Jim Carter as Mr Carson; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley (Season 2, Episode 6, Downton Abbey) — the equivalent characters in WWWWDA are Edward, the concierge seemingly in charge of the Alexander, an expensive building in mid-town Atlanta, Georgia, and the super-rich heroine who married for money, position, and to support her siblings, Samantha Jackson Davis
Dear friends and readers,
This is a blog about a novel that is what many people (including those who have read Ausen’s six famous novels) seem to assume Jane Austen’s books are: light romantic amusement about privileged women whom nothing dangerous happens to. Oh yes the characters feel deeply at moments, they seem to be at risk of poverty now and again, but we never see anything really unpleasant, in fact everyone is doing fine financially and at book’s end all are reaching some form of their heart’s desire however qualified; there is a strong hierarchy in place which is defended; sex is kept in bounds. Indeed Wendy Wax goes further than this: she justifies taking menial occupations (like working for a butler service and as part of a building staff, the equivalence of service in a great house) as somehow work that will give people strong self-esteem because they are contributing to the ease and convenience in what seems the most trivial things of others (which turns out to be what happiness we can have); the immiseration of the middle class in the US today is made to appear fun, glamorous, like being in a play (or PBS serial costume drama). This is chick lit without the stings Helen Fielding or Karen Joy Fowler provide.
And yet I enjoyed it — read it with ease, kept at it, it made me smile at times, it helped me through a nervous patch at night; the idea is very like The Jane Austen Book Club: the characters in the novel were parallel to some in DA and the book itself a kind of intermediary between US culture today — presented in a way that removes all real troubles and changes what is a misery into a grace — and DA — where the trick is similar. And her seductive technique of at the core presenting characters whose emotional problems and fears are like women’s today are seen in the three chapters of her next book offered at the book’s end: The Beach Road. Our heroine is in her fifties, her children are “out of the nest,” and for the first time in years she has time to herself (she feels) and she is planning to make herself a room of her own, when she discovers that her husband, a financial adviser of some type, has been hiding from her for the last six months that he was fired and has lost all their money …
I suggest this is the kind of book Ann Patchett writes, only she disguises hers as liberal and sophisticated politically when they are not (see Bel Canto, How much does a house know?; Another patron saint of liars).
A couple of weeks ago now, the night before All-Hallow’s Eve to be exact, with my friend, Vivian, I went to Politics and Prose expecting to hear Azar Nafisi talk; instead I watched her smooch and present obviously false hype for a fellow reactionary Iranian woman author who had come to this wonderful bookstore to sell her book. Nafisi did talk on a level of conscious larger understanding that Goli Taraghi was incapable of, but alas Taraghi was allowed to natter on.
All was not a total loss because I had a good time with my friend in a nearby pizza place, and while there I ascertained the third sumptuously produced book of lavishly beautiful photographs on heavy art paper, Behind the Scenes in Downton Abbey is not simply a reprint of the first two books (The World of Downton Abbey [Season 1], The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A new Era [Season 2, WW1]) but a book in its own right. But also that there is less text than ever, more hype, though more photographs. I couldn’t see my way to spending over $30 but did buy a paperback for less than $15 (I feel one should support the bookstore), Wendy Wax’s While we were watching Downton Abbey, and whatever I may say about it in the following remarks, I should confess that not only did I enjoy it in a deep way as I read, but found I could read it anywhere, at any time, it cheered me with its cleverly allusive wit, and even helped me get through my nervousness during a weekend where I went to my first longish conference by myself.
The hero of the novel is Edward, Mr Carson (showing Max’s values) who has shepherded them all gently into knowing one another, watching the programs, discussing them, teaching the arrogant brother to Samantha, Hunter a false third-grade lesson, who in turn brings investment to Edward. None of this is unbelievable in terms of the given fiction.
At the same time it’s important to know the world of this novel has never heard of CEOs, tax rates, real salaries, how physical work is hard, the stigmas of lower ranks, how no oe wants you when you’ve no connections to offer. The US has brought up a generation of women who believe in this trajectory of the novel’s hero’s success:
No matter how weird the revelation, Edward never lost sight of the fact that one of a concierge’s most valuable assets was discretion; a trait his grandfather, who’d been’in service’ at Montclair Castle in Nottingham just as his father before him had been, had begun to teach Edward somewhere around his tenth birthday.
Edward reached for his cup of tea; taken at four each afternoon and allowed to go slightly tepid just the way he liked it, and looked around his small office tucked away in a corner of the Alexander’s lobby. He’d hung his black blazer on a hanger on the back of his office door in much the same way that his grandfather had removed and hung his jacket when he went ‘below stairs’ at Montclaire. But Edward had hung his own diploma from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration next to it.
He’d begun to fully understand-and practice discretion-when he landed at a Hilton property in Maui as an assistant manager-a glorious posting from which he’d sent two years’ worth of sun-filled postcards home to the Hungry Fox, the family pub in Newark-on-Trent, upon which Edward estimated some fifty to sixty inches of rain fell annually. It was in the Aloha state that he’d handled his first celebrity peccadillo and learned the art of misdirection and the value of resisting bribes. The lessons-and postcards-continued in big-city hotels it} San Francisco, New York, and Miami Beach.
There’d been smaller postings, too; a fancy dude ranch in Montana where he’d fallen in love with the sweeping vistas of the American West and bought a pair of snakeskin cowboy
boots that he owned to this day. A charming Band B in the historic heart of Charleston where he’d reveled in the beautifully restored buildings and come to terms with the pairing of shrimp and grits, and enjoyed the languid blend of heat, humidity, and manners.
The Hungry Fox would go to his older brother, Bertie, much as the title and country estates his forebears had served in had gone to oldest sons. But that was all right with
Edward, who had pulled plenty of pints behind the Fox’s scarred wood bar but could never imagine staying there; not even to keep the woman he’d loved.
Bertie continued the tradition of mounting Edward’s post-cards, which now papered an entire wall of the bar. The last seven years’ worth had been sent from Atlanta, making the Fox’s patrons among the lucky few in England to know exactly what the Fox Theatre, a restored Egyptian-themed 1920s movie house, looked like. He’d sent postcards of other Atlanta landmarks-like what was left of the apartment Miss Mitchell had written Gone-with the Wind in; Stone Mountain, Atlanta’s answer to Mount Rushmore with its three-acre mountaintop carving of three Confederate heroes of the Civil War; CNN Center; Turner Field; the World of-Coca Cola.
Six months ago he’d sent not a postcard but a sales piece he’d had printed after his newly formed personal concierge company, Private Butler, had been selected by the Alexander’s condo board.
What do children learn in schools? the above is a mirror of dream (very loud) commercials which invent stories of ever increasing fairy tale upward mobility (it’s called).
The interest for me is to see what is the charm of such a book — and by extension why is this view of Austen so pervasive and contributory to her supposed popularity. Its matter does not correspond to any of the narrow typologies Diane Philips worked out for women’s novels of the second half of the 20th century, but contains the single woman-mother novel, the sex and shopping novel, and the aga paradigm all in one book.
Deborah Findley Brown as Lady Sybil as first seen in Downton Abbey, Season 1 — there are three heroines in WWWWDA; in DA there seem perpetually to be 3 young women upstairs and 3 down
It is that beneath the glamorous patina, beside the plot-line where three troubled women find friendship, escape and relaxation by watching Downton Abbey once a week on Sunday evenings, Wax manages to dramatize real fears, insecurities, anxieties problems lower to middle class women in the US experience today. Far from advocating challenge and take a chance, these are books which show how if you follow a modified conventionality you’ll have all the material goods you want and some moderate happiness; you can cope.
Samantha’s father had embezzled a huge amount of money from Jonathan Davis’s firm, and found herself without the means to support herself or her siblings at age 21, and being beautiful (as are two of the three heroines) had no problem attracting Davis’s proposal and marrying him as a solution to being able to live a comfortable life (which includes ordering fancy food from restaurants when she feels expected to produce the exquisitely delicious upscale meal), and having stability, respect, safety. Samantha’s thoughts as she copes with her mother-in-law, her spoilt siblings, her own guilt at never having gotten pregnant capture the mind of someone who married for presentability, career, social success. Trouble is she feels she does not love him and assumes he married her out of pity. She does all she can to please him in every way and the pleasantest sense of sex life is projected by the tasteful scenes of their love-making. I enjoyed these.
Downton Abbey, opening of Season 3
Claire Walker early on in her marriage discovered she didn’t like or respect her husband, was tightly constricted by him and his parents, so bravely left him to endure 16 years of single motherhood during which she did manage to publish two (absurd) romances, with very Scottish highland type titles, which did make enough money that she has now taken a year off work to write a novel, moved out of the far-away lower-cost suburban rings around Atlanta (yes it’s registered but not with awareness of what this means that all the poorer and low middle people in Atlanta live outside its center, and must have cars to get into the center with any regularity). She also lives in the Alexander, a “beautifully renovated Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival-styled apartment building” (Claire is the first to describe the place), into a small flat of her own. Her daughter, Hailey, is in the usual upscale live-away college (aren’t all American young adults there?) and determined (like the good American she is) to support herself as far as she can. Trouble is now that Claire is not driven by so many other things to do and really has time when she looks at her computer screen nothing comes. What’s happening is she’s trying to write something real for the first time as she has the time to reach herself.
Lastly, Brooke Mackenzie, chubby (a horrific no-no), awkward, clumsy, mother of two, never worked for a living, and now deserted by her husband after she worked for years to support him through medical school; he is now making huge sums doing cosmetic surgery and has remarried a woman like a Barbie doll (he is likened to a Ken doll) and they have moved into the Alexander too. She is the Edith of the piece — and it was when at the gym half in the mind of Samantha Wendy Wax as narrator delivered her complacent moralizing condescension and exhortation over Brooke’s overt depression while Brooke is on a gym machine, I knew I was in a mean or small book however entertainingly written.
Laura Carmichael, Edith-as-susceptible-librarian averting her eyes from the hideously scarred Patrick Crawley, a phony revenant in Season 3
The stories of these three women play out poignantly and through ordinary human emotion. I found that the upbeat tendency of them over-all was comforting. It turns out Jonathan after leaving Samantha for a month, no longer able to endure her obvious desperate sycophancy, loves her. It turns out Claire begins to write of the women in the building as heightened by paradigms she discerned in DA. It turns out Brooke can work as a party-thrower, consultant for Edward and begins to be attractive to a man who is a widower.
Of larger schemes or perspectives this book of course is utterly innocent — of the real hard world in which these human emotions occur our author appears to be innocent. Of course she’s not or she’d not have gotten as far as she has as a novelist. As in a formulaic subgenre, there is no sense of how Wax as a woman or person relates to her fiction.
It’s also a sort of sequel to Downton Abbey as several of the characters have their equivalents in DA. We all know — or it used to be assumed — how popular are these sorts of sequels to Jane Austen. I would be much surprised if Wax has not hoped for a film adaptation along the lines of Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen’s Book Club;. At any rate not yet.
Rob James-Collier (promotional shot to the right) as Thomas Barrow — the equivalent character is Samantha’s brother, Hunter, a supremely egoistic wheeler-dealer who presents a face to meet faces but has to bow-down to Edward in order to survive when upon his losing yet another large sum of money in a capital venture Samantha cuts off his allowance
So I also found myself eagerly looking forward to the discussions of the shows, though repeatedly these were neutral descriptions showing Wax’s cleverness as none of them deviated into presenting what was the reactionary take we were to get. Nor did any discussion relate what was on the TV screen to what has happening in the Alexander. So not interesting and yet I underlined the bits that were there. They seemed to make visible what one might think viewers thought as they watched — except they were so conventional. Fellowes’s notes to his scripts shows that readers have far more amoral and idiosyncratic reactions than people assume. So, e.g. Claire musing:
Over the last two Sundays she’d watched Anna and Bates fall in love with each other despite some dark secret that kept him from being free, seen sparks fly between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, and watched Lady Sybil begin to notice just how attractive the Irish chauffeur was. Then there was poor Edith, who had stirred the pot by writing a letter to the Turkish embassy that would presumably implicate Mary in Kemal Pamuk’s death.
The plot had been thickening and the story lines racing rorward at a pace that Claire couldn’t help admiring even as she compared its graceful dance to the fumbling, halfhearted steps of her own manuscript.
Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle): a on-running joke of Max’s book is the Isabella who has been hired to be a 19th century servant, acts the part of Anna and her like out all wrong. She thinks it relies on accidental sounds we make. It does not, at any rate not entirely — mark of WWWWDA’s conservatism is there is no equivalent for Mr Bates, no disabled characters either.
The witty allusions told me what a sophisticated woman the author of the book is – so often so amusing, mocking the inner life of the fairy tale (or Downton Abbey episode) from a deconstructive point of view at the same time as it’s validated in the patterns of the three central stories. (There are others adumbrated.) E.g.
There was plenty of precedent for prince-marrying in the fairy-tale world. Sleeping Beauty had not ignored the prince’s kiss in favor of a few more years of shut-eye. Cinderella never considered refusing to try on the glass slipper. And Snow White didn’t bat an eyelash at moving in with those seven little men. (p 2)
I wish I could write like this.
To sum up: The questions for readers and study and reading groups afterward concentrate on what Wax feels are the parallels between the TV serial drama and the book and “real world” women’s problems and characters’ troubles in the book. I wonder if Wendy Wax is her real name: it is so pattern-y.
I should have mentioned at the opening of the book the characters have all heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, and they have no trouble understanding why it is so popular: it is the same dream as this book, a fine good man supports the heroine in easy comfort and the sex fun. That is how the 50 Shades is seen here.
I notice some of the actors in the series who have stayed on are concerned to make sure their promotional shots and appearances utterly undermine their roles lest they end up permanently typecast and these are the downstairs characters:
Who are they?
One guess. This one is easy. Why?
Obviously Sophia McShea aka Daisy
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