Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Why Do Americans Love Downton Abbey?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I like the show for the sheer Englishness of it.  The show actually depicts a long-vanished England, so there’s an element of nostalgia, too.  And the England depicted never did really exist except for a very tiny minority of aristocratic people and the comparatively small number of ordinary people who served them in their grand country homes.  So there’s a large element of fantasy.

Even today, as England becomes more and more diverse, I love the uniquely English expressions, habits and ways of looking at the world. For example, here is a sign that stands outside the very old, very ornate gate of the private driveway of Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire:


The hand-lettered sign reads “Dead Slow. Hoot.”  What does it mean?  I could not think of any legitimate reason that as a lowly tourist, I could drive up to the private gate and demand entry.  But I think the sign means that drivers are to approach the gate as slowly as humanly possible, and then  to sound their horns to be let in.  The word “Hoot” implies, of course, a decorous tap, not a prolonged blast. Apparently there is no automatic opener and no card-recognition system on the 18th-century gate.  Someone will have to run out, confer with the driver, and swing the gate open.

Notice also the gathering of people and animals beside the gate.  The wearing of practical rain gear and the watering of dogs are hallowed activities in the countryside of England. So is the visiting of stately homes–it has been a favorite pastime at least since the days of Jane Austen.  In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet famously changes her fate when against her better judgment she tours Mr. Darcy’s estate, Pemberly, and comes face to face with Mr. Darcy himself. Many people believe that Jane Austen based Pemberly on Chatsworth House.

I just read that the “real” Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is completely sold out of pre-bookable tickets for the coming opening times, mid-July to mid-September.  There are some tickets available to walk-ups, usually after 2 pm.  However, if I were traveling to England this summer, I would not let that worry me. I would go instead to Chatsworth House, and then I would go to at least a dozen other stately homes.  They’re all over England, and each has its own story every bit as fascinating as the fictional one so many of us love.

I’m going to write in coming posts about English country houses I have visited.  Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–with the British Isles thrown in!

Winter as a Child

Travel is not just about being there.  Travel is about memory and anticipation.  As I pack my one small suitcase for Vienna in November, I am full of memories of past trips and high hopes for this one.

Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia Lady Caroline Scott as Winter; image from Commons Wikimedia

Last year, the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a special exhibit:  “Winter Tales.”  Paintings, sculpture and artifacts from all over the world were gathered in a glorious celebration of winter.  My very favorite piece was this portrait of a child with a fur-and-velvet muff and a scruffy little dog impatient for her to play:  “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Winter is so often personified as Death, or as a creaky old man.  Here, though, winter is a child full of hope and wonder.  She gazes out at us from the barren winter grounds of her British home, her face as fresh as the day she was painted in 1776 at the age of two or three.

This is not a glamorous society portrait.  It is only about 57 x 45 inches (just the right size to place over my fireplace, if I could afford such a thing!)  I can imagine the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, age 51 at the time, encountering Lady Caroline in the bare winter grounds of her home.  Anyone would be captivated by her rosy-cheeked face and direct gaze.  I can see Sir Joshua dashing off a sketch and finishing the portrait back in his studio.  It would have made a nice break from painting his more demanding adult subjects, who proudly posed with the emblems of their wealth and power:  swords, globes, weighty books, jewels and fine silks.

The British Peerage tells us that Lady Caroline was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. She married the 6th Marquess of Queensberry (slightly lower in rank than a Duke, but who’s keeping score?) She had 6 surviving children and lived to the age of 80.  So she was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen, although Jane died at age 41.  I’d like to think Lady Caroline read Jane’s books.

Lady Caroline was a privileged child.  As she grew up, no doubt she learned that many children were cold and dirty and hungry.  Her rank would come with some responsibilities to take care of the less fortunate.  She lived through the American Revolution, the Terror in France, and the Napoleonic Wars.  And we all know that even for the most privileged, life holds heartbreak and disappointment.  But on this wintry day, all that is in the future.  In this perfect moment, Lady Carolin stands on her sturdy little legs, happy to be walking about in the wide world.

Vienna is an enchanting city in any season, but my favorite time there is winter.  The Christmas season begins in late November, an ideal time for crowd-free travel.  I do not have a fur muff or a scruffy little dog, but I am setting off for Vienna with all the anticipation of a child at Christmas.