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Whining about Downton Abbey

Where’s the wine?

Richard L. Elia

Downton Abbey - Matthew and Mary toast

Matthew Crawley toasting Lady Mary with ... a beer!

We’ve never had a problem liking Downton Abbey, another of the PBS dramas that the Brits export to the U.S. with regularity. Another example of life imitating art has never bothered us. We gleefully enter the lives of some well drawn Edwardian characters, like — bless her! — Maggie Smith (the indomitable Dowager Countess), or Jim Carter (Mr. Carson, the butler) or the pleasant and decent Hugh Bonneville (Earl of Grantham); even lesser characters attract our attention, no matter how excruciating some may be: will the melodramatic and punishing agonies of Anna and Bates, or of Daisy and William ever cease? Will O’Brien stop her wicked ways, with or without a piece of bath soap? Extraordinary episodes, like the death of an Arab in Lady Mary’s bed, and the sight of several women dragging the corpse down a lengthy hall back to his own bed, were happily dismissed. Not even Julian Fellowes, the writer, who seems impossibly pleased with himself in interview after interview, can deter us from admiring his suds, although we have a bone to pick with him later, and it isn’t about historical inaccuracies, like a TV antenna or double lines on the roads. No, not even the marriage proposal by Matthew Crawley to Lady Mary, a warming courtly bit of nonsense, could put us off; nor even, for that matter, does the impending incarnation of New Yorker Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) who is sure to vie with the repartee and insouciance of Maggie Smith.

The Lament and Some History

Rather, our complaint (a lament actually) with Downton Abbey is with wine. Or the near absence of it. What’s a grand Edwardian house (not mansion — that was a mere vulgar Americanism) without a serious wine cellar? Those reared on literature, especially Victorian and Edwardian novels, are accustomed to it. Even before, Shakespeare’s Falstaff had his Sherry (Sack) and Madeira; Dr. Johnson had his Port, the drink of “heroes”; Jane Austen’s Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility thinks wine can cure virtually anything; Henry James sponged off aristocrats with grand houses for years while in residence in England and was particular about his wines; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited devotes an entire chapter to the discovery, by Sebastian and Charles, of a splendid wine cellar whose Burgundies were indescribably delicious, worthy, says Waugh, of the “pathetic fallacy”; and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, are wine aficionados. Edwardian England was surely familiar with the 1900 Paris Exhibition, which like the 1855 French World’s Fair, showed off its Clarets (Bordeaux) and Champagnes, which were constantly exported to England. George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Wine Cellar (1920) was a popular book after World War I, leading to the creation of major wine societies. Part of the grandeur of great houses was great wines and their wine cellars, where Pipes (48 gallons) of Port were often laid upon the birth of an aristocratic son.

What Then — How Then?

So where’s the wine in Downton Abbey? Are we to assume that the actual owners of the mighty Jacobean castle did not have a wine cellar in distant Shropshire, where the drama takes place? Impossible! Even if it were so, the aristocracy was unlikely to frequent the place. One of the reasons for accepting an invitation to a grand estate, other than hobnobbing with the great and good, was to experience the “winin’ and dinin’ and shootin’”; another was for the owner to show off his cook — Mrs. Patmore, an archetype of an earlier Mrs. Bridges, cook of Upstairs Downstairs (1971). What then — how then — does Mr. Fellowes, who admires historical accuracy, ignore wine, one of the essential ingredients of Edwardian life? (Curiously, he did much the same in his 2001 movie Gosford Park, his earlier Edwardian creation.) What does he offer us in 17 or more episodes? Nearly nothing. We get no talk of wine, despite the many dinners presented, where guests treat the wine and the wine glasses casually, almost as an afterthought. We get one miniscule glance of what looks like a wine pantry where Mr. Carson is checking his inventory, aware that a rogue like servant Thomas Barrow has been ripping off bottles of Château Lafite (you have to credit the thief’s taste, which is undoubtedly better than any of the aristocrats in the house). Adding insult to wine injury, we have a scene where several wines are to be presented at dinner. One of the male serving staff decides to conduct his own tasting and proceeds to get drunk. That’s it. A touch of wine comedy here, some oenological uninterest there. This will never do! The least Fellowes could do was to have the nasty newspaper publisher, a captain of industry if ever there were one, show off his aping of London’s aristocracy by sending down a few cases of vin ordinaire, if only to edify the Shropshire bumpkins and to prompt the thieving Thomas to lessen his palate.

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