Mailbag: All Your Downton Abbey Questions Answered

The Dowager Countess knows allDownton Abbey fever has the world held tight in its elegantly gloved hands, it seems. It’s kind of insane.

Folks who normally wouldn’t be caught dead setting their DVRs to PBS on a Sunday night are suddenly ravenous for the dirty details of Lady Mary’s sex life (hint: she has one), Lady Edith’s love life (not so much), and Lady Sybil’s unaccountable need to wander into the garage approximately seventy skillion times a week (funny how that happens).

And don’t even get me started on the Dowager Countess. I’d be willing to accelerate the aging process and wear grapes on my hat if it meant that I could be even a little bit like her.

And so would you. Be honest.

So based on the search traffic that has lead people to my blog over the last few months, I can see that Downton Abbey has still left at least a few burning questions unanswered. And because I have absolutely no claims to special knowledge here at all, I thought I’d take a moment to answer them.

Because the internet, that’s why.

Here are the top four or five questions Google tells me are still keeping you up at night. Feel free to send me more! I live to serve! Okay not really!

Where are the Downton Abbey deleted scenes?

Okay, so this is one I actually know. The sad truth is that most Americans have been woefully deprived of at least 10 to 15 minutes worth of Edwardian angst every episode. This is apparently because Americans are dumb, and we need to have smart, entertaining television whittled down to suit our pathetic, underfed minds.

No, seriously. PBS shortens most BBC and iTV programs that they get from the UK, and I’m not entirely sure why. Sometimes we lose entire subplots, although this doesn’t seem to have happened (so far) in Downton Abbey. But you will miss the occasional scene, like Branson adorably twiddling with the white chicken feather he was given in series two. It was a nice little moment, added some context to the whole situation, and gave some extra depth to the guy’s somewhat underexplored characterization.

But hey, that’s okay. We understand. Our fragile little American minds can’t handle entire episodes of British TV. Why, we might start demanding excellence everywhere in our broadcast TV! And then where would we be? Honestly now.

Bottom line: If you want to see the complete, unadulterated episodes, buy the DVDs. Or better still, move to the UK. The tea’s much better there, anyway.

How many seasons of Downton Abbey will there be?

As many as Julian Fellowes can crank out, for as long as we remain interested. Or until he gets bored.

I’ll admit, I was surprised to see the entire Great War get wrapped up within the tidy confines of just one season. They could’ve mined that vein for years! But no, here we are at the beginning of Season Three, hurtling our way into the roaring twenties, wondering what fresh hell history will have to plunge us into next.

Bottom line: There will be more Downton Abbey to come. We’ve already been promised a season 3, due to release in the UK in September 2012. Fellowes has already said there will be a storyline involving Catholicism, which leads one to hope that we will follow more closely the adventures of Lady Sybil and Branson in Dublin. For a little preview of what they might be in for, you might want to brush up on your history of what’s generally known as The Troubles.

Spoiler alert: Things go badly for Ireland. Again.

Of course every series needs an endgame, some sort of compelling narrative arc that doesn’t get resolved until the Amazing And Shocking Final Episode. And since Matthew and Mary have been left happily embracing in the gently falling snow, it doesn’t look like we’ll be spending quite as much time watching them angstily repressing their feelings for each other as we have in the first two seasons.

Which leaves Bates and Anna, I think, as the main storyline for season three. And I have my own theories about that little nugget, let me tell you.

Predictions for Season 3

Okay, okay, okay. You want my theories? Really? After what I said after Season One? Hope springs eternal, I guess. As does, in my case at least, the never ending desire to be able to say I called it.

You want theories? Here’s mine:

  1. Bates is saved by a mysterious reprieve that nobody can trace with any real accuracy, but seems to come from somewhere high up in government circles. Why? Because he didn’t kill Vera, silly old bear, the freaking Turkish embassy did. Honestly. Do I have to do all the heavy lifting around here? What was the last thing Vera did before she died? Threatened to sell Mary’s story to the odious Sir Richard Carlisle. Who, still fooling himself that he was about to marry into the family, paid her off and threatened her with ruin if she tried to sell it elsewhere. Well, as we all know, threats are like oxygen to Vera Bates. If she’s not being threatened, she figures she’s doing something wrong. So I imagine she went off next to the Turks to see if they happened to have any money burning a hole in their pockets. And the Turkish embassy turns out to be, if anything, even more averse to scandal than the House of Crawley. So they off her. Hey presto, no more problems for the friends of Mr. Pamuk. Big problems for Mr. Bates, but who really cares about him. I figure this comes out, in part or in whole, and is related to the family by none other than the altogether delightful and sorely missed
  2. Evelyn Napier. God, I love that guy. He’s really just too good a character to give up, so I’m holding out hope that we’ll see him again. There’s a sizable contingent of the DA fandom online that wants to see an Edith/Napier pairing, but I’m as yet unconvinced of the desirability of that one. Convince me, Fellowes. I dare you. Meanwhile, I predict that
  3. Branson becomes a hero in the Troubles, which launches his brilliant political career. Either that, or he dies a tragic martyr’s death, sending Lady Sybil and her baby back to Downton Abbey, where she launches her brilliant political career. Either way, I only see exciting things ahead for this dashing young couple. And by exciting I mean utterly tragic and heartbreaking.

What novel is Downton Abbey based on?

This one is closely related to a similar query, which goes something like:

Is there a Downton Abbey book?

The short answer is no — Downton Abbey is an original drama that is being written as we go along. Julian Fellowes is no fool, and I imagine he has had his endgame in mind all along, but the temptation to spool this out as long as humanly possible has got to be a powerful one. Nevertheless, I don’t think he is any kind of writerly whore, so he will probably tidy up this series long before we tire of it, which means that yes, there will be an endless succession of Downton-Abbey-esque books to fill the gaping maw of need. They just won’t be by him.

Bottom line: No, there isn’t an actual Downton Abbey novel that you can buy. But there will be lots of spin-offs and variations on the theme in the months to come. And I for one welcome our new Edwardian overlords. How could I not? With any luck at all, cravats will come back into fashion. And then I will become a public menace. True story.

Those are the big ones. Let’s round this post up with a few of the less frequently asked questions, which are no less hilarious for their infrequency:

Who thinks John Bates is sexy?

Me. I happen to be among the legions of women who find decency and honor attractive in the extreme, which is, I suppose, one reason why I’ve also got the hots for Napier.

Do Mary and Matthew end up together?

Yep. Absolutely. Hopefully we’ll get a tearjerker of a wedding one of these days. Presumably, this is why Cora’s mother (to be played by the excellently cast Shirley MacLaine) is coming over from America in Season 3. Also to give Cousin Violet a run for her money in the Chilling Bon Mot department, no doubt. This might — might — result in an unholy alliance of Cousin Isobel and Cousin Violet, but I wouldn’t count your chickens.

When will Edith get some?

Honest to god, this is an actual, verbatim question that people are asking Google. It gives me such delight to know that folks care so much about Lady Edith’s love life, and that this combination of words somehow leads them to my site. I must be doing something right. Well, I certainly hope she gets some soon. As I’ve said before, I’m not fully signed on with the whole Edith/Napier thing, but I suppose I could be convinced. On the other hand, plenty of women went unmarried in the years after the Great War, as it managed to kill off practically an entire generation of young men. It wouldn’t be unrealistic at all for her to remain a single lady. Perhaps she’ll take up writing. She seems the type.


So what other Downton Abbey questions are still burning a hole in your soul with their desperate state of unansweredness? I am always happy to dispense with the answers, as long as you understand that I don’t actually know a damn thing about a damn thing.


Shrove me shrove me

It should come as a surprise to nobody that I am deeply into ritual.

Ritual of any kind, really. Daily, weekly, annual, sublunar. Doesn’t matter. I’m just a total sucker for it all.

So things like Lent, even though I’m not really fully signed on with the whole church project, as it were, are pretty darn appealing to me.

I quit smoking during Lent. When was that, like ten years ago now? Amazingly enough, I was still working in restaurants and nightclubs back then. And hoo boy howdy did I smoke too much. Everything I did back then, I did too much, really.

Can’t say I’ve ever been signed on for the whole moderation project, either. True story.

So this was right around when it was becoming really unacceptable to smoke in public. Which you youngsters might not remember, since this brave new world of thoughtful concern for other people’s lungs is all you’ve ever known. But it wasn’t that long ago that there were ashtrays on every table in restaurants, people smoked in between the appetizer and the entree, and matchbooks were the most common form of marketing collateral around.

It’s kind of wild to think about it, now.

I smoked for about ten years, all told. From college through my restaurant worker years. Then I became sufficiently disgusted with the whole thing — and sufficiently aware of my own mortality, let’s be honest — that I made the decision to quit.

I was kind of going through hell that year. Everything, it seemed, was spiraling beyond my control. Money was a huge problem. Work was not going well. Most of my friendships were dissolving under the strain of all of the insanity that was going on. And I just had these huge, awful, crippling anxieties about pretty much everything.

You know that uniquely chilling brand of anxiety, the kind that you know is unfounded and completely unsuitable for a sane and rational adult — like thinking there are monsters under the bed — but you still sprint across the room and jump up under the covers after you turn out the light, knowing that they will get you if you go too slow? Even though you totally know that’s just insane?

That was kind of my life for a while there.

So it sounds like the perfect time to smoke even more, right? Time to treat all of that dreadful anxiety with some form of semi-socially acceptable self-medication, and tough it out until things turn around, right?

Not so much.

Thing was, I felt like this was the one area of my life that I could actually exert some control over. The one thing that I could decide for myself. I won’t smoke any more. There. That would be my own pathetic little flag of defiance against the forces of chaos. My own inadequate way of flipping the bird at all those monsters in the closet.

And the funny thing is, it worked.

I mean, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it was easy. I smoked. I smoked a lot. I was into it. And I still spent all of my time with smokers, people who knew me as one of them, who totally didn’t buy this whole I’m not smoking anymore game of mine, who sort of shrugged and figured I’d be back among them again soon enough.

But the other thing that had happened around the same time was I’d started going to church again. I think this was another one of those wee little acts of defiance on my part. There I was, living a moderately to deeply disreputable life in restaurants and nightclubs and bars. But then I would secretly wake up early on Sunday mornings, drag my sorry ass on to a bus downtown, and walk for a few hours amongst the living and the well groomed.

It was kind of a weird kink I had going on there for a while. But it really worked for me, at the time.

Of course part of the attraction was that I had discovered the most desperately gorgeous gothic revival Victorian church downtown that you could possibly imagine, all heavy wooden scrollwork and thick leaded windows and altar rails stained dark by the sweaty Sunday morning palms of the ages.

There was a massive pipe organ in this church, too, that thumped and throbbed and groaned with every deafening note, and we’d all gather our hymnals and stand up together and belt out the songs of our people. All of those crazy awesome old hymns of my doughty Anglican forbears. I’ll tell you, there are few tribes of lustier belters of grand old tunes than us Old Timey Episcopalians. Especially when backed by the heavy metal pounding of a fearlessly wielded pipe organ.

Goddamn. That’s some good stuff, right there.

Anyway, it did what I needed it to. I didn’t make many friends in that congregation, for the brief time that I counted myself among their number. Mostly because of that whole crippling fear and anxiety thing I had going on at the time. But I always stayed for tea and cakes after the service, and breathed in the well starched normalcy of these lovely, welcoming people like the heady aroma of a half-forgotten land.

God, but I’d missed normal, respectable people. I just wanted to lick them.

Just before Lent started that year, they laid out a box of tiny wooden crosses on leather cords at the back of the church, free for anyone who wanted one. I think they were from Ecuador, or some other far-off place where they’d been hand carved and fairly traded and eventually made their way to our heavy metal gothic steampunk church.

I grabbed one and put it on, and I wore it all through Lent. Even though I wasn’t entirely sure how far I was signed up for this whole thing, I needed something to hold on to. And I wanted to quit smoking. So I quit smoking for Lent, with my little cross as a talisman, secretly hoping that I was quitting smoking forever. And every time I wanted a cigarette, I reached up and held on to my little Ecuadoran steampunk cross.

I’ll be honest — I didn’t think about Jesus when I touched that cross. And I still wasn’t too sure how I felt about God, and his whole thing. But I did think about those nice ladies at the coffee hour in their boiled wool jackets and slim tweed skirts, and about the very kind youngish priest who passed around the plate of cookies, a cup of tea curled deftly in his other hand, the thick smell of incense still clinging to his clothes.

And thinking about those nice, welcoming people, who every Sunday morning very politely ignored the smell of cigarettes and stale beer that still clung to me, who gently forgot to ask what I did for a living and what brought me to their shores, who held their teacups steadily in their clean, cared for hands while my cup and saucer chattered nervously away in my own, the thought of them kept me going.

Mind you, I wasn’t ready to quit drinking at the time. Not yet. That would come several years later, and with a fair bit more angst. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I don’t remember any of their names, I’m ashamed to say. And by May, I was gone. Gone from that church, gone from that town, gone from that life for good. Fled for my own safety and sanity back to Cape Cod, the land of my birth. Where I remain to this day.

But for all that winter and spring, from Shrove Tuesday right on through to our lustily welcomed Easter Sunday, those people were there for me. Whenever I managed to bob up to the surface and take a few desperate, gulping breaths of air.

Each Sunday, we’d get together and we’d belt out some tunes amid the gargoyles, and everything would be wonderful, wonderful for that one short hour.


Image by Digital Wallpapers

This living hand

One of the benefits of living in a house that has been lived in by several generations of your family is that there are ghosts lurking around just about every corner.

What, you don’t count that as a benefit?

I’m not talking about those unsettling moments when my cat wakes up from a dead sleep and glares meaningfully into the dark corner behind the door. That’s a topic for another day, I think.

No, I’m referring instead to all those little intentional marks and remnants that previous occupants have left behind, things that you sort of glaze over seeing for months and years on end, and then something happens to make you notice them again, and you remember that you’re not the only one to have stood at this kitchen sink, or to crouch at the edge of this perennial bed, or to lie in bed at night and wonder about the future and all it might hold.

My grandfather and grandmother lived in this house once, along with their three children. And if you’ve ever seen my tiny house, you will share my astonishment that a family of five ever lived amicably under this one small roof. But Grandpa was off-Cape working most of the week in the boatyard, and my father and his brother and sister were all in their teens by the time they moved in here, so they were usually out doing outside teenagey things, one imagines.

You can make a tiny house work. Having a life outside these four walls really helps, though.

Not that I would know anything about that.

My grandmother planted the daffodils that bloom every spring under my home office window. My home office, of course, used to be her bedroom. I take pictures of Ella’s daffodils almost every year.

Here they are in 2006.

Ella's daffodils

She also planted the rhododendron at the front of the house, which is massive now and needs a trim. It blooms bright and pink early each spring, and is probably the gaudiest thing in my yard. I love it.

Ella's Rhododendrons
You have to look inside the house for traces of its other occupants. The big comfy chair I remember my grandfather always sitting in (complete with candy tucked into pockets for grandchildren to scamper up and find) is long gone, of course, as is my grandmother’s writing desk that once sat by the door.

But just beneath the front window, if you know where to look, there’s a litte bit of graffiti that has always charmed the pants right off me.

To get it, you might have to understand that my aunt’s initials were, before she married, “A.M.”

AM (my house)
Do you suppose she was interrupted before she could put in her beloved’s initials and carve a delicate little heart around them? Or was it more of an open-ended question?

And then there’s this one, which graces the back of the door to the front bedroom, currently known as the Home Office.

Smiley (my house)

I mean, right?

How can you not love this adorable little house?

It will perhaps not come as a surprise to you to learn that I have a bit of a soft spot for old graffiti like this. As if to really prove my point, I kind of went a little nuts on the topic in my post today at Wonders & Marvels, documenting all of the crazy awesome initials and symbols and seals that are littered all over The Great Bed of Ware.

What, you don’t know about The Great Bed of Ware? That Elizabethan love nest of giants, that vast expanse of slumber terrain, that tourist attraction with bedposts?

Well now. I suggest you just prance right on over and check it out. It’s called The Secret History of The Great Bed of Ware, and it’s more of my usual whackadoo historical claptrap.

But hey, you might like it anyway. What do I know?


Wild rose

I am the opposite of a packrat. I am a thrower out of things. This tendency has only been amplified now that I live in a tiny house by the sea.

Tiny houses have very little room for stuff.

So it always surprises me to discover the things that I somehow manage to hold on to, despite wave after wave of spring cleaning purges, winter cabin fever cleanups, and fall dusting up dusting downs.

Yes, I engage in all of the above practices.

Today I noticed a thing on my dresser that I hadn’t really noticed in a very long time.

This vase.

photo (1)

My friend Amy gave it to me when I was sixteen years old. I remember being bowled over by it, mainly because I thought it was so pretty and so fine, and Amy was the first friend I’d had who saw through the crabby tomboy exterior and somehow knew that I would want a vase with flowers and vines trailing all over it.

I remember thinking at the time that it was the nicest present I’d ever been given. And that no one had ever seen me as such a girl before then. It made me unreasonably happy, that vase.

And ever since then, I’ve kept it on my dresser.

Amy wasn’t like a lot of the friends I’d had until then. She was a little younger than me, which was unusual for me at the time. And she was always laughing and dancing and tossing around her long, wavy blond hair. I thought she was like sunshine.

As you know, I am generally like rain.

She brought over her boom box one afternoon and we twirled around in my mother’s front yard to the Violent Femmes. Then we painted our toenails a pale shade of lilac, and my next-door neighbor poked his head through the hyacinth hedge to inquire how it was possible that we had nothing better to do than to sit on my front porch and paint our toenails purple.

We corrected him, informed him that the word he was looking for was lilac, and no, we were sixteen. Of course we didn’t have anything better to do. What could possibly be better than this?  It was summer, the sun was warm on our faces, and our toes were drying quickly in the short, soft grass.

Amy and her dad took me out for lunch once, to a place that I still visit almost weekly. We sat at a picnic table out front and played with the big, blond dogs that had the run of the place. Amy didn’t want to finish her sandwich, and her dad told her that she didn’t have to if she didn’t want to. I thought that was striking. I’d always felt that I needed to devour every last crumb of every single meal, simply because of the money that had been spent on the thing.

Something tragic had happened to Amy’s mother in the not too distant past. Died at the dinner table of a sudden aneurism, or something truly awful like that. So I always suspected that Amy’s sunshine was at least in part an act, or at the very least a shield, a defense, a suit of armor.

Later on, I think her dad disappeared for a while. Amy and I lost touch.

I kept the vase.

That was also the summer I had a crush on a boy who lived in the next town over. We went to a regional high school, so we had that magical moment when suddenly you were in class with kids you hadn’t known since you were five, boys you hadn’t seen crying in the back of art class, girls you hadn’t hated since forever. It opened up so many possibilities. A fresh start.

Alex was one of those boys, and oh my word but he was all wrong for me. Not all wrong in the way that I would discover and then relish so much as an adult — Alex was squeaky clean, from a big family, who dreamed one day of having a big family of his own. He was practically lifted straight out of the 1950s, Alex was so straight ahead and earnest and nice.

I carried a torch for him for years. We were buddies, nothing more. I never told him how I felt.

That spring, he had made an offhand comment about how much he hated the smell of lemons, because that was the scent of the baby powder his mother used. And since he was the oldest, and there were always babies in his huge, teeming family, it reminded him always of baby poop.

Alas, I was at the time wearing my favorite lemon-scented moisturizer.

I went out the next day to buy all new cosmetics, preferably in a totally new and vastly more sophisticated scent. Because of my burgeoning Anglophilia, I went straight to the new Crabtree and Evelyn store in the mall, believing with every fiber of my being that this store was the very height of imported sophistication and taste.

Then I decided, based on no evidence whatsoever, that Alex would prefer the smell of roses. And so I bought everything that they carried in that line.

Soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, body powder. Whatever they sold with those little red rosebuds and green twining vine on the label, I spent my wages on that day.

I never found out if Alex cared for it or not, of course, since he was quite thoroughly and unapologetically not interested in me in that way, and all of the moisturizer in the world wasn’t going to change that. But I loved it. I loved it far beyond any high school crush, far longer than any pretended zeal for babies. I spent years buying that line of toiletries, only stopping many years later when I finally entered my strictly unadorned Zen phase, when I would only use plain Ivory soap and the ascetically unscented Lubriderm.

Then last year, my friend Melissa started carrying this in her shop.

photo (2)

It smells exactly the same.

Which is to say, of course, that it smells quite strongly, and somewhat cloyingly, and Melissa disliked it so much that she gave me several bottles of the stuff when she closed her shop a couple of months ago, just to get it out of her sight. Er, nose.

I had to promise not to wear it around her.

But every time I put some on — which is often — it reminds me of being sixteen, and of discovering the joy of blowing all of my money on something that makes me feel prettier than I usually do, more desirable than I had before, and more like I live in a storybook than I generally care to admit.

I think it is lovely. And made of sunshine.

And I just noticed today that I keep it next to Amy’s vase.


Isn’t that funny.