family’s estate.
H.G. Wells has an affair with Margaret Sanger, the American pioneer of birth control.

It is a crisis at Downton Abbey when, because of the war, there is not an available footman to serve at dinner. And we all know how tacky it is to have dinner served by a female of the species.
In his novel Kipps, H.G. Wells writes of the young Mr. and Mrs. Kipps who want to build a house that is efficient and servant-friendly, that is, in which the housemaid needn’t run up and down stairs all day long. Their good intentions are thwarted.

The driving force of Downton Abbey’s plot is the desire to retain ownership of the family pile despite the entail.
H.G. Wells was a member of the Fabians for many years, a friend of Maxim Gorky, and a lifelong Socialist.
So if the question is: How would H.G. Wells have liked "Downton Abbey"? The answer is: he would have loved it.

*Rebecca West was born in 1892, the same year my other grandmother was born, not the one holding 4000 year old vases, but the one who read H.G. Wells and only H.G. Wells over and over for the last three decades of her life.


Mickey and Flea said...

Indeed, the tackiness of women working at the dining table. It's probably equally tacky to have a budding writer running around with the help! Who knows what verbal havoc might ensue!

Rebecca Rice said...

What a wackily delightful post, and how great to know where the real Downton Abbey resides, as well as the the brilliant connections to H.G. Wells.

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