Who is really the boss of Downton Abbey?
Ever wonder why Cora Crawley, the American, is simpering around as the Countess of Downton? Personally, she has always gotten on my nerves a little bit, especially because I have read my Edith Wharton, and I know perfectly well that Cora owns the whole lot of them, lock, stock, and barrel. I enjoy Downton Abbey as much as anyone else, but come on, even at the beginning of the series, their lifestyle is already hopelessly out of style. The family is all so pompous and full of themselves, when the fact is that they would all have to have gone off to work long ago if Cora’s VERY NEW AMERICAN money had not saved the day. And for that she has to teeter around that palace and act pleased as punch not to be English? Please.
Well, I guess the fact is that women didn’t have that much to do in the 19th century, even if they were rich. Maybe especially if they were rich. Certainly there were quite a few wealthy American women in the late 19th century who thought that Cora Crawley’s life in England was better than anything they could find to do in the United States. Food for thought, no?
Where did Cora Crawley come from?
Cora Crawley is based on real American women who married into the royal family in the second half of the 19th century. It was a time when industry brought a lot of “new money” into American families, and British aristocratic families were having the opposite problem…their traditional means of making money no longer supported their properties, and in most cases they were limited in ways through which they could generate income; inheritance laws were designed to keep the properties intact.
Back in the US, new opportunities in industry meant that there were suddenly a lot of “nouveau riche” families that seemed trashy to more established families, so the wives and daughters were shut out of the social life that they might expect to have. As their daughters came of age, they couldn’t make good matches, which at the time, was the woman’s main job.
The daughters were taken off to England for a London season, perhaps in hopes of giving them an entree into New York society or, in hopes of marrying them off to English aristocracy. Well, you know, obviously American women are AWESOME, so of course the guys were interested, but marriage is serious business among the aristocracy. So the men were attracted to the women (of course), but the men married the women for their money. Then, depending on the marriage I guess, sometimes the women were made to feel bad about it for the rest of their lives.
Who was Edith Wharton, and what does she have to do with Downton Abbey?
Edith Wharton, the author, was part of the “Old New York” society, and during her lifetime, she wrote and published many novels, stories, and novellas about this lifestyle. Her very last book, The Buccaneers, was written about this phenomena. Wharton traveled to Europe quite a bit and spent her later life living in France, so she must have known some of the people who actually lived this lifestyle.
Note that to the modern reader, it might seem like “historical fiction”, but when it was written, it was contemporary fiction, and it was by an insider, so Edith Wharton’s work is an authentic portrayal of the lifestyle. Also, since she was American, her style is easier for the modern reader to follow than some of her British contemporaries. So don’t be intimidated. If you’ve been wanting to read more “classics”, Wharton is a good place to start.
Go Beyond What You Read in School
You might have read one of Edith Wharton’s short stories or even her novels in school. Ethan Frome is the most common of her novels to be taught in school: partly because it’s short and partly because it’s fairly easy for students to understand and analyze. I don’t mind Ethan Frome, but it’s sad, and it’s not set in New York society, which I find more entertaining. Another one that might be taught is The House of Mirth. It’s longer, but also fairly easy for students to understand. This novel about a woman who just can’t make it in the system, and finally she runs out of options.
To me, it’s just a bit cheesy because it is tragic: I think when you “run out of options” you choose to run out of options. So I don’t feel too sorry for the protagonist. My favorites are The Age of Innocence and The Buccaneers. The Age of Innocence was made into a great Hollywood movie with Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, and Daniel Day-Lewis. I’ve read and enjoyed the book too. I like it because there really are no easy answers for the characters in this book. As in real life, they figure it out and do the best they can. I can get behind that attitude. I consider it very American, at least the best of being American.
The Buccaneers is Edith Wharton’s last book. I find it frustrating because she died before it was finished, so it was finished after her death. When I recently reread it, and I felt I could almost pinpoint the page where the ghostwriter took over, and the book ends on a much different note than I suspect it would have if Edith Wharton had written it herself. She would have been able to reconcile the conflict between the New World (and new money) and the Old (and old money) in a more subtle but more satisfying manner.
Having said that, it’s a highly enjoyable book. Although the central character is Nan St. George, the novel also follows the different paths her sister and friends’ lives take as they marry into English families.
When I first watched Downton Abbey, I realized right away that Cora Crawley represents the life that one of the characters in The Buccaneers might have had 20 years after the end of this book.
A Word of Warning
Marrying a foreign national of any country is a serious endeavor. When you do it, you suddenly find yourself a citizen of a country that may or may not recognize you as an American. If you have children with that person, and live in his or her country, eventually your citizenship is going to become a moot point if your children grow up seeing themselves as another nationality. I know quite a few women and men who have done this. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t, but what is true is that especially once they have children, “you can’t go home again” (Thomas Wolfe). I guess because I have always been fascinated with understanding people from different parts of the world, enough so that I eventually lived overseas for more than a decade, so The Buccaneers was a natural starting place for me.
Regardless, between my interest in the subject and the popularity of Downton Abbey, I have quite a few reading options for you!
Books Related to other “Buccaneers” and the Edith Wharton life
If you read Consuelo Vanderbilt’s true story, you will see the relationship between her life and the fictionalized story in The Buccaneers. She is from the same family as fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and her son, Anderson Cooper, from CNN.
The Caton sisters beat the rush and were some of the first Buccaneers…when people could still remember the Revolution!
Same picture…different book. Weird, huh? This one is a light, readable account of several of the real “Buccaneers”.
And here’s yet another option….Edith Wharton wrote about it first, but she definitely wasn’t the only!
Another real-life basis for Downton Abbey from a different perspective.
More from The Lois Level about life in upper crust England:
For a light hearted look from Nancy Mitford and her sisters’ varying points of view check out It’s all OK…take it from England’s Mitford Sisters
And for possibly an even more entertaining point of view: Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”: What Jane Austen would have written in the 20th Century
Note and Warning:
The detail above is from Coreggio’s “Leda and the Swan”, which is significant in The Buccaneers. The full painting is extremely sexy, so it’s at the end of this post for the benefit of those who might be reading this in public.
“Classic novels” versus “historical novels”
If you like to read “historical novels”, try to give some “classic novels” a try. They are so much better because the authors were there and know what life was really like. Getting used to the style can be a challenge, but once you are, you will find so much more depth in “classic novels” that “historical novels” will start to seem cheesy in comparison.
A “classic novel” was actually written in the time period in which it was set, while a “historical novel” was written about a different time period than the one in which it was written.
“Classic novels’‘ written by Americans are best to start with because the American writing style is usually more straightforward than the British.
It’s a good idea to watch some film clips or google some photos of the setting before you start.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and PBS (Public Broadcasting System) have been making wonderful miniseries of these books for years, which can also be helpful.
A Selection of Edith Wharton’s most well known books and related films.
Note: The Buccaneers is also available on Amazon Prime.
Summer is not as well known as some of Edith Wharton’s other novels. Because this novel was controversial for its subject matter when it was published, it’s pretty interesting now!
Most of Edith Wharton’s books are in the public domain. You can find free downloads here, at Project Gutenberg’s Edith Wharton page. The Buccaneers is an exception because it was unfinished at Wharton’s death and was completed by a different author, but you should be able to find that at your library. Because there are several pages of Wharton’s works, click on the bottom right to see more.
Anthony Trollope: Similar to Edith Wharton
The Way We Live Now shows the other side: British “New Money” trying to invade the “Old”. Trollope’s style is more intricate than Wharton’s. He was a prolific writer who had some great stories to tell.
If you like historical fiction, you really owe it to yourself to read fiction from authors who were there; it’s really much better.
You have to be ready to look up any references you don’t understand; remember, things change.
Download free copies of Anthony Trollope’s books from Project Gutenberg here.
The Way We Live Now is also available on Amazon Prime. There are several BBC versions of Trollope’s novels.