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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 9, 2015

“Mind the Van Dyk!”: Edith Crawley as Charles I escaping in disguise—and Molesley helping Daisy be “the one who gets away” from servitude at Downton Abbey

In the most recent of my posts about Downton Abbey
…I reiterated my longstanding claim that Julian Fellowes has been playing a sly and profound literary game in many ways, the latest identified by me being the veiled (and prophetic) parallel drawn by Dowager Countess Violet Crawley early in Season 2, between granddaughter Lady Edith riding a tractor during WWI, and Mr. Toad escaping prison disguised as a washerwoman in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic The Wind in the Willows. I concluded that  “…it has been shown since the beginning of the series that Edith repeatedly experiences her life as a privileged heiress at Downton Abbey, and more generally as a woman living in sexist Edwardian England, as a metaphorical prison from which she would wish to escape.  And this theme is still being played out in Season 5, more saliently than ever, as Edith’s “crime” against the societal norm prohibiting sex outside marriage is on the verge of being revealed, with some sort of “punishment” imposed on her!”

When I wrote those closing words yesterday afternoon, I never imagined that within 24 hours, during routine followup to tidy up loose ends in my sleuthing, I came upon additional evidence that Fellowes’s game has been ten times slyer and more profound than I had credited him for!

I.e., today I will show you—again, beyond  a reasonable doubt---that Violet’s allusion to Edith as Mr. Toad was actually only the surface layer of an even more intricate historical allusion hidden in plain sight in Downton Abbey—the TV show which has taken the historical drama world by storm for 5 years, but is still routinely sneered at by many cultural snobs as Fellowes’s pandering to the middlebrow cultural masses with a glorified Public TV soap opera.

I luckily happened upon this additional evidence during a Google search to check for any online commentary about Grahame’s Mr. Toad disguised as a washerwoman—what I found instead, to my astonishment, was the following description of another very famous escapee disguised as a washerwoman---none other than King Charles I of England who cross- and down-dressed to escape safely after the decisive defeat of himself and his Royalist followers by the Cromwell-led rebels:    “Puzzles in the Historical Record: The Highwayman Did it?” 12/20/14 by Cryssa Bazos

“…The details of [Charles I’s] flight following the Battle of Worcester are contained in the collection of contemporary accounts known as the Boscobel Tracts. These were written during the Restoration, over a decade after the escape. But there is one other account, written mere weeks after the incident, that includes a detail not mentioned in the Boscobel Tracts. A curious mind wonders why. Following the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651, a defeated Charles spent six weeks dodging Cromwell’s men and finally managed to escape to France. Charles arrived in Paris with Lord Wilmot on October 19, 1651. The Venetian Ambassador in France, Michiel Morosini, wrote a letter to the Doge of Venice on November 7, 1651 giving him the news of the escape. The tone of the letter suggests that the ambassador received this account directly from Charles:
“The king of England entered Paris on Wednesday evening…His dress was more calculated to move laughter than respect, and his aspect is so changed that those who were nearest believed him to be one of the lower servants. He relates that after the battle, he escaped with a gentleman and a soldier, who had spent most of his days in highway robbery and had a great experience of hidden paths….When night came he took the way to London, where he arrived without being recognised and remained there in the same disguise. He was lodged in the house of a woman who got a ship for him, and TO AVOID RISKS IN GOING THROUGH THE CITY, HE WORE HER CLOTHES, AND WITH A BAG OF WASHING ON HIS HEAD he got to his ship in safety and so crossed.” 
Certainly the most outrageous portion of Morosini’s letter, that Charles went to London and DISGUISED HIMSELF AS A WASHERWOMAN TO SNEAK ABOARD A SHIP, may have been to direct attention away from Shoreham, from where he did sail. It would not have been difficult for Parliament to discover which captain had ferried him across the channel had they known the true port of departure.” END OF QUOTE FROM CRYSSA BAZOS BLOGPOST

The ALL CAPS portions make it clear that Grahame had his own bit of sly historical allusive fun when he parodied Charles I’s escape from capture in England in the escape of Mr. Toad from prison. And, in turn, it’s now equally clear that Fellowes (whose long-awaited adaptation of Wind in the Willows will be opening this year) understood Grahame’s allusive game, and has added a layer on top of it!

I.e., Fellowes has made Violet not only a wit but a prophet, as the words she speaks to Edith early in Season 2 have only now, late in Season 5, been acted out by Edith herself when she takes baby Marigold and flees to a new life away from (what has always felt to her like) prison and a kind of living death at Downton Abbey! This tells us that Fellowes has been carefully planning a very long arc for these subtle historical and literary allusions, with seeds planted in Season 2 only bearing fruit in Season 5!

What a wild intellectual ride Fellowes has been taking us all on! And, it’s only after we realize the full extent of the above covert, multilayered historical and literary allusion, that we also can see Fellowes winking at us about it in wickedly clever ways that I can only describe as Austenian. Check these ‘trivial details’ out:

First, note that in this very same episode in Season 5 when Edith escapes like Charles I, Mr. Molesley just happens to chat with Daisy about her latest reading, which she tells him is about the War of the Spanish Succession. This prompts Molesley to lend Daisy Volume 5 from his precious set of the Cambridge Modern History, a precious gift from his father.  He tells Daisy it contains interesting material about “war and politics during Queen Anne’s reign”—Anne of course was the first English Queen after Elizabeth a century before, and the last Queen for two and a half centuries before the current Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.

So first of all, Fellowes is amplifying Daisy’s quest for an education and a career worthy of her high native intellect, by sounding an echo of the “war and politics during Queen Anne’s reign” in the subtle gender and class war and politics at Downton Abbey itself.  And we also can see that Edith, as the second sister, is in a somewhat similar position at Downton Abbey as Charles I, the second son of James I, was until his elder brother predeceased their father in 1612.

But Fellowes is also indirectly alerting viewers to pay attention to English history in general, to be alert to other historical parallels, such as, e.g., Charles I’s escape in drag!

Not long after that first conversation in company downstairs, Daisy and Molesley have an intimate tete a tete about their respective dreams of education, and while Molesley says his childhood dreams will never come true, it’s too late for him, he is very eager to help Daisy learn, “to make sure somebody got away”.

So, as my Subject Line suggests, the theme of escape, whether from beheading, prison, or country house servitude, is a primary concern of Fellowes, and it plays out with so many of the characters, but especially Daisy and Edith, as female characters with special obstacles in the path of their freedom and happiness.

And I’ve got one more juicy tidbit that shows how intricately Fellowes has painted this portrait of escape. Check this out:  “A £17m painting and 36-hour dinner party… welcome back to Downton Abbey”
By David Stephenson  9/21/14
“You won’t hear this phrase uttered in tonight’s opening episode of Downton Abbey, but the footmen in the dining room at Highclere Castle have been told to “Mind the Van Dyck!”
The revelation comes from Kevin Doyle, who plays the luckless and put-upon servant Joseph Molesley. And this is no ordinary Van Dyck either. It’s the portrait of Charles I, which has been valued at £17million. It hangs in the State Dining Room, and on either side are portraits of the Carnarvon ancestors who took part in the English Civil War. 
Tonight’s dinner party scene, which features a passionate row about politics, took 36 hours to film. Doyle said: “It’s very different filming at Ealing [where downstairs scenes are shot] and Highclere. It offers different challenges. You’re in someone’s home for a start and lots of people are making sure that you’re very careful.
“There are also very valuable paintings around so there are other concerns apart from the work. For instance, you also can’t sit on certain chairs. Thankfully, there haven’t been any mishaps but there’s always the danger it could happen. In that dining room, there’s a £17million Van Dyck on the wall, so you don’t mess about with it! “

As you surely have deduced already, that is the image of the equestrian Charles I at the top of this post. And I almost wonder whether Fellowes specifically instructed the real life Kevin Doyle to pass along that bit of backstage trivia, as an echo of Molesley’s passion for history.

And there’s more in this vein--Wikipedia reveals to us how Kenneth Grahame in 1908 wove his own Charles I allusion into Mr. Toad, via another great English country house, Hardwick House:

“Hardwick House is…reputed to have been the inspiration for E. H. Shepard's illustrations of Toad Hall in the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame…Charles I visited the house while he was a prisoner on escort from Oxford (and played bowls on the lawn by the river)…. Charles Day Rose purchased Hardwick House shortly before he was created a baronet of "Hardwick House in the Parish of Whitchurch in the County of Oxford" on 19 July 1909. Rose is said to have been one of the models for "Toad" of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows. “

So, talking about hiding the allusion in plain sight, how delicious is the irony of the TV audience watching a dinner scene and subliminally registering the presence of Charles I seated on his horse looking down on the actors playing these roles which echo that unfortunate King’s escape and demise.

And finally, note that Edith’s escape with Marigold just happens to occur during an episode containing an equestrian race in which a character named Charles competes---we are again being prompted by Fellowes to pay attention to his “throwaway details”, because they actually (as, again, in Jane Austen’s novels) are anything but throwaway! In fact, there’s no escaping them, once you (as Miss Bates might have said) put on a second pair of spectacles.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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