Master of house sometimes just has to get it together
by Judy Elliott
February 17, 2013 12:34 AM | 1290 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In France, where a man spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, the musical and film “Les Miserables” introduces us to a bawdy couple, unsavory characters, who rent rooms and pour watered-down ale for sojourners.

They are not above picking pockets. The husband, who is an upper-class wannabe, sings a song about his lower-class life.

The title is: “Master of the House,” a term we don’t hear often in a time of gender equality in marriages and the workplace.

Even Dr. Oz, TV’s medicine man who preaches to save us from clogged arteries, admits he is “Mr. Oz” at home, where his opinions are not considered law.

But in early 20th century England, the master of the manor house was he who was to be obeyed. Loyal fans of “Downton Abbey,” ending its’ third season on PBS tonight, have accepted the role of Lord Grantham, heir to a fictional estate, without question until his stumbles of late.

(Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you are not watching season three.) Turns out Grantham’s investments in a Canadian rail line have gone belly-up, emptying the coffers of his wife’s dowry, that wellspring of money keeping “Downton Abbey” afloat.

But a story line saves the day when the Earl of Grantham’s son-in-law inherits a fortune, agreeing to support the Crawley family.

In a moment of gratitude, the Earl suggests he and his newfound relative become joint masters of the house. A nice gesture, but the son-in-law takes him seriously, looking at ledgers, inventories, discovering the estate has been poorly managed.

Farmland is lying fallow and tenant houses are falling down. Cracks in the veneer of the patrician Earl of Grantham are beginning to surface. Earlier in the month, a script of “Downton Abbey” allowed him to fall from grace, temporarily, when he insisted a London physician attend the birth of his first grandchild, snubbing the local doctor who had known the mother-to-be all of her life.

The socially-honed doctor, wearing white tie and tails, had dinner with the Crawley kin, “moseyed” upstairs to ignore the family doctor’s advice, oversaw a complicated birth, changed back into his formal wear and refused responsibility for a tragic loss. He never broke a sweat.

For once, the master of the house was confronted by his wife, a patient woman who had taken the earlier news of her lost inheritance with the momentary disappointment of watching rain clouds threaten a garden party.

Lady Grantham banned her husband to nights of sleeping in his dressing room until her crafty mother-in-law mediated. “Robert,” the dowager duchess decreed to her son. “People like us are not unhappily married.”

In real time, “people like us” were facing a changing England. During the Roaring Twenties, land as a definer of wealth began to lose its luster to taxes and manufacturing jobs in cities.

Women learned to type, leaving lives “in service” to work in offices. In 20 years time, in the 1940s, a shooting party in the English countryside could well mean a threat of Nazi snipers.

As “Downton Abbey” concludes its season, the master of the house faces the reality of a titled woman entering the workplace when his daughter begins writing a column for a London newspaper.

Luckily, we know the real manor house will ride out another war and live on as a working estate, “Highclere,” but can the fictional aristocracy of the series carry on?

Thoughtfully-crafted scripts may bend the lord of all he surveys to accept the loss of rituals of manor life as the future intrudes. He will either stop breathing rarified air and face new responsibilities or be buried in a musty black suit, aged by tradition.

I know the actor playing the part of master of the house in “Downton Abbey” is assuming a role. Still, so was Daniel Day-Lewis, and his Lincoln on film is now my Lincoln. The Earl of Grantham needs to get it together.

Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.
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