Like many people (including some fellow bloggers), I have fallen under the spell of Downton Abbey, the PBS period drama. Through war and social upheavals; marriages, births and deaths; scandals and joys–I find the story of the Crawley family and the servants who work for them utterly irresistible. One aspect of the show I find particularly fascinating is the impeccable attention to detail that goes into the set designs and the costumes. Every aspect of the Crawley’s world seems rendered perfectly–including the routines of the household which, of course, feature many, many meals. I love watching scenes that take place at the many elaborate dinner parties as well as those of humbler meals shared by the servants. I think my favorite food-related sequences are the ones set in the Downton kitchens. I’m fascinated with the food that Mrs. Patmore and her staff prepare week after week, and I often wonder how everything appears so seamless. Well, this recent article in the New York Times makes it clear exactly how hard the show’s food stylist, the very talented Lisa Heathcote, works to guarantee the sleek appearance and historical accuracy of any scene involving food. Imagine cooking 60 chickens in one day! All in all, a very interesting article for of us Downton fans.
Can’t get enough of Downton Abbey? If so, you might want to explore these titles from DCPL.
If you’d like to delve into some of the cooking of Edwardian Britain (the series begins slightly after), consider Recipes From An Edwardian Country House by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, as well as The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book is charmingly written while the Baines book includes recipes for some very scrumptious looking dishes with cutesy names such as Tom Branson’s Colcannon and Lady Mary’s Crab Canapes. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the recipes in either book, but they look like fun. You’ll find more recipes in A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, which depicts life at Downton during the year 1924 and includes descriptions of family trips and festivities.
In the show, Cora Crawley, i.e. Lady Grantham, is an American heiress whose fortune is key toward allowing Downton Abbey to stay in the family. This story reflects the reality of many wealthy young American women during what’s known as The Gilded Age. They flocked to England to marry noblemen whose finances were in need of some shoring up–basically trading money for titles. Arguably, the most famous of these so called “Dollar Princesses” was Consuelo Vanderbilt who became the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895. Her memoir, The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess–In her Own Words, originally published in 1953, has been reissued in paperback and promises to be a fascinating read.
You can read more of Cora’s story, and those of her sisters in this peculiar marriage market, in Gail MacColl’s and Carol Wallace’s book To Marry An English Lord. Gossipy and engaging, the book provides insight into the pleasures, and often pains, experienced by this unique group of women. And for the view from “downstairs,” don’t miss Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid by Mollie Moran and Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, both written by women who worked as kitchen maids in two of the great houses in the early twentieth century.
Of course, I can’t seem to make it through a single episode of Downton Abbey without sighing over some item of clothing worn by one of the show’s characters, and now that the action has moved into the 1920’s (one of my favorite fashion eras ever!) the pleasures are non-stop. If you, like me, love the show’s costuming and you plan to be in Asheville this spring, be sure to check out the more than 40 Downton costumes which will be on display at our country’s own stately home, the Biltmore Estate. It might be worth making a special trip just to see the scrumptious green silk dress that Lady Mary wore at Matthew’s first Downton dinner.
Do you like Downton Abbey? What aspect of the show pleases you most and do you have a favorite character?