Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard Louis Bayard
Novels

Does Lady Mary Have a Heart?
New York Times, February 7, 2016

WANTED: Docent/Tour Guide

PURPOSE OF JOB: To provide an interactive but non-larcenous educational experience for visitors to a venerable Yorkshire estate.

DUTIES MAY INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO:

  • Conducting estate tours of 10 people—and no more—from the small library to the big library to the drawing room to the smoking room to ... you get the idea.

  • Positioning a servant in each room to keep peasants from walking off with "the odd first edition."

  • Pretending that the house in question is genuinely cozy. (At night, maybe.)

  • Devising new security strategies to prevent cheeky rascals from slipping upstairs and disturbing the ulcerous lord of the manor with troublesome questions about his place in the social order.

  • Coping with distraught grandmothers who react to their charitable disenfranchisement by screaming things like "I do not wish to see her face until I am used to seeing a traitor in the family."

  • Pointing out to aforementioned grandmother that she might have phrased that last bit better.

  • Reassuring occupants of said house that they are not Belgians waiting for the invasion or monkeys in a zoo and most definitely not fat ladies in a circus.

QUALIFICATIONS:

  • Must be able to string velvet rope across staircases in back wing.

  • Must have a better handle on the estate's history than its current owners. For instance, candidate must know more about the architect than "He built lots of lovely big buildings," and if the estate is called, let us say, an abbey, candidate must grasp why it is so called.

TO APPLY:

Please present your qualifications to Mr. Bertie Pelham, late of Brancaster. Do not—repeat, do not—approach the butler, who will tell you that you are "a dangerous precedent" and "a guillotine in Trafalgar Square" and "an affront to the law of property, which is the cornerstone of any" ... you get the idea.

Oh, who am I kidding, Abbots? We are the docents of Downton Abbey, each and every one of us. We have walked its halls. We have shadowed its residents—dined with them, died with them. We have overheard their arguments, eavesdropped on their secrets, endured their arid stretches, weathered their short sharp shocks. We know fully as much about the Crawleys as they do themselves, if not more.

So it seems entirely fitting that, in the show's final episodes, "Downton Abbey" should turn its gaze back on us.

"There's a curiosity about these places," suggests the tourism impresario Tom Branson. "About this way of life." The Crawleys, though, are baffled by the idea of opening their doors to the curious. "Why should anyone pay to see a perfectly ordinary house?" wonders the dowager countess.

"To charge money so people can snoop around our home," sniffs Robert. "What a revolting suggestion." The Crawleys can't grasp that they have graduated—or devolved—from power to spectacle.

And what better confirmation than that little boy ("Bring all the family!") blundering into the Earl's bedroom as though Lord G. were the second half of a double feature. The Grantham dynasty has become the Grantham show, and we pay our sixpence every week.

And with it, we bring certain expectations, which Baron Fellowes is taking a perverse 11th-hour pleasure in flouting. Remember dear sweet Carson? Downstairs patriarch? Second father to Lady Mary? Flustered, endearing suitor of Mrs. Hughes? It seems we must now accept an alternative reality in which he is a prat and a schmuck and very possibly the worst late-in-life husband that a sensible woman could find herself saddled with.

No satisfying the man! The coffee's not up to snuff. The smoked salmon doesn't have lemon or horseradish. Let's bring in a hall boy for polishing and a maid for the beds because "I do like those sharp corners." (I have just the sharp corners in mind.) Oh, and let's not drink wine with dinner because "somehow it feels disloyal" to the master of the house. It won't be too long, I fear, before Mrs. H. explodes like one of the Earl's ulcers.

The most surprising consequence of Carson's smugness and complacency is to make—and who would have imagined?—a martyr of Hissing Thomas. "You are the under-butler," declares Carson, "a post that is fragrant with memories of a lost world, and no one is sorrier to say that than I am. But you're not a creature of today."

Thing is, Barrow is awfully sweet with little Georgie and the girls (creatures of tomorrow) and he's awfully unhappy about leaving Downton, so is it too much to ask that he become the world's first manny? Or else an English as a first language instructor for the likes of Andy? Oh, I know Barrow has sown evil in his day, but, to borrow a phrase from Jessica Rabbit, he's not bad, he's just drawn that way.

As for Lady Mary, just which way is she drawn? She has made a conquest of Henry Talbot, who, under the impetus of London's most sudden rainstorm ever, admits: "I know I'm not what you're after. My prospects are modest at best, and you, well, you're a great catch. But you're also a woman that I happen to be falling in love with. Gosh, that sounds rather feeble doesn't it?"

"No, not at all," answers Mary. "As an argument, I think it's rather compelling."

And in case you think that her dissertation-defense-committee response belies a heart that thrums beneath, I refer you to: 1) the look of zero-Kelvin triumph in Mary's eyes as she steers Henry T. out of that restaurant (under the chagrined gaze of Evelyn Napier); 2) the slightly incredulous "I thought I was going to have to dress myself" when Anna returns late from a doctor's appointment; and 3) the Vince Lombardi bark of "This is weakling talk" when her mother raises the possibility of the Crawleys one day leaving the Abbey.

I fully expected Cora to drop and do 50, but I'm still not sure what to expect of Lady Mary. She may have found the man of her dreams, but what if she's a woman of no dreams? Is there anything in that heart but sharp corners?

Best scene: It's always rather easy to overlook Cora's contribution to the proceedings, but I was touched by her quiet feminist throwdown with Lord G.

"I didn't say you were," he remonstrates.

"Didn't you?" she answers.

Elizabeth McGovern has made no secret of how constricting she's found the part of Cora, but I continue to believe she's essential to the show: the root note of the chord.

Best line: Violet, for once, was unintentionally funny: "The patients are my priority. As president, I am their representative on Earth." And while I don't share Mary's sentiment that Bertie is "boring to an Olympic degree," I admire her phrasing. Still, I must award this week's crown to poor Mrs. Hughes, who, upon learning that Carson is "expecting a delicious dinner prepared by the fair hands of my beautiful wife," mutters: "There's a threat in there somewhere." (I myself heard, "There's a flirt in there somewhere," which I actually prefer.)

This week's drinking game: A gulp of whiskey sour for every time the Crawley sisters snipe at each other. Seriously, is there some 1920s version of Dr. Phil who can set these ladies straight?

I Google so you don't have to: 1) Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873): fashionable European court painter who carried out dozens of portraits of Queen Victoria and her family. 2) "Steady the Buffs!": a catchphrase popularized by Rudyard Kipling that means staying calm in the face of adversity. Something to do with the British Army's East Kent regiment and their buff-colored uniforms.

Department of other stuff ...

  • If Edith doesn't have her own maid, who does her hair?

  • For those Abbots who missed it: a fascinating look into the mechanics behind last week's Bravura Blood Barf. (And yes, Cora's dress was ruined.)

  • I didn't think I could be any more done with Daisy, and yet it seems I can. What a bee-yotch she's being to Mrs. Patmore! Slandering the good woman's name and hiding Mr. Mason's letter and doing everything she can to stand in the way of love. I pray that she will be pelted with farm-fresh vegetables.

  • Abbots, didn't we just stick a fork in the Peter Coyle plotline? Baxter can't really be planning to visit him in jail? The only consolation is that this case can't possibly drag out as long as Mr. Green's.

  • Awfully creepy moment when Lord G. suggested giving visitors a gander at Lady Mary in her bath. Even Carson was thrown for a loop. I did love the bit, though, where the Earl, reclining in the baronial splendor of his bedchamber, intones, "Sometimes in life sacrifices have to be made." P. G. Wodehouse, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

So what do you think, Abbots? Will Barrow really be kicked to the curb? Will Edith come clean with Bertie? Will Miss Cruikshank get Dickie and Isobel back on track? Will Carson be getting to know the downstairs couch? Will Henry emerge intact from his next auto race? Will Mary jump out of a cake if he does? Were ligaments truly not invented when she had George? Will Marigold ever speak?

Three to go!



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Louis Bayard