Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Downton influence


Castle Howard, one of the best examples I've seen of turning an independent estate into a tourist profit center.

I must confess that although the fifth series of  Downton Abbey is presently airing in the United States, I've already seen the whole thing in its entirety. A few years ago, I went for a multi-region DVD player, so that I never needed risk not being able to play some DVD I picked up in my travels, and one of the benefits has been now being able to order the DVDs from the United Kingdom well before they begin airing in the United States.

Yes, I have issues with patience. Yes, I quite enjoyed the fifth series.

I won't spoil, though. What I wanted to write about was the influence Downton Abbey has had on my own writing. In summary: both a little, and a lot.

Downton begins in the Edwardian era, separated from our beloved Austen characters by the rather prudish Victorian era, and the Industrial Revolution. I take the "revolution" part of that seriously. The era Jane Austen wrote of was on the precipice of major changes, so much so that I suspect if she had been born a quarter-century later, her assumptions about wealth and position in society might have been quite different.

The Regency was really the last era in which owning land was the true guarantee of both position and wealth, and even this had a tenuous aspect. Mr. Darcy's ten thousand pounds a year was not guaranteed to be ten thousand pounds a year forever. This has had influence in my own work in the appearance of things like the Corn Laws, and will take on an even stronger influence as we come into 1816, the "Year Without a Summer."

What Downton Abbey indicates, though, is that it was actually possible for a great estate to survive the Victorian era, although there must have been some to already begin undergoing failure. Of course, even for those estates that survived World War I, which seems the greatest obstacle in the Downton era, we, knowing history, can see the 1930s, World War II, and even farm mechanization on the horizon in a way that the characters cannot.

In the last century, there were a number of estates that failed, and others that saw the changing times and recognized that they, too must change to survive. In the years that followed, some of them were given over to the National Trust, and others continued on privately, but as a business, and not a business of thriving off the profits of the land, but instead surviving off the profits of tourists and events like weddings. Their families are relegated to lesser quarters, while people pay to see the sumptuous rooms their ancestors lived in.

It is strange to think of the fictitious Pemberley in this way, but sometimes, I do. When I think about it in the modern era, it is as a great house that has made tourism its business, with only a portion of the house now used by the family. And these family members are, of course, the descendants of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy. This is the lens we must apply as people of the modern world, considering our beloved characters, the massive changes for whom -- for all of her brilliance -- Jane Austen never could have seen coming.

Even so, although there are a number of details from Downton Abbey I've taken inspiration from -- particularly pacing of the life in a great estate, and the way it balances so many characters and subplots -- I've always had to remind myself that it's not only a century ahead of the events of Pride and Prejudice, it's a tremendously eventful century. Certainly there are British institutions that have changed little in that century, but are quite a lot that have. I'm intending to take on a bit of this change in my work, particularly in the fifth story, and while I'm well aware that it will be a challenge, there is a part of me that likes the challenge of creating a bridge between the worlds of the characters of Austen and Dickens. It's strange to think about, but the children of my stories will be Victorians.

Writing Elizabeth as a widow

There's one final Mistress blog post out today! I'm at Catherine Curzon's blog talking about writing Elizabeth as a widow.