You can’t have imagined, until I’m telling you now, how relieved I was to get back to Downton Abbey Sunday night.
Until earlier in the afternoon I’d been in a rut, caught in the sculleries and attics — if the house was large enough to have them — of some of England’s not-so-stately homes, doing chores unnecessary since the inventions of the electric light bulb, central heating, supermarkets, the ready-to-wear industry and the gasoline engine to name just a very few.
I’d cleaned the mud and horse poop off boots, mended the ladies’ shawls, separated the curds from the whey, laid the kindling for the morning fire after raking out the remains from the night before, scrubbed the front steps, dusted the parlor, put lye into the water boiling for the laundry and beaten the rugs from the bedrooms, from which I’d already taken the slop jars for emptying.
And that was just a morning’s workload. Way too heavy for a woman of my years.
It all began when my friend Jane Hobson told me she thought I’d enjoy reading “Longbourn,” a novel starring the folks who worked below-stairs at the home of the Bennett family, whose second-to-oldest daughter Elizabeth eventually marries Mr. Darcy of Pembroke. Well, I did like the book, but as Elizabeth and Jane were gossiping and Mary was playing the piano and Lydia and Kitty were arousing the militia, I was being worn out keeping the house in order for them.
At the novel’s conclusion, I hardly missed a beat before jumping into “The Telling,” about a woman who goes into the boondocks of England to get the cottage owned by her late mother ready to be put up for sale. She doesn’t do much cleaning, but before too long she discovers the house is haunted by the ghost of the daughter of a poor family who lived there in the 1850s.
That girl’s story is then told, and — land’s sakes alive! — the action is interspersed with all the housework she and her mama have to do just to keep her daddy’s and brothers’ heads above the dirt.
Call me an idiot if you like, but I then went to “Burial Rites,” and left England for Iceland of the 1820s. In retrospect, one of Daniel Silva’s thrillers would have been a better choice, or I could have gone back to the complete works of Anthony Trollope on my e-reader, and there at least I’d have been one of the gentry.
Anyhow, “Rites” is set in a croft on an Icelandic shore during the approach of the dark days of — gasp! — winter, and besides housework, the maidservant — who is the lead character, of course — has to help slaughter and butcher the sheep being raised on the property, boil the offal, and make sausages. In addition, she’s sleeping in a room with everybody else, presumably for warmth (there is some sex, but it’s quick and furtive), and the ceiling, which is a turf one, is constantly raining down dust.
Can you see why I’m so glad to be back at Downton, sitting at dinner on the right of Lady Edith, whom I like better than Lady Mary, or perhaps near Maggie Smith’s dowager countess, and with a glass of excellent wine in front of me and a footman at my elbow?
It’s true that the family here has many trials, but they have Anna and Daisy and the Missus Hughes and Patmore and Mr. Carson and even Barrow and maybe half a dozen others to keep them warm, clean and well-fed. I could live here.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at email@example.com.