LAST YEAR WE WERE a people in a country with roads that would take out your axle, watching a show about people learning to use cars for the first time. All over the country, we were learning that you could pronounce the “t” at the end of “valet.”
We were said to be watching it because we were stupid Americans or we were watching it because we were nostalgic for being ruled over or because we loved Jane Austen or country houses or Upstairs Downstairs or (the first) Brideshead Revisited. Or for more reasons than this, or for fewer reasons. But we were watching it, we were watching it, watching it, watching it, watching it.
“Stop watching it,” certain people kept saying. “You’re stupid to watch it.” Others said “what is this?” and then were also soon watching it, shortly after, because who could stop? Even when it was bad. Even when the plot bumped along like a car would on those bad roads, or when upstairs and downstairs the women with men at war had simultaneous, gasping premonitions of doom, which came true for only half of them. (Unless of course the one whose lover did not die gasped instead at the premonition that she would marry, which, to be sure, that one had always dreaded.)
The pictures have been leaking for a month now, filming will end soon, and this September, the UK will again see the season ahead of us, with the rest of us waiting for 2013. From what we can see, Downton is dressed mostly for weddings. Even Lady Sybil, who seemed to choose disastrously, appears likely to wed. Perhaps Season Three will reveal whether Lady Grantham sought some respectability in marriage to Lord Grantham that she could not have back home in America — it could even offer a few flashback episodes, detailing their courtship.
At the recent AFI Tribute to Shirley MacLaine, a Season Three clip rolled live for the audience. A smiling Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, gleamed onstage as she introduced the much anticipated arrival of MacLaine in the role of Lady Grantham’s American mother, wearing far too much jewelry and far too many sequins for daytime as she hugs, kisses, and then, of course, immediately trades barbs with the Dowager Countess. It may be that Martha Levinson, as MacLaine’s character is called, the wife of a Cincinnati dry goods millionaire, who brought her daughter to England in 1888 and married her off, has a few secrets to reveal this fall.
In 1893, five years after Lord and Lady Grantham married, the San Francisco Examiner railed against the likes of Mrs. Levinson, and even totaled up the loss of millions of American dollars to Europe via the marriages of young heiresses to disreputable bankrupt European lords with titles. Twenty million lost to marriages abroad just from California, 200 million from the United States as a whole. Valued for inflation, that comes to 5.4 billion dollars. “The American public has almost ceased even to make fun of this barter of American girls,” the paper fumed. William H. Chambliss, a self-appointed chronicler of the period, dubbed the phenomenon “the Parvenucracy” in his published diaries of late 19th Century San Francisco society.
It’s an old word, parvenu. But, yes, Parvenucracy indeed. Or Parvenuconomy?
I was one of those watching. I was also reading, reading everything people were writing about Downton Abbey. And as my obse...read more