Heather's Monthly Articles
Downton Abbey: Season 4
January 2014

They're baaackkk!...No, not the creepy brown marmorated stinkbugs that join us this time of year to take shelter in our comfy, cozy, winterized homes, but the other Crawleys that keep us company Sunday nights. Yes, it's Downton season.


Downton Abbey, Season 4
What's a lady to do?

Disaster struck from the get-go when Cora, the Countess of cantiness, found herself unable to get out of bed. No, she wasn't the victim of polio or paratyphoid fever (both common diseases of the times in which the series is set). Instead, the unthinkable had happened; something so disastrous that it had the entire household - upstairs and down - in a flummox.

Cora's duplicitous lady's maid, Sarah O'Brien, had done a midnight flit and run off to India to wait on Rose's rambunctious mamma, the Marchioness of Flintshire. Flinty by name, flinty by nature; the mean-mouthed Marchioness is the anti-Cora. One can only assume that O'Brien took the position in an act of self-flagellation for the slippery soap business. What better gift for her to give Cora than an opportunity to seek out a more caring companion. Unfortunately, her ladyship didn't see it that way.

Downton Abbey, Season 4
Anthony and "Anna."

"Whatever do I do?!," wailed the Countess as she tried to figure out how one alights from bed in the morning, chooses clothes, and affixes them to one's body. Her pleas fell on deaf ears as Lord Grantham seemed to have developed Lady Mary's furrowed-frown syndrome and was far too preoccupied with wrangling Downton out of the hands of his six-month-old grandson. But enough spoilers. Needless to say Cora did emerge from her bed, thanks to the help of the ever put-upon, but perpetually polite, Anna. (Surely by now she can stop calling her husband "Mr. Bates"? It's too creepy and every time she says it I'm reminded of Anthony Perkins as his mother in Psycho. Must be the tight bun they both wear).

Downton Abbey, Season 4
A make-up artist affixes a frown line to "Lord Grantham's" forehead.

Given all that had happened over the last year in the Crowley household, it might seem trivial, not to mention a little petulant, of Lady C. to bemoan the lack of a lady's maid, but nobody pulls off prettier pout than Cora. Also, the position required so much more than getting one's employer up and dressed ready to face the day. For starters it was the lady's maid's duty to pick up all the clothes that had been discarded the previous night, lay them out, and brush them down. Grooming, dressing, washing, and repairing undergarments and making sure Her Ladyship's room was always neat as a pin were some of her other responsibilities. Being a dab hand with a brush and comb was also a plus. If a lady's maid knew all the latest fashions in hair styles, then ooh-la-la, she would be highly sought after. And if she was French and pretty, then ooh-triple-la! It must have been akin to having your meals prepared by Jacques Pépin.

Talking of meals, it took almost as long to dress for them as it did to prepare them. Times that amount by the number of meals enjoyed in a 24-hour period and you can see why attending to the personal grooming duties took four to five hours out of every day. Also, not until Her Ladyship had retired to bed for the night could the lady's maid finally go off duty. This meant very limited time for socializing with the downstairs staff. Not that they would have cared to hang out with her anyway, as she was usually resented for having such a close relationship with the lady of the house. Especially resentful was the second housemaid, whose job it would be to serve the lady's maid breakfast each morning. A little more strychnine with your eggs, Miss? Lady's maids were always addressed as "Miss," whether married or not.

Downton Abbey, Season 4

Yes, the life of a lady's maid was a pretty solitary one. The job did come with a few perks, though. For instance, she got to wear her mistress's cast-off clothing; just not the fine or sparkly outfits. Or the furs. (Which left what, exactly?) She also got to travel, for wherever Her Ladyship went, so did her maid. Given that the furthest we've seen Lady Cora venture away from Downton is Scotland, perhaps Miss O'Brien had a case of wanderlust that wasn't being fulfilled. Whatever her reason, Soapy Sarah is out of Downton. The series, though, still has more suds in it than a tub of full of Tide. Thank heavens! That's my kind of show.

To contact Heather:
E-mail: heather@mpt.org
Address: Afternoon Tea
Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117

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