Monday, February 13, 2012

Downton Abbey Fever

There is much to love about Downton Abbey. Airing here on PBS as part of "Masterpiece Classics" and now ending its second season, the series is filmed in an historic English estate, there are marvelous clothes and real settings, and the characters are feisty and largely likeable, with fast-paced plots just sudsy enough to keep our interest. It is written by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote the equally frothy motion picture Gosford Park (and whom you may remember as the rascal Killwillie in the Scottish-based Monarch of the Glen, a more modern take on the aristocratic and sporting life that remains in Great Britain). The series is a glimpse into the large scale country house era that once existed on both sides of the Atlantic and, seemingly, something of which we can not get enough. Of course, there are pantries and larders and silver vaults, too.

Carson, the loyal butler of Downton Abbey, awaits his supper below stairs.

As in Gosford Park, Fellowes has created a world where the servant and sire know their position and everything runs within well-oiled systems, precise order, and an awareness of one's place. World War I was a game-changer for all of that, even for our American "aristocracy." What I like about Fellowes' approach is that he pays equal attention to the domestic staff, which outnumbered the family members several times over, as he does the lives of those who are on the receiving end of such loyal service. In the past several decades, the museum world in Britain and the United States has begun to take notice of this importance. No house museum tour is worth its admission without seeing a glimpse into the "below stairs" life. Kitchens, sculleries, pantries, cellars, laundries, and servant bedrooms are now regular parts of most house museum experiences with the names, faces and histories of the domestic staff of a household often researched in detail. [Of course, a love of these spaces fueled my interest in writing, The Pantry-Its History and Modern Uses.]

Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, Ohio is an architectural nod to English manors and an
example of the country house expression in the United States in the early 20th century.

I have always been an Anglophile. This is motivated by architectural and historical interest as much as great literature, a rainy and lush climate (but notice how it never seems to rain at Downton Abbey?), stodgy nursery food and a good cup of tea (OK, and for a brief few pubescent years I read a lot of Regency romances). My great-grandparents, of German and English heritage, were über Anglophiles. In 1912 they set out with their architect and decorator on buying trips to Great Britain to find suitable furnishings–even buying old bits of manors and castles that were for sale–for the Tudor Revival estate they were creating back in Akron, Ohio. Enamored as they were with their British travels (Compton Wynyates and Haddon Hall were especially inspiring), they decided to stay a few extra weeks and went ahead and cancelled their homeward trip on the Titanic in April 1912. Stan Hywet Hall likely owes it ultimate completion to that fateful decision. That it even exists today is because it was signed over in 1957 by the six Seiberling children to a non-profit museum foundation and left as originally furnished and decorated–complete with paintings, china, silver, full cupboards, closets and drawers.

Gertrude Penfield Seiberling, c. 1925.
The house, which opened in 1915, had all of the grandiose trappings of its era and yet always maintained a cozier sense of home and family. There were balls and galas, events in the Music Room, garden parties and large family dinners (F.A. Seiberling, my great-grandfather, was one of nine children who lived in the Akron area and he liked to gather the clan together often). Christmas was a beloved time and my father's childhood Christmases at the manor were a source of many happy memories. On certain occasions, the manor and its grounds were also opened to the public or to employees of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. The English would have scoffed, I'm sure, but the attention to detail in the house is transporting and the intended effect has succeeded in the appearance of an estate that has evolved over centuries. Charles Schneider, a Cleveland architect, won the commission because his design was warm and appealing, not at all like the marbled halls of many of the Gilded Age homes in Newport and New York that the Seiberling family found wanting.

Lord and Lady Grantham–
to the manor born in Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey incorporates aspects of the American Gilded Age in the newer wealth of Cora, Lady Grantham's heritage paired with the aristocratic, but slowly impoverished, Edwardian English estate of her husband Lord Grantham. Despite his wife's money, and their three daughters, the estate and its contents must pass by law to the next male heir, ideally with sufficient funds for its maintenance to keep it within direct lineage–an example of the male heir primogeniture holdover of feudal law. Marriages of this kind were not uncommon during this time when wealthy women from American industrial families were paired with English noblemen to infuse dwindling estates with cash and uphold their preservation. Thus, a tentative "marriage of convenience" was forged between pockets of the American nouveau riche and a few bastions of fading English aristocracy.

The F.A. Seiberling family around 1915, after Stan Hywet was completed. My grandfather, James Penfield, is at the upper left, alongside his sister-in-law Henrietta Buckler Seiberling (who would later be instrumental in the creation of Alcoholic's Anonymous), brothers Fred and Willard, and in front (from left), sister Virginia Seiberling Handy, parents F.A. Seiberling and Gertrude Penfield Seiberling, flanking youngest sibling, Franklin, Jr., and sister Irene S. Harrison.

One of the many reasons I continue to enjoy Stan Hywet today is because it is the only repository of family memory that I have left in Akron: we long ago left the small house across town where I grew up and my grandparents' home, just up the road from Stan Hywet, was sold in 1983. Where there were once several dozen staff, by the end of World War II there were only a few servants (and the once well-manicured grounds more or less went wild). Meanwhile, my father's household in a comfortable 1923 Spanish Mission style house nearby had two live-in staff and several hired as needed. He and my mother spent their married years in a much smaller suburban Colonial, across town, with no maids. By the 1960s, the world that my family had known no longer existed and paralleled the demise of the midwestern Rust Belt's industrial heyday. While I can't deny that I am grateful for a glimpse into this other world––or that I take pride in my heritage on both sides of my family––at the same time I am blessed to have had a grounded upbringing from each of my parents that focused on values, kindness and the merits of a good education: part middle class suburban offerings and part New Hampshire farm.

F.A. Seiberling in front of Stan Hywet in 1942.
It's fun to speculate "what if?" What if the family had returned on the Titanic? Would Stan Hywet still have been built? What if there hadn't been a hostile takeover of Goodyear Tire & Rubber in 1921? What if the family had still been involved with Goodyear and never founded Seiberling Tire & Rubber (when F.A. lost Goodyear he turned around after a few months and started another tire company, which stayed in the family until a corporate raid in 1960)? What if the family still owned Stan Hywet? Would there have been a pattern of primogeniture as there was in Great Britain or would my grandfather, the second of two sons, who ran Seiberling Tire after his father passed the baton, been the heir apparent to the home? The speculation is fun but the reality is that, in deeding the entire estate and its contents in 1957, the six siblings guaranteed that the property and grounds would never be divided, sold or destroyed. Today it continues to live up to its noblesse oblige Latin motto carved over the door: "Non Nobis Solum" (Not for us alone) with a well-preserved house, collections and accurately restored landscapes and gardens. [Meanwhile, Highclere Castle, the very English and historic setting of Downton Abbey, remains privately owned through direct lineage of the Carnarvon family since 1679, and is also open to the public.]

So as my husband and I watch Downton Abbey from our humble doublewide on our Kentucky farm, it seems a rather strange way of glimpsing a reassuring sense of order and family life in a changing world. While the fictional characters in the household of Downton Abbey mourn the way it was before World War I, nearly one hundred years later we look back at a past we did, or did not, know with the same, odd kind of longing. No matter what era we're in, it's usually about one's sense of place in the world, family hierarchy and relations, a well-appointed house (or hopes and plans of one), great dinner parties, and the intricacies of romance and relationships. Strong and imperious no-nonsense matriarchs with great one-liners go a long way, too, even if snark was probably not very fashionable in those days. I want to be like the Dowager Countess when I grow up! And, while we're being silly (sort of), a devoted butler would be fabulous.