By Karen Zautyk
Admit it, ladies. (And maybe some of you gentlemen, too). Many of us are suffering “Downton Abbey” withdrawal.
You know the symptoms: the compulsion to wear elbow-length white gloves; drinking far too much tea; dressing for dinner, even if you’ve ordered takeout, and constantly searching eBay for pickle fork auctions. (Personally, if I don’t get a Mr. Bates fix soon, I shall suffer an attack of the vapors.)
Watching repeats helps a bit, but we know there’s a long, long trail a-winding until Season 4 starts next year.
For that reason, I took the motorcar on a jaunt to the Lyndhurst Public Library on Valley Brook Ave. last Saturday forenoon for a special presentation: “Life at an Edwardian Manor — Inspired by ‘Downton Abbey’.”
The speaker was Judith Krall-Russo of Fords. Krall- Russo is a food historian, but she has also done “massive research” into the manners and mores of the Edwardian era, which technically spanned the reign of Edward VII (1901-1910) but is more generally expanded to define the period from the 1880s to the end of World War I. And perhaps a bit beyond.
As “Downton” fans know, the Crawley family at the center of the saga has already entered the post- WWI period, and massive changes are in the air. But within the walls of the manor house, customs and attitudes (and the relationship between upstairs and downstairs) evolve at a more glacial pace.
Krall-Russo’s informative and intriguing program helped fill in some of the cultural-knowledge gaps of the series’ American audience, ranging from broad economic issues to such tidbits as why Lady Sybil’s appearance in harem pants cause such a stir. (What she was wearing was called a “tango dress,” and the tango, introduced to England around 1911, was downright scandalous. Until then, thanks to the omnipresent gloves, when men and women danced, they never touched flesh-to-flesh; that would have been considered “totally evil.”)
Not that there wasn’t such touching going on off the dance floor. Arranged marriages could be especially unhappy, and there were scores of American heiresses (“new money” not accepted into U.S. high society) shipped off to Britain simply to marry a lord and gain a title — and save the husband’s formerly wealthy family from bankruptcy. This could lead to significant hanky-panky among the upper classes.
Krall-Russo gave her listeners a succinct lesson in economics, which play a critical role in the Crawley drama. Downton is in dire financial straits, but it still looks pretty spiffy. (“This is a show, not a documentary,” Krall-Russo reminded us more than once.) In fact, many of the British manor houses of the time lacked electricity and indoor plumbing and had deteriorated into fairly shabby conditions. (Not what those imported heiresses had expected at all.)
A primary cause — this is how the world economy works, children — was the American Civil War, after which U.S. industry, research, science and technology took off. On this side of the pond, it was also the era of huge ranches and farms.
England began buying its corn, wheat and meat, etc., from us, and the English laboring class, who had worked the manor house fields for centuries, “began leaving the land to do other things.” The aristocrats were losing their fortunes as land values plummeted.
This is also why the aristocrats were eager to wed rich American brides, since a bride and her money became the husband’s property.
The idle rich, Krall-Russo explained, were exactly that. Idle. Completely, except for socializing. “They did nothing,” she said. “Aristocrats were unemployed, and they were proud to be unemployed.”
Oh, the men might go fishing or shooting or fox hunting on occasion, but there was no concept of “work” for them. If they were out shooting, they didn’t even load their own guns. The “loader” did that, handed the weapon to the gentleman, who pegged a shot at a bird, handed the gun back to the loader and was given a freshly loaded one.
As for aristocratic Edwardian women, their primary occupation was to change clothes. Five times a day. The clothes were put on them by their maids, as were their jewels, their shoes, etc. A servant even put the toothpaste on their toothbrushes.
Some other fascinating trivia for us ladies:
• In the Victorian era, only prostitutes wore makeup. Except in France, where upper-class women wore makeup but prostitutes did not. (Must have been confusing for Englishmen visiting Paris.) Makeup — rice powder, pearl powder and rouge — started becoming acceptable for proper Englishwomen in the 1900s.
• The dark brunette hair of Cora and Lady Mary was not the preferred color. And blonde hair was considered “unfortunate.” Light brown hair was the ideal.
• Until age 18, girls could wear their hair down. But once they “came out” in society, the hair went up and it never came down in public again.
• An unmarried woman would never be left alone in a room with a man. Ever.
• A woman never left the house without a hat or bonnet. Ever.
• Speaking of hats, on the street one could identify a man’s social standing by his headgear: Aristocrats wore top hats; the working class (meaning doctors, lawyers, judges) wore bowler hats or homburgs; lower-class laborers wore caps.
As for the lower-class, the servants or “slavies,” Krall- Russo noted, “In ‘Downton Abbey,’ they’re too clean.” They would not have bathed regularly. And they would have slept in attics on leftover sheets and torn blankets.
Aside from all the housecleaning and fireplace-feeding and silver-polishing and kitchen work, their chores would have included ironing the newspapers so ink would not come off on the master’s hands and washing all coins, because the coins had been touched by commoners. And nothing, not a letter, not a calling card, would ever be handed directly to a family member; it would always be presented on a small tray.
If you, as a servant, passed a family member in a hallway, you would look down or at the wall. “Because,” said Krall- Russo, “you were not there.”
The servants got a half-day per week and one full day per month off — family social engagements permitting. They awoke at 5:30 a.m. and did not go to bed until all the work was done. Or, in a lady’s maid’s case, until the lady returned from her evening out. Which could be 2 a.m. or later.
Sometimes, the servants got no sleep at all. At one shooting party, Krall-Russo said, “4,000 birds were reportedly shot in one day. Who plucked and cleaned them?” Not the gentleman shooters.
All of the above is just part of the information we gleaned in the hourlong presentation.
The library had noted that you didn’t have to be a “Downton Abbey” fan to enjoy the program, but “devoted fans may take more notice of certain details in the show after attending.”
This one certainly will.
On Sunday night, I already started applying my new knowledge while watching another PBS program, “Mr. Selfridge.” For the first time, I was noticing the hats on the men in the street and rating the wearer’s social standing.
The more you know, the more interesting even the simple things become.