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I have mentioned before that I am a big fan of the British television series "Downton Abbey". I even got my friend Alejandro in Mexico City hooked on the program. I have bought him the DVDs of the first five seasons, and he, in turn, has shown them to his mother.
The series chronicles the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants downstairs through the early decades of the 20th century. This year was the final season of the show. Since I am usually in Mexico in January when the program airs here on PBS, I wait until the DVDs are available on Netflix. I didn't have to wait long this year. When I returned from my winter trip to Mexico the discs were already available. Last night I watched the last episode. I am sad to see it come to an end, but I also realize that after six years, it was time to bring the saga to an end.
Although the program was wildly popular in the UK and here, there were those who pooh-poohed it as a melodramatic soap opera. Yes, it was a soap opera, but a high quality soap opera vastly superior to the rubbish that fills so much TV airtime. The writing, the acting, and the production values were superb. Stealing the show was Maggie Smith, cast as the imperious Dowager Countess.
A more valid criticism of the show is that it idealizes and sugar-coats the reality of society in that era. I doubt that there were many aristocratic families who were as benevolent as the Crawleys, who showed as much concern and kindness toward their servants. In fact snobbery and disdain were more common. The servants were portrayed tidily dressed and with clean-scrubbed faces. Their accommodations were comfortable and they seemed to have plenty of free time. It really did not seem that bad of a life. In truth their work was dirty and grueling, their living quarters dark and cramped, and they were frequently abused by their employers.
When I watch a show such as "Downton Abbey" I cannot help but think of my ancestors from the English branch of my family. In the British censuses they were listed as agricultural laborers... in other words, they were basically peasants who worked on the estate of the local landowner. My great-grandmother, the daughter of an illiterate laborer, went into service for a short time after the death of her father. The 1871 census records her as a general servant. She was not working in a grand house such as the one in "Downton Abbey", but in the middle-class household of a brewer in a nearby town. The next record that I have of her is three years later. She was in the local poorhouse giving birth to a child out of wedlock. I have no way of knowing who the father was. It could very well have been my great-grandfather, who married her three months later. But it was not uncommon for employers to sexually take advantage of their maidservants. Then if the servant became pregnant, she would be dismissed and sent off to the poorhouse. Could my great-grandmother's first child, my great uncle who died before I was born, been the result of such abuse???
"Downton Abbey" supposedly takes place in Yorkshire in northern England. However, Highclere Castle, which was used for the filming of the series, is located in southern England. I did a Google-map search for the house, and discovered that it is located only twenty-five minutes by car from the Berkshire villages from which my ancestors came. The house is open to the public in the summer, and I would love to visit it someday on a future trip to England. But I will have to wait a few years until "Downton-mania" has subsided. Admission tickets for this summer are already sold out!
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Although I am sad that the series is over, I will probably watch the final season again soon. When I return to Mexico next month for Alejandro's birthday, I want to buy him the box set of season 6 as a birthday present. Hopefully, it will be available at the music / video store in Mexico City where I bought him the previous seasons. The DVDs that are available in the US do not include Spanish subtitles. That would not be a problem for Alejandro, but then he would not be able to show it to his mother.
Farewell, Downton Abbey!