A Pointless Post About the Art Form that is the English Aristocracy

I’ve been on a bit of a U.K. kick recently. The seeds of this were sown, I think, months ago, when NBC started showing English Premier League soccer on the weekends. The glorious accent of Arlo White had me hooked. (I am no soccer fan, but I am susceptible to the lefty-American sort of guilt caused by my ignorance of the sport, and thus I will occasionally flip over to NBC on Saturday afternoons when the basketball game I’m watching goes to commercial.) Once you’ve heard White call a great play, his voice building in anticipation—“Oh, that’s a lovely touch there!”—while never losing its articulate precision, you can’t help but hear a little English-accented voice in the back of your mind, narrating your daily activities. At least that’s my situation; I’ve been thinking to myself in a British accent for days now.

This is probably not your house.

The other, more immediate reason for my recent interest in Britain is that, for the first time, I’m reading Pride and Prejudice. The book is, of course, fantastic. I certainly don’t have the authority to write any sort of review (especially considering I haven’t finished it yet); and besides, countless other people have written about the book with more insight and eloquence than I ever could. Suffice it to say that the characters are so real, the writing so intricate and beautiful, and the humor so infectious (the book makes me laugh constantly, as Carolyn can attest) that I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to read it. The world Austen creates is so odd and moving and humorous and . . . (to my shallow mind), English. It is strangely intoxicating.

So, yes, Pride and Prejudice is a big part of my life right now. But there’s actually another reason for my Anglophile turn. This past Monday night, Carolyn and I, feeling pretty lazy, watched two episodes from the new season of Downton Abbey. You’ve heard of Downton, I’m sure. It’s the Masterpiece Theater melodrama, aired on PBS, chronicling the exploits of a family of British aristocrats and their servants. It’s massively popular, particularly in the United States, and we’ve been on the bandwagon, sort of, for awhile now.

The first time we watched Downton, I was recovering from ACL surgery. I was highly medicated, and Carolyn was sleep deprived from switching my ice packs every two hours, day and night. We were both thoroughly entertained. Just as in Pride and Prejudice, the strange, aristocratic world the show created (pristinely well, I might add) was engrossing. We delighted at the idea that high-class people in Britain thought it sensible to hire members of the lower classes to dress and undress them; that it was considered uncouth among the aristocracy to, you know, work for a living; that one was expected to have a butler or a maid help one put on bedclothes prior to jumping in the sack. The intensely ordered social expectations; the discipline of behavior; the countless unwritten (but nigh unbreakable) rules of etiquette; and—not least of all—the powerful sense of honor—these were all fresh and fascinating (and somewhat crazy) ideas.

But this week, as we watched Downton, the initial thrill of seeing that world in action had faded considerably. For you see, I now had Pride and Prejudice to compare it to, and, while there are definite similarities (as well as many differences) between the two—both, you could say, are essentially about English aristocrats and their problems—there’s simply no question Downton suffers in the comparison.

To say so, of course, is unfair to Downton, for as everyone knows, Pride and Prejudice is one of the great novels of all time. Nobody can write like Jane Austen.* I’m not out to hate on a very entertaining TV show, of which I’ve watched plenty of episodes myself. But I have to say, the magic that engulfed us while I gimped around on crutches just wasn’t quite there this time around.

Still, Downton Abbey is a pretty good show. And there’s no denying that both it and Pride and Prejudice have succeeding in letting me into a world I’d known little about before. This is one thing books, movies, and TV are great at, and I’m delighted by it. Besides, I can now go around pronouncing words to myself in a British accent, and that can’t be a bad thing.

* Still, Dowton could do better than this exchange, occurring in Episode One of the new season:

[Countess Violet, to the Lady Mary]: The fact is, you have a straightforward choice before you. You must choose either death or life.
[Lady Mary]: And you think I should choose life . . . .

That’s . . . pretty bad. Although of course there are many good lines, too, especially those coming from the brilliant Maggie Smith.

Incidentally, one of my favorite lines from Pride & Prejudice is Austen’s description of a minor character—Sir Lucas, the father of Elizabeth Bennet’s best friend—who was recently knighted by some royal English person or other. In the course of obliterating the poor fellow, Austen writes of his reaction to being knighted: “The distinction had, perhaps, been felt too strongly.” Surely there can be no better way to call someone a pompous ass.

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