Friday, March 29, 2013

Why Are We Obsessed by Aristocrats in Literature and Film? By Jacqueline Seewald

The March 11, 2013 issue of Time Magazine featured an interview with Tom Stoppard regarding “Parade’s End.” Oscar and Tony winning Stoppard wrote a recent film version of “Anna Karenina” for the screen as well as the five part wonderfully complex series adaptation of “Parade’s End,” the novel by Ford Madox Ford—in actuality a series of four novels combined into one unit. It’s considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

In the Time interview, Stoppard is asked if he was surprised by the affection people have for “Downton Abbey,” set in the same era. His answer is interesting. Apparently, “Downton Abbey” didn’t exist when he started writing his adaptation of “Parade’s End.” He simply loved the novel.

Brits adore reading and writing about aristocracy. But they are not alone--so do Americans and other nationalities. The fascination is with a code of honor and ethics that is antiquated but absorbing all the same because it is part of the traditions of a larger than life culture in a unique sociological context.

I confess to being quite taken by stories of British aristocrats myself. My one published historical novel is a Regency for which I enjoyed doing a great deal of research. It combines history and sensual romance. I considered Jayne Ann Krentz’s endorsement/blurb for TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS a great honor--a book now available in all e-book formats as well as print.

Let’s hope Tom Stoppard continues adapting great novels for the media because he does it so well. It’s not surprising that he deconstructed Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” into “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

As to “Downton Abby,” I have watched every episode with the utmost interest and attention as well, but there are serious flaws. Perhaps this series suffers from not being adapted from a quality novel as was
“Parades’s End.” However, the “Upstairs Downstairs” style of drama makes for absorbing entertainment because character is key. The traditional aristocratic household still captures the interest and imagination of the common man.

We are not just interested in the aristocratic past either. How many people are following Kate Middleton’s pregnancy? The Duchess of Cambridge, a former commoner, is married to Prince William and considered one of the most influential people in the world.

What’s your thinking? As readers and writers should we be interested in the aristocracy?


Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Interesting take on the topic, Jacqueline! Yes, the 'fatal' flaw of Downton Abby is fatal--as in killing off everyone!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

We like aristocrats same as we like celebrities. Reading about their lives provides an escape from our mundane routines. They lead exciting, glamorous lifestyles that we can only fantasize about having for ourselves. So it's an escape, a dream, something fun to absorb us. Would we really want their very public lives where you can't escape the press, have duties to perform, and always have to look your best? Probably not, but we can read about them like we read fairy tales.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I felt the same way. I was appalled by the way the author of Downton Abby killed off two important main characters this season. Even daytime soap operas handle these situations better.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Nancy,

An excellent analysis! Aristocrats are larger than life celebrities. And many of us do fantasize about leading such glamorous lives. But I always think of Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" in connection with this. We never know how unpleasant it can be to constantly be in the public eye.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Interesting post. Yes, I think we're fascinated by lives that seem so different from ours, and by reading stories about them we sometimes come to understand that their lives aren't so different after all. Nancy's reference to "Richard Cory" is apt.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for dropping by, Susan. Yes, we commoners do find these larger than life individuals fascinating.
Shakespeare always used the aristocracy for the main characters in his tragedies for a reason.

Rose Anderson said...

Very interesting post, Jacqueline. Thanks for sharing. :)


Carole Price said...

I love Downton Abby, flaws and all (didn't recognize any) and can't wait for Part 4. That said, I was shocked by the death of a main character. What was the author thinking?

Nancy Means Wright said...

Fascinating, Jacquie. I love Tom Stoppard's offbeat plays. Hadn't realized that he also adapts so many novels. Thanks for this.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Interesting post. Part of "Downton Abbey's" appeal is nostalgia for a time gone by. I remember how popular "Upstairs, Downstairs" was in the 70's. As for royalty, people are always fascinated by the lives of the royals, movie stars, and star athletes.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Rose, Carole, Nancy and Marilyn,

Thank you all for dropping by and leaving comments! We all seem to be watching "Downton Abbey." How many are watching "Parade's End"?

D'Ann said...

Downton Abbey is flawed? Say it ain't so!

Super post!

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

One of our sons gave us the DVD set of Downton Abbey as a Christmas gift. We had watched it previously on TV, but it was worth the second view. I'll have to look into the adaptation ofParade's End. Thanks for the very interesting post.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, D'Ann,

Is "Downton Abbey" flawed? Well, I'd say yes, but I guess you could argue a case either way.

Maryannwrites said...

I've never been that absorbed with aristocracy. Like many little girls I did play with the fantasy of being a princess, but that was some fairy-tale princess, not a real one. My world view was too narrow as a child. (smile)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mary,

I saw the five part series of "Parade's End" on HBO. It's a lot more intellectually complex than "Downton Abbey" but they both deal with the same era very effectively. And both series are absorbing. I'd really like to discuss this a lot further but I don't want to spoil either series for those who haven't seen them as yet. I will say this, I most certainly want to read the books that "Parade's End" is based upon.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maryann,

I agree that for many Americans idolizing aristocrats goes against the grain since we fought the Revolutionary War to cast off the yoke of aristocratic oppression. George Washington refused any title but President. Our first leaders were great men but never wanted any kingly crowns. Yet the fascination with such individuals does remain.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I knew the lead actor who played Lady Mary's husband wanted to leave Downton Abbey and the screenwriter didn't want Lady Mary to be hanging on if the husband had merely gone overseas or left her. He wanted a clean cut so she could move on in life, and that really didn't give him much of a choice. Rather than berate the screenwriter, we should wag our finger at the actor who deserted the show after it raised him to a star.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks, Nancy, for clarifying that point for us. I wasn't aware of it.
It was such a shocking conclusion to the season. I guess the actor got a better offer--although it's hard to imagine!

bdtharp said...

I'm a great fan of British books and films, too, but it's their dry sense of humor that I really love. And like many Americans I too enjoy stories of the aristocracy and history. Nice blog, Jacqui. Thank you for sharing. -B

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for dropping by, Bonnie.
I guess you could say I'm an Anglophile as well. I do love British books and films. And I agree about about their dry sense of humor.

Unknown said...

Good point, question! Well, I for one would say it depends on the story, if it describes some good deeds of the so called aristocracy, then I would be really interested in the book, novel, etc :)... On the other hand, such stories include all those events and adventures many readers would like to experience for themselves, being rich, "noble", famous, etc. Probably that's one of the reasons too...
Good blog, BTW! I guess you'll like a suggestion of mine: using sites like, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to show your works/blog, etc and to help "remove" stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI - female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures (even of mythical creatures), good thoughts, poems (from any genre are welcome I guess), etc? I'm allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there's a bit of water, All the problems in the world lead to one - narrow-minded people, or
Love and happiness will be around,
as all the chains will disappear,
and Mountaineers will climb their mount
and there won't be any tear!
etc). Keep up the good work! Best wishes! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons' hunters - my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for dropping by and offering many interesting comments and suggestions!

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