Downton Abbey Season 3: Episode 1

CLICK HERE to Season 3: Episodes 2 & 3

When the pre-show outshines the main feature, I’m beginning to have a little concern.

The episode “The Secrets of Highclere Castle” is a fantastic one-hour focus on the history and present day Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton’s Crawley mansion. The information is largely collected in the book written by Countess Fiona Carnarvon, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. Read my review of the book here. And you can watch the whole one hour feature here.

Lady and Lord Carnarvon
Lady Fiona and Lord George Herbert Carnarvon

I have high praise for Downton Abbey S1 and S2. That’s why since last February, there have been quite a few ripples sent out from the pond here. Like numerous others, I’m following the countdown to S3, this cultural phenomenon of using Downton Abbey to measure the passing of a year. So it was with much anticipation that I watched S3 premiered in North America on PBS last night.

It begins shakily (metaphorically and literally… maybe some shots with a hand-held camera?) telling the recent development of how everyone is doing. So many stories, so little time. So what we get is a montage, vignettes by the seconds. That is fine too, but somehow, the people seem different now.

It takes a while for me to get into the act, to get back that captivating feel as in S1 and S2. Such moments are sparse and far between, I’m afraid to say. Ok… before you fans of Downton throw pebbles at me instead of into the pond, there are a few ‘movie moments’.

My favorite is when Robert reveals to Cora he has lost all her money in a failed railroad company (Canadian? Sorry). He sheds tears for the loss while she is so forgiving and loving. What a moving scene. Cora Crawley is now my favourite Downton character.

Matthew and Mary
Matthew and Mary

Another sweet moment gives me back the feeling of why I love DA in the first place, is the Matthew and Mary blind kiss the night before the wedding, a wedding that is almost called off. But here in S3 E1, it seems Mary has gone back to her old, old self where practical matters and Downton heritage surpasses love and honor. In this case, I’m all for Matthew, who is unwilling to take the large sum he inherits from Lavinia’s father. Again, here’s the guy with some backbone when it comes to moral dilemmas.

Shirley MaClaine as Martha Levinson
Grandmama from America

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, the Grandmama from America, is the highly anticipated new twist. And she doesn’t disappoint. We need someone to turn the table, tip the balance, add some spice of life to the stiff traditions of Downton, if that means setting a buffet table, guests choose their own food, be it cold cuts and what not, sit anywhere they like, and joining in an after dinner singing of ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’. Violet Crawley, take that.

The prison scenes with Bates and Anna are heartwarming, another reminder of why I love DA in the first place. Some nice shots. I particularly like the one he slowly limps down the long flight of stairs. While for justice’s sake he should be out of there. But for cinematic variety, I think Bates in prison offers a nice human touch of pathos, which again is why I like DA in the first place.

Other plot lines seem quite weak. Daisy goes on strike? She should first join a union. The too tall footman/valet Alfred’s troubles with Thomas, recycled from previous episodes of Bates’. And Mrs. Hughes, I feel so sorry for her. But Mrs. Patmore proves to be a solid and lively character. Edith has grown more beautiful while Sybil turns lacklustre.

I hope the rest of the episodes deliver what I’ve so highly anticipated. The 20’s is a stylish backdrop for a costume drama. They’re all dressed up, and I wish they have somewhere to go, and bring me there with them.

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Other Related Posts:

Season 3: Episodes 2 & 3

Season 3: Episodes 4 & 5

Season 3: Episodes 6 & 7 Finale

Quotable Quotes from Downton Abbey

The Downton Ripples

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: Facts that give rise to Fiction

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Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey: Facts that give rise to Fiction

Downton Abbey in real life is Highclere Castle, situated among a thousand acres of beautiful parkland, perching on a hill with a vantage point of even more spectacular views. It is home to the Earls of Carnarvon for centuries. The book is written by Fiona Carnarvon. Lady Almina is the great grandmother of her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon. The book chronicles the life and legacy of Lady Almina, who married into Highclere at 19, and evolved from a youthful debutante to a seasoned and capable, aristocratic lady with a heart. Here is the source material for the fictional creation so well received by viewers all over the world.

I’m not one easily swayed to follow what’s being hailed in current culture. But for some reasons I’ve been drawn to the human drama of the hugely successful Downton Abbey. Until I read this book I have not thought that mere facts can be as engaging as fiction. Compared to the epic proportion of historical events detailed in the book, the TV series are but minute vingnettes, albeit they do have their endearing appeal.

This is my library copy of the book after I finished reading it. There are no less than 80 tiny yellow stickies to mark my interest:

At first, I was expecting a book offering tidbits of the Highclere Castle, its designs and architecture, and how its life, both upstairs and downstairs, corresponds with the TV production, etc.

But while it lacks the design and architectural specifics I was looking for, the book has brought me something else. Yes, there is a myriad of Edwardian high society accounts, the fashion and the opulence, as expected. But to my surprise, the latter part of the book offers a greater appeal to me. I was fully absorbed by its massive archival information on The Great War, from the trenches in Europe to the battlefields in the Middle East, wartime to post-war politics, Highclere’s involvement in international power brokerage, George’s brother Aubrey and T.E. Lawrence’s friendship, and the last chapters bring me to the archeological site of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Nurse Almina

Unlike the Crawleys in Downton Abbey, the Carnarvons threw themselves fully into the war effort without hesitation. As soon as Britain entered The Great War (1914-1918), Highclere was turned into a well-equipped hospital, not just a convalescence home. Financially supported by her wealthy father, Almina hired the best in medical personel, well-trained nurses and specialized doctors, and furnished the Caslte with state-of-the-art equipment. Almina herself oversaw the whole operation and heavily involved in personal nursing care as well. A real-life Lady Cora/Isabel Crawley working in unity.

Seeing Matthew Crawley’s muddy face in the trenches cannot convey to me the horrors of the war. The detailed accounts in the book are terrifying to read. There were so many ways to die: guns and shells, broken bones even just a broken femur, long, bumpy rides to a hospital, gas, hunger, diseases, lack of medical supplies and doctors, even rain. Non-stop rain in Passchendaele had caused trenches to collapse, drowning many soldiers in the mud.

The Battle of Somme claimed 60,000 lives on its first day on July 1, 1916. Four months later, 415,000 British and Dominions soldiers had been killed or wounded. The Battle of Ypres saw the Germans use a new weapon. 168 tonnes of chlorine gas was released into Allied positions. 5,000 French soldiers in the trenches died within ten minutes, 10,000 were blinded as they escaped. In 1917, the number of British casualties and injured totalled 800,000. Many of Highclere staff were wounded and killed, those sent home were the lucky ones. The missing and the ones buried on foreign soil made the impact even more heartbreaking.

The Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, Elsie, had always been receptive to innovations and improvements. Unlike her counterpart in Downton Violet Crawley, Elsie welcomed electricity and the telephone. In 1919, at 63, she became vice-chairman of the Vocal Therapy Society and promoted the use of singing to help shell-shocked men to overcome debilitating stammers. Umm… she would have made a good team with Lionel Logue, who set up shop on Harley Street. Just ask Bertie KGVI, he knew it worked.

On a totally different note, the last chapters of the book transport me to the archaeological site of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Almina’s husband George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was one of the last British aristocratic archaeologists, having spent £50,000 (£10 million in today’s money) over the course of fourteen years on excavating in Egypt.

Howard Carter, left, & Carnarvon at King Tut’s tomb

Lord Carnarvon personally hired the expert archaeologist Howard Carter to team up with him in his pursuit of Egyptian antiquities. Their breakthrough work came in 1922, when they discovered the burial chamber of the young King Tutankhamun. Unlike rumors that had distressed the archaeological dual that they would ship the finds to England, the King Tut artifacts have  been the possession of the Egyptian government since the discovery.

I had not realized the connection before… how Downton Abbey could have a certain degree of separation from King Tut. But the book soon ends with the sad news that the already weak Lord Carnarvon soon succumbed to illness. He died in Cairo at age 57, just a few months after the excavation. It’s noted in the book that at the time of his death, back at Highclere Castle in the night, his beloved terrier Susie howled once and died.

Here I’ve just touched on a few yellow stickies. You need to read the book to grasp all the significant events during that first quarter of the 20th century. As the book has been written and published ‘in record time’ as the author has noted, likely to coincide with the broadcast of Downton Abbey Season 2, it is not a literary work, not even a social or political commentary of any sort. Yes, I was looking for the author’s view on aristocracy and the Empire. Nevertheless, it is a compact historical account that chronicles the lives of some individuals who had left indelible marks in an era of irreversible change and new discoveries. 

Excellent Photos, A Bibliography of researched works and archival materials, and an Index make up the supplementary resources.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon, Broadway Paperbacks, NY, November, 2011, 310 pages.

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Other posts you may like:

Quotable Quotes from Downton Abbey

The Rant of the Armchair Traveller

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