What is a weekend? In Season 3 of Downton Abbey, the glorious masterpiece of period drama created by genius Julian Fellowes (can you tell how much I love this show?), this question is posed by Dame Maggie Smith’s character.
Now, I’m not a countess or a duchess or a princess, but I am at a strange point in my life where I actually understand this rather curious question. Weekdays and weekend days seem to blur together since I am not teaching full-time this year. Yes, I am tutoring via zoom, so I do have work to do, and I have made a goal to write each and every day, but when what you do is from home and at the time you decide to do it, does it matter if it is Wednesday or Sunday?
The dowager countess Grantham, embodied fully by Maggie Smith, has never “worked” a day in her life. She married well and has been cared for all of her life, even now in her reduced status of “dowager” since her husband passed away and her son inherited the title of Lord Grantham. His wife is the new Lady Grantham, thus Maggie Smith’s demotion to dowager countess. All of her days are equal and all of them are her own to do as she wishes. With no male heirs, Lord Grantham’s distant relative, Matthew Crawley is called to Downton Abbey to learn that he will be the next Lod Grantham. The family is all around dismayed by this and quite shocked that he is a working man. Least you think he is a mail carrier or a carpenter, he is a lawyer, which in America is a respectable and valued professional occupation. But, in England, particularly during the Edwardian period, anyone who has to get up and get dressed and report to an office each day is a working man, not a member of the aristocracy. This is why the family takes a pause from the service of their multi-course evening meal when he mentions that he will continue to work as a lawyer and help Lord Grantham with the running of the estate “on the weekend.”
Downton Abbey is a beautiful series, with lavish costumes, incomparable scenery, and superb acting, but one of the greatest things about this series is how we can all see behind the curtain. We can see how the other side lives. We can also see how their pampered lives are made possible by the people below the stairs.
When I was teaching, I always ended the year with 8th grade with the Victorian novel The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Season 1 of Downton Abbey was a perfect vehicle for teaching my students about the formality of the Victorian Era, and how social class was of utmost importance. Showing them select clips, such as this famous one from Season 3, helped them understand why Holmes and Watson spoke the way they did, why women were often forced into difficult situations because of the inheritance laws in England, and why etiquette and social grace was so important. Even the servants had excellent table manners and spoke with proper English. It was one of my favorite things to teach, where I could bring one of my personal obsessions, the Victorian Era, into the classroom. When they encounter British literature in high school, I hope they think back to these lessons and what they learned from me.
I know that as time goes on I will get my bearings and my days will fall into more of a routine. It’s only been a week since school started, two if you count the teacher in-service days, so it’s early days in my new lifestyle. I won’t be asking “What is a weekend?” for much longer.