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As we are on the subject of Downton Abbey and as Armistice Day is commemorated on November 11, it is worthwhile looking at how the Great War was the last nail in the coffin for the English country estate.

Today’s younger Britons as well as foreign tourists might think that the great estates were always few in number. However, that would be a false assumption to make.

We have this impression because these homes and gardens are open to the public. Therefore, we ‘know’ what we can visit.

One lesser-known benefit of Downton Abbey was a renewed research into the decline of the English country estate. Several books have been written since the series has been running. Among them are John Martin Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks and Pamela Horn’s Country House Society: The private lives of England’s upper class after the First World War.

A number of online and offline articles have also addressed the subject.

19th century struggles

The Daily Beast discussed Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks in 2012. We discover that many estates, based on agriculture, livestock and tenant farmers were already suffering in the early 19th century.

George Eliot wrote about the state of the estate in her 1832 novel, Felix Holt, the Radical (emphases mine):

the fortune that was getting larger in the imagination of constituents was shrinking a little in the imagination of its owner. It was hardly more than a hundred and fifty thousand; and there were not only the heavy mortgages to be paid off, but also a large amount of capital was needed in order to repair the farm-buildings all over the estate, to carry out extensive draining, and make allowances to incoming tenants, which might remove the difficulty of newly letting the farms in a time of agricultural depression. The farms actually tenanted were held by men who had begged hard to succeed their fathers in getting a little poorer every year, on land which was also getting poorer, where the highest rate of increase was in the arrears of rent.

The reason for the decrease in income, the article says, was because of new innovations in food production overseas. This gave rise to cheap imports from as far away as the United States.

In 1894, the Liberal Party were in government. They instituted estate duty, a tax still with us to this day.

As with all taxes, it steadily increased. It hit large estates particularly hard. Heirs had to sell their land in parcels to make pay the duty and ends meet after a parent’s death. Estate duty, The Daily Beast explains:

proved frequently an expense that estates could not afford, and propelled increasing sales of land in a market where fewer and fewer buyers were prepared to purchase en bloc. Lots were inevitably broken up, and a large number of these properties were lost.

And:

The examples detailed in Felling the Ancient Oaks almost invariably entail the loss of the main house, but make clear that the estate was more than this—not merely the home but also “gardens, parkland, farms, and woods with an attendant village or cottages, and a church with family tombs.”

These were vast landholdings. Some family land dated from the time of the Norman Conquest. Other estates were built on old abbeys destroyed in Henry VIII’s time. Later redistributions also occurred.

Even some of the estates open today which stretch as far as the eye can see are smaller than they were originally. The families have had to sell of large parcels to outside concerns, for example, British Rail (as was, for new railway lines), huge amusement parks, hoteliers or home developers.

Downton’s story explained

Owners of large estates devoted their lives to running them. Of course, not all were responsible farmers and landlords, but those who were, such as Lord Grantham and his son-in-law Matthew Crawley, had a great emotional and intellectual investment in responsible farming and associated tenancy.

The Tax Foundation has an excellent analysis of what happened at Downton. By 1922, Lady Cora’s own money was part of the estate and would be passed on. It was no longer hers. Lord Grantham had already regrettably lost money to a Ponzi scheme. Salaries were rising at a time when land revenues were decreasing.

Matthew came to the rescue and bailed out the estate. He and Lord Grantham signed a contract to co-own the estate.

When Matthew died in the car accident, his half of estate tax came due. (Lord Grantham’s half would come due upon his demise.) At that time:

by the period of Season 3 and 4 we’re operating under the Finance Act 1919. Rates were on a sliding scale up to 40 percent on estates exceeding £2 million, with only a tiny £100 exemption (about $8,000 today). Exemptions for amounts given to spouses or charity didn’t come about until 1974, so the full tax is due.

The Tax Foundation directs readers to Sam Brunson’s site which estimates what might have been due:

We discover that Matthew didn’t have a formal will. Without such a will, apparently the estate would pass to George.[fn1] Before Matthew took his trip to Scotland, though, he drafted a letter to Mary. In that letter, he tells Mary that he intends to write a will when he returns from Scotland, and he intends for her to be his sole heir. Although the letter was not a will, he had it witnessed by two clients and, with its testamentary intent, the family’s attorney says it will function as a will.

How sensible, right? Maybe not. At dinner, after the letter/will is read, Lord Grantham says:

“I’m not sure how sensible it is. If the letter is valid, the estate will have to pay death duties twice before it reaches little George.”

So what would the death duties on Downton Abbey have been? It depends on the value of the estate. Movoto estimates that it would have been worth $34.7 million in 1920 (which is roughly the right time period). If, in 1920, one pound were worth about $3.50, the estate would have been worth nearly £10 million. At that value, the estate would have been subject to a marginal tax rate of 40%. Matthew’s estate would have owed taxes of nearly £4 million.

Furthermore, despite Matthew’s laudable idealism, pragmatism is an essential part of estate planning:

If he had left it to his son, it would have only faced one level of 40% Estate Duty. But now it goes through the tax system twice, first when he leaves it to Mary, then again when Mary leaves it to George. By failing to plan, the family may ultimately have to pay somewhere around £8 million, rather than the £4 million it would owe had the estate passed straight to George.[fn4]

That said, in the end:

apparently, Mary gets half of the estate. I don’t know what happens to the other half. If it goes to George, that half will only face one level of taxation.

The situation could have been avoided had Matthew taken financial advice early in his marriage and then made a will.

20th century developments

In 1999 —  before Downton AbbeyThe Guardian had an informative article on the sale of great estates in the 20th century.

Patrick Collinson went back to the archives of Country Life magazine — which, incidentally, would have been a staple at Downton — to research the situation in 1900. The first edition published that year featured 13 properties offered by estate agents Knight, Frank and Rutley. Today, the firm is known as Knight Frank. Of those 13, today only one still exists, although it is now an adult residential college. The others had been sold over the century to house developers, hoteliers and golf course developers.

But, as Collinson notes, even in 1900, the estate agents were already advertising Avon Castle in Ringwood, Hampshire, as prime land for houses. And that is exactly what happened. The main house was demolished. Executive homes with swimming pools now occupy the site. Interestingly, in 1999, Knight Frank sold one of these homes for £600,000.

Country Life readers had no idea at the turn of the century how dramatically their lives — and estates — would change. Articles from the 1900 editions focussed on the Boer War and tenant farmers’ housing.

The rest of the century, as we see in Downton Abbey, and continuing in subsequent decades, offered no relief:

The first world war, death duties, the 1930s depression, second world war requisitioning and higher taxes under the first Labour government of 1945-1951 combined to destroy many of the big turn-of-the-century estates. ‘The staff needed to run these huge places were no longer available after 1918, and in the inter-war depression years many of the great houses ran on a shoestring,’ says a spokesman for FPD Savills. After the second world war many gave up the ghost and in remote areas houses were simply demolished.

Dr Pamela Horn’s aforementioned book, which The Telegraph reviewed in February 2015 gave more examples:

In 1918 Sir Francis Ashley-Corbett sold his entire 4,500-acre Everleigh Manor house and estate, in Wiltshire. The previous year Lord Pembroke had sold one of his estates in the same county, and went on to dispose of 8,400 acres of the Wilton estate, also in Wiltshire, with many of his tenant farmers taking the opportunity to buy their holdings.

Horn’s book, The Telegraph says, explains landowners’ mixed fortune during the Great War:

The relative hardship experienced by Britain’s aristocracy during that period began during the First World War itself when conscription led to shortages in the domestic labour needed to maintain their large stately homes.

There were also growing shortages of food and fuel, although the landed gentry were able to grow fruit and vegetables, and raise poultry and livestock on their country estates, unlike the mass of the population.

However, their tenant farmers still had to be paid. Times were difficult and resources, including money, had to be carefully managed.

The Tax Foundation tells us that, in 1923, Highclere Castle — where Downton Abbey was filmed — was nearly crippled by estate tax which was due when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon died:

£500,000 (about $40 million today) in death duties … suggesting an estate valuation of about £1.5 million (about $120 million today). One-third is a pretty hefty tax bite, and led to the dismantling of many English estates as they sold land and possessions to pay the tax bill. Countess Carnarvon held a huge auction of art and jewelry in 1926 to raise enough to keep the house and land intact.

Later, fortunes continued to decline for many. Although we think of 1929’s Wall Street Crash as an American event, The Telegraph says it had repercussions on this side of the pond, too:

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a dramatic impact on those members of the aristocracy who had invested heavily in the stock market, in the hope of maintaining their privileged lifestyle following the war.

Sir Arthur and Lady Sybil Colefax lost their life savings – she reinvented herself as a fashionable interior designer in partnership with Peggy Ward, the Countess Munster – while the wealthy heiress Mabelle Wichfeld, who had once employed a retinue of 80 servants at Blair Castle, in Perthshire, was so short of cash on her death in 1933 that her funeral at Savoy Chapel, next to London’s Savoy Hotel, was paid for by friends.

The Daily Beast states that some landowners sold their estates to the military. Chicksands in Bedfordshire served as a hospital during the Great War. Later, the Royal Air Force built a joint RAF and US Air Force base on the estate.

Conclusion

Whilst many, including the BBC — in a recent documentary on the upstairs-downstairs scene of the early 20th century (BBC4, October 2015) — deride the wealthy for having more money and land than they needed, they, too, had family and emotional hardship to cope with.

Everyone’s misfortune is relative.

I have scheduled this post, for reasons stated below, to appear before the final regular episode of Downton Abbey, which airs tonight in the UK.

This sixth and final series will be shown in the US (PBS) starting on January 3, 2016.

As most of my readers are American, I would be grateful if anyone commenting from the British Isles could avoid spoilers. Thank you in advance!

Setting expectations

Not surprisingly, before series six started, a number of newspaper articles appeared.

Michele Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, told InStyle why the series is ending in 1925:

I think, collectively, everyone felt this was the right time. And I think if we had kept going, we’d have gone into maybe, possibly the [G]eneral [S]trike and then onwards. And then you’re into the 30s. And then it becomes kind of Gosford Park territory. And then there’s a whole other kind of shift, a new era, a new decade. So then, when can you stop?

Whilst there is plenty of scope for a sequel series, or perhaps a film — possibly set in the 1950s when many estates were on their knees — Dockery said of the possibility of reprising her role:

… I think the show is an ensemble, so there has to be a collective decision in that, I think. I don’t think you could just grab two characters and create a movie. I think it has to be the show. So, we’ll see.

Executive Producer Gareth Neame told The Guardian that ITV wanted the series to continue. So did PBS, according to Masterpiece chief Rebecca Eaton. Carnival and Masterpiece had mooted the idea of seven series, however, discussions with the cast revealed that six and a final Christmas special (timed for the British) would be the limit.

Neame hinted at a satisfying conclusion, despite the new postwar era with its melancholic undertones.

The genius and writer behind the show — Sir Julian Fellowes — is now working on a series which takes place in early 20th century New York. The Gilded Age centres around the robber barons. Neame is collaborating on it with him.

Jim Carter, who plays Mr Carson, told The Telegraph that the final series and concluding special bring viewers down gently:

It’s just life changing. And none of the maids want to live in (the house), they want to live in the village, so they can see their boyfriends. They want to work in shops. Nobody wants to work in service any more. That way of life – we’re saying goodbye to it. And this series is slowly and effectively – very effectively, the Christmas special is a heartbreaker of an episode. Not because of tragedy, but because you’re saying goodbye to a way of life, and these characters that people have grown very fond of.

Just as scriptwriters and directors can build viewers up for the next episode or series, they can also prepare one for The End. Series six effectively does this, as Carter/Carson says.

Sir Julian Fellowes

In 2012, prior to the third series aired in the US, Vanity Fair featured an interview with Sir Julian Fellowes.

Fellowes, some would say, is a late bloomer. He worked for years as a character actor and novelist prior to writing scripts in the 1990s. Most screenwriters have not only a hard time breaking into the industry but also staying in it. Since film began, directors — Alfred Hitchcock, to name but one — have been notorious for chopping and changing scriptwriters.

Fortunately for Fellowes, he happened to meet Ileen Maisel over 20 years ago. Maisel had just opened the Paramount Pictures office in London. She envisaged developing John Fowles’s Daniel Martin into a movie and was impressed by Fellowes’s knowledge of the novel.

When that project did not come to fruition, Maisel introduced Fellowes to actor/director-producer Bob Balaban. (I remember when a young Balaban played character roles in 1960s US sitcoms. I’m getting old!) Balaban and Maisel wanted to involve Fellowes in another project, a film adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds.

That, too, foundered, but an impressed Balaban introduced Fellowes to none other than Robert Altman. The meeting took place on the cusp of the 21st century. The film was Gosford Park. Neither Balaban nor Altman knew much about country houses, hence Fellowes’s presence:

“So I got Julian in a room with Robert,” Balaban said, “and Julian starts talking, and he knows everything that happens in a British house of that kind. Both Bob and I were floored.” On the wrong side of 50, at least in industry terms, Fellowes had won his first screenwriting job, with one of the best directors in the history of the medium.

“I am that rare person who owes everything to one guy, and that guy is Bob Altman,” Fellowes said. “He fought the studio to keep me on, and he never once said, ‘This is my 18th film and I’m a world-famous director. Who the Sam Hill are you?’ It was just two overweight men talking and occasionally arguing.”

That the toking, anarchy-fostering maverick auteur worked so harmoniously and fruitfully with the necktied monarchist is a testament to the character of both men.

Fellowes knows of what he spoke then — and now. Members of his family are listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry (not to be confused with Burke’s Peerage). Julian’s birth was similarly listed. His father, Peregrine, was a civil engineer and diplomat. He worked for Shell Oil and the Foreign Office.

Peregrine had a difficult upbringing. His father died in 1915 in the Great War. His mother became interested in dating, so Peregrine was left to be cared for by maiden aunts, one of whom was the inspiration for Lady Violet:

The eldest of them, Isie, is the model for Maggie Smith’s dowager characters in both Gosford Park and Downton Abbey.

“Aunt Isie had this sort of acerbic wit, yet she was kind,” Fellowes said. “Lots of those lines Maggie has, like ‘Bought marmalade! Oh dear, I call that very feeble,’ and ‘What is a weekend?’—they came straight from her.”

Fellowes is not terribly different in some respects. When Vanity Fair‘s interviewer David Kamp took coffee with him, Kamp held the bowl of the cup rather than the handle:

Don’t think he didn’t clock this, the slightest Violet-ish wince of “Oh, dear” in his eyes.

When the two were at Ealing Studios in west London, where many of the interior scenes were filmed, Kamp saw how historically accurate Fellowes was:

“Liz,” he said, addressing Liz Trubridge, one of the show’s producers, “we’ve got to get the glasses of water off the table. They’re having tea. They wouldn’t have water there. A glass of water is a modern thing.” The water glasses were removed, and the scene, now more period-authentic, resumed shooting.

Whilst politically he is Conservative, Fellowes intelligently embraces the present and honours tradition. That blend of perspectives has helped him to propel Downton Abbey to an iconic status among television series of the early 21st century.

It is interesting that Fellowes’s favourite television programme is Coronation Street, Britain’s longest running televised soap opera which takes place in a working class area of Northern England. Four actors from Corrie, as we call it, are or were in Downton. They are Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Lady Violet’s maid Denker (Sue Johnston), Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran).

My predictions

I debated whether to make my predictions public.

On the one hand, I could be wrong. However, it would not be the first time.

On the other, if I were correct, I would have been annoyed not to publish them beforehand!

So, here goes.

Please note that I have not seen the ITV1 trailer (coming attractions) for the final episode nor have I read spoilers, which are everywhere at the moment.

I predict that by the end of the concluding special (Christmas here, 2016 in the US):

1/ Lady Mary will remarry. Her husband will be someone she — and we — have known for a very long time. Her husband is someone who knows her. She can trust and confide in him. He will be a good father to young George. Mary and he also can run the estate in tandem and in full agreement with each other. In other words, Tom.

2/ Lady Edith will meet with or hear from Michael Gregson (ably played by Charles Edwards), the father of her child, Marigold. He will turn out not to have been killed by the Nazis. He will reveal — or someone else will — that he was in hiding all these years, perhaps working as a spy. We will either see them get engaged or be left with the understanding that they will be soon.

3/ We will either see or be left with the impression that Anna delivered a healthy first child, much to Bates‘s delight.

4/ We will discover that Baxter is Thomas’s mother and that Thomas knows who is father is. We will understand how and why Thomas bears a grudge against both.

The Thomas Question

What will happen to the odious Thomas? He has made many of the nicer servants’ lives a misery over the years, especially when O’Brien worked there.

Given that homosexuality was, at the time, illegal and considered as the height of moral depravity, it is no mystery that Carson, in particular, views him with disdain.

I doubt he will be made head butler at Downton.

But what is the point of the character? We can but wonder why he has not yet met with either a Damascene conversion or dramatic death.

It will be hard for him to shake his dodgy reputation.

Isolated, lonely, angry, he could commit or attempt suicide — also illegal at the time.

I don’t have an answer other than to link his future — or demise — with Baxter in some way.

Final memory

Along with countless millions of others around the world, I shall miss Downton Abbey greatly.

Even the title sequence was endearing — absolutely perfect:

Sincere thanks to Julian Fellowes, Rebecca Eaton, Masterpiece, Carnival Productions as well as all the many actors, actresses and crew members who made several Sunday nights a year sheer televisual pleasure!

As I write, it is Boxing Day.

Our goose was fat, gifts marvellous and SpouseMouse’s company excellent!

Below are my thoughts on December 25, 2014, including a few food and drink ideas.

Downton Abbey Christmas special

In short — because our American friends have not yet seen the latest series, which starts there in January — the two-hour episode was superb!

SpouseMouse said, ‘Finally, a Downton Abbey Christmas special where nothing depressing happened!’

It was full of intrigue, upstairs and downstairs. And, this time, there’s even a Christmas scene!

Television adverts

As soon as the shops close on Christmas Eve, British television advertising moves to post-Christmas themes: furniture sales and holidays in the tropics.

We made a point of watching them over the past two days. My better half said, ‘You can tell St Sofa’s Day [our household’s name for Boxing Day] is coming up. Look at all the furniture and bedding promotions.’

As for holidays — book now to avoid disappointment — that’s the last thing we wish to think about on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yet, millions of Britons are no doubt online or on the phone taking advantage of these special offers.

These deplorable adverts seem entirely out of synch with the spirit of Christmas, however, it seems that the world of commerce must march on, regardless.

That said, in the United States, December 26 is the day when everything is at least half price, rivalling Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I recall early morning shopping expeditions from my childhood. Hmm.

In France, at least 60% of people who celebrate Christmas plan on exchanging their gifts for other merchandise or credit on December 26. RMC’s Grandes Gueules (Big Mouths) generally have a discussion on the topic, although, as I listen, they are talking about Pope Francis’s growing popularity in France.

Christmas wine

In the Downton Abbey special yesterday, Mr Carson offered Mrs Hughes a glass of Christmas cheer, saying, ‘You can’t go wrong with a Margaux.’

SpouseMouse and I turned to each other and said, ‘Really?’

We had a bottle of Margaux with our dinner and it was rather disappointing. Recently purchased, it was five years old, quite pricey and received good reviews online. It should have been a respectable bottle, yet ended up being a one-note damp squib. We regretted not going with our original choice from our own collection.

Therefore, if you have reliable wine at home, drink that on Christmas Day and save the experimental bottle for Boxing Day.

Wine should develop during dinner. This does not refer to breathing time as much as it does flavour profile. As one eats, the wine one drinks should produce deep berry or chocolate notes. It should not taste like the first sip as one progresses through the meal. A good wine should transport the person drinking it, giving him or her a new taste sensation so that one wants more.

A one-dimensional wine — as ours was — is not a good one.

Big birds of Christmas

Every year, we try to improve on our big bird roasting, carving and serving schedule.

Carving big birds — turkey and goose — is more time consuming than one thinks, even for experienced home cooks. Cutting away the legs and wings is challenging and generally results in a wrestling match with the bird! This takes as much time as slicing the meat does.

This year we took Ina Garten’s (Food Network) turkey carving advice seriously, as we did for Thanksgiving 2013. Ina says to carve well in advance and reheat before serving. We carved the goose and reheated it in the jus 45 minutes later, after we had a glass of champagne. It was a much more relaxed afternoon.

Those who wish to pour jus on separately can wrap the meat in foil and place it in the oven for 10 or 15 minutes or put it in a dish covered with cling film (plastic wrap), poke a few holes in the film and microwave for a few minutes.

If the host is alone (e.g. grandparent, singleton) in serving dinner to a group of family or friends and wants to reduce carving time, s/he could purchase a turkey crown and two drumsticks then carve just before serving.

Cooking in advance for Christmas

This year, we cooked our sprouts on Christmas Eve, thereby saving time on Christmas Day. Their flavour profile, augmented with bacon lardons and goose fat, had time to develop. Chef Mike — the microwave — reheated them beautifully.

This meant that we only had to concentrate on cooking carrots and roasting potatoes with parsnips. We saved a good half-hour this way, which we spent with each other opening presents.

I normally bake our Christmas cake — Opéra or Yule log — at least a day, if not two, in advance. This, too, is a great time-saver.

Continuous improvement

Most of us can make improvements from year to year with regard to our Christmas dinner planning. Cooking and baking in advance can help.

I look forward to getting better in years to come. Christmas should be a day of wonder and joy, not one of tension!

‘Tedium policeman’ is how Downton Abbey’s on-set advisor Alastair Bruce describes himself.

Cast and crew, however, call him ‘the oracle’.

Keeley Bolger, writing for BT’s news site, recently interviewed Bruce. He watches every scene filmed, ensuring

backs aren’t slumping, food isn’t shovelled and everybody, both above and below stairs, knows their place.

“I’m just there being a tedium policeman,” he says, laughing.

His responsibilities encompass advising not only on the physical appropriateness of the sets themselves but also on the actors’ speech and etiquette. Everything must reflect 1924 as much as possible.

One of the subjects discussed in the interview was speech. People spoke much more formally then, something faithfully reproduced in Mr Selfridge, which has often attracted criticism, e.g. ‘the dialogue is too stilted’. Yet, that is how people conversed nearly a century ago.

Bruce has made a few concessions in this area:

We have made a decision not to have the actors and actresses speaking exactly as they did in the Twenties, because nobody would watch the programme.

That said, he knows how words were pronounced in the early 20th century and coaches the cast accordingly:

Os are the most challenging. Take the word ‘room’ for example.

“Some people will pronounce it as ‘rooom’, but those above stairs didn’t. They said ‘room’. It’s that kind of absolutely irrelevant detail that I will screw down on and get right!”

Table etiquette is another aspect where Bruce exercises his authority, which the cast appreciates:

One of the greatest challenges is perfecting the dining scenes, and it’s not just who sits where at the table, but also how food is eaten. Bruce is always on the lookout for people shovelling down their meals, especially the supporting actors.

“It’s not their fault, they eat breakfast [in a more modern way] and that’s fine, but sometimes you have to say, ‘This is how you hold a knife, this is how you hold a fork’. You have to keep going, ‘It’s 1924!’”

Although we know much about grand families of the day thanks to diaries and letters, Bruce says that servants did not correspond often, outside of family and close friends. Nor did they keep diaries. We know about life below stairs largely through housekeeping accounts which someone such as Mrs Hughes would have kept:

I keep asking directors to show Mrs Hughes at her books because it’s housekeepers’ books that have told me what I know.

Bruce isn’t behind the scenes all the time. In Series 1, he had a cameo as a butler. Over the past year he has had two cameos, one in 2013 and most recently in Series 5, which will premiere in the US in January 2015:

In last year’s Christmas special he played the Lord Chamberlain to King George V and in the series finale he played a brigadier. 

Attention to detail as well as Julian Fellowes’s concept and writing has helped to ensure that Downton Abbey is a much appreciated television programme.

Despite the relaxed attitudes in our society, the popularity of Fellowes’s and Bruce’s work proves that we still value precision and accuracy.

In the latest series of Downton Abbey, we see that Lady Mary reverts to form in the cold demeanour she showed Matthew when they were courting.

In one of the later episodes of the present series, she displays a lack of feeling towards her troubled sister Edith.

Once alone with Mary, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) tells her:

A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as a surfeit of tears.

Surfeit means ‘excess’, by the way.

Useful advice in a world where we find ourselves confronting not only a lot of public tears but also hard-heartedness.

Neither would do in Lady Violet’s world and we, too, would do well to avoid them.

That quote comes from the second episode in the second series of Downton Abbey, now on ITV1 on Sunday evenings.

Julian Fellowes has written a number of memorable bon mots for Maggie Smith, who plays Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. This is one of them — and one for Christians, in particular, to take seriously, given man’s proclivity towards excess and impulse.

About a decade ago, I worked with a French business associate employed by an American multinational.  As a manager, he dutifully parrotted what his American bosses said: ‘Perception is 9/10ths of reality’, or something similar.  It sounded quite postmodern to me. As such, and seeing that he was not someone whom one could particularly use as a role model, I ignored it, despite his uttering it with nauseating regularity.

Lady Violet puts it so much better and with more gravitas. Immediately upon hearing her, I began thinking of all the practical applications and a dozen ways in which it convicted me personally.  She wasn’t speaking in a Christian vein but of a situation in the Grantham household which did not project the family at their best to the outside world.

There is always room for the Christian to improve — outside of legalism!  How does the fruit of one’s faith grow — beautiful and inviting or a bit nubbly and undeveloped?

Our appearance, our speech, our reactions, our family life, the state of our homes all bear testament to our growth in Christ and God’s grace.  Yes, there may be many faithful Christians whose outward manifestations do not quite square up with what they feel in their hearts.

As Lady Violet says:

It’s not the truth that matters, it’s the look of the thing.

Yes, certainly, our faith is a private relationship between us and Christ.  However, the other half of the equation is that when we confess Him as Lord, we are representing Him to the wider world.  Christ instructed us to make disciples of all men.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to pray for God’s grace in order to smooth our edges, roughened by sin.

To take a practical example, let’s look at what we do in our free time.  The Revd Gil Burgos is the Pastor of New Covenant in Christ Church and Director of Education at NYC Full Gospel Theological Seminary.  He recently wrote about Christians and alcohol on his blog, Under the Broom Tree.  In ‘Sipping Saints’, he clearly and intelligently unpacks this relationship.  Emphases mine in the excerpts below:

Below are a few verses that I found, along with my own comments: Now, drinking wine (within itself) is not stated as being sinful in the Bible – especially when it comes to medical reasons: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (I Timothy 5:23, KJV). Yet, drunkenness is…“Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18, NLT).

I personally, don’t drink…yet, I cannot say that I have not. Still, here is some ample advice: Christian, keep your personal life private – as you have to answer to God anyway. Yet, don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do in front of your pastor or church. Also remember, Christ is in you (Colossians 1:27). So, where you go…He goes. Moreover, people can be judgmental. When you post pics of yourself on Facebook or Tweet, “Look where I’m at (Sitting at a Bar),” it doesn’t bring glory to God – for this ungodly world thinks you’re just like them – and you’re not! (I Peter 2:10) …

Again, the world would agree with Lady Violet:

It’s not the truth that matters, it’s the look of the thing.

So, what should the proper Christian response be in this situation?

What God commands Christians regarding alcohol is to avoid drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18). The Bible condemns drunkenness and its effects (Proverbs 23:29-35). Christians are also commanded to not allow their bodies to be “mastered” by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12; 2 Peter 2:19). Drinking alcohol in excess is undeniably addictive. Scripture also forbids a Christian from doing anything that might offend other Christians or encourage them to sin against their conscience (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). In light of these principles, it would be extremely difficult for any Christian to say he is drinking alcohol in excess to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Alcohol, consumed in small quantities, is neither harmful nor addictive. In fact, some doctors advocate drinking small amounts of red wine for its health benefits, especially for the heart. Consumption of small quantities of alcohol is a matter of Christian freedom. Drunkenness and addiction are sin

So, how we present ourselves as ambassadors of Christ is paramount.  When we interact with others, be it friends and family or strangers in the outside world, we are supposed to be representing Christ — not our sinful depravity (e.g. slovenliness, lack of control).

Unfortunately, the human impulse is to judge on appearances.  Fellow Christians can also be judgmental, as a drive-by let me know last year in my lack of condemnation of another pastor — of a discernment ministry — who is undergoing physical and spiritual rehabilitation.  An act of mercy would be to pray for his recovery, not denounce him in a proud, holier-than-thou manner.  There but for the grace of God go we …

On a lighter note, Downton Abbey fans might wish to recall some of Lady Violet’s best lines from the first series, courtesy of New York Magazine.

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