The reference in this week’s episode that jumped out at me came from Mrs. Hughes. Teasing Mr. Carson a bit as they discuss how responsibilities might be divided at their new investment property, she said that she would be left with supervising the “mythical maid of all work.” As it happens, I am in the middle of rehearsals for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” in which the character Ruth is called the “maid of all work.” The term refers to a maid who does all sorts of housework, but it can also mean anyone who has a wide variety of responsibilities, or an employee who does a variety of jobs. If you’re in the mood for another fun word, such a person can also be called a “factotum,” which keeps us in the world of the lyric stage for a moment, as the Barber of Seville begins his famous aria by singing, “largo al factotum” meaning he works at all jobs. (Latin: fac totum, do all.) In Pirates of Penzance, in her song “When Fredric Was a Little Lad,” Ruth refers to herself as the “piratical maid of all work.”
As an American, I found it interesting this week to hear “chum” used as a verb, when Mary offered to “chum Tom for this drive,” meaning to accompany him. And another piece of shooting lingo made it into the episode when she said, “we’ll see them in “the butts.” The butts are the places of built up turf where the shooters stand, partially hidden, as the beaters drive the grouse out towards them.
Tweeny: Anna used this word, explaining how she took a job further up north to get away from her stepfather. Tweeny is short for between-maid, i.e. a maid who assists other maids, and I think the implication was that she took any job she could get to get away.
A reference to “Hobson’s choice” was made by the Sinderby’s butler, Mr. Stowell. (Boo, hiss!) The term means the appearance of a choice, with no real choice, i.e. “take it or leave it.” It is said to originate from a stable owner named Hobson from the mid 19th century who, despite the fact that he possessed a livery of forty horses to rent, was only willing to rent out whichever horse was nearest the door. Thus the appearance of a choice, but no real choice. British playwright Harold Brighouse used the term for the title of his play, which was popular in London in 1916. Maybe Mr. Stowell saw it, as he bragged to Thomas: “I am not a novice anywhere.” The great Charles Laughton played Hobson in a good movie version of the play in 1956, fyi. It is a story of an alcoholic shopkeeper and his three daughters, which has echoes of King Lear and the rivalry among his three daughters.
The term “Fenian” was used this week, and not for the first time in the series. In season two, when Lord Grantham began to accept the reality of Sybil’s marriage to Tom, he said to Lady Grantham, “so, we’re to have a Fenian grandchild.” This week, it was used by Mr. Stowell in a derogatory way, revealing even more of his unpleasant prejudices towards Tom. When Thomas (footman Thomas, not son-in-law Tom Branson) is speaking with Mr. Stowell about the arrangements for the grouse shooting, he points out that Mr. Branson is a good shot, to which Mr. Stowell replies, “Is he, indeed? I suppose that was his training with the Fenians.” Perhaps Mr. Stowell is implying that Tom fought on the side of the Irish in the Irish War of Independence, which took place from 1919 to 1921. Fenian originally referred to a member of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood, which began in the 1850’s and had its counterpart “the Fenian Brotherhood,” later known as “Clan na Gael,” in the U.S. Fenian has also been used as a derogatory term for Catholics, so perhaps Mr. Stowell’s remark had that overtone. Fenian can also be used to refer to anyone in favor of Irish Independence. (I am a Fenian!)
Maggie Smith is such a treasure, and so magnificent in this role that there are posts online encouraging people to get in touch with their inner dowager countesses. This week we heard the Dowager Countess’s home referred to as “the Dower House.” Let’s take a look at that word.
The portion of a deceased husband’s real property allowed by the law to his widow for her life.
“Dowager” refers to the widow of a titled man, and helps to differentiate her from the living spouse of holder of the title. For example, the widow of a king may be a dowager queen. It is also used colloquially to refer to any dignified elderly lady.
The word dowry, as we know, is used to refer to the bequest a bride brings with her to marriage, but previously “dowry” was also used to refer to the dower which a widow retains.
Speaking of the Dowager Countess, this week she referred to meeting Prince Kuragin at the royal wedding and falling madly in love. I think she was referring to the wedding in 1874 between Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, which took place in St. Petersberg. Much like the Princess Kuragin, Grand Duchess Maria fled when her relatives’ dynasty was overthrown in 1917. She died in Zurich in 1920.
Misty-eyed, thinking of her past, the Dowager Countess declared, “Remember, we were the Edwardians.” If she survives a few more years, till 1930, she will have the chance to read Vita Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians,” though perhaps she wouldn’t like it. It portrays the British aristocracy of the time as superficial and hypocritical. The following passage about the novel’s main character, Sebastian, has chilling echoes of what the Dowager Countess felt after she and Prince Kuragin parted.
“He imagined that all life had been suffocated for ever within him, stifled under the magnificence of ceremonial and the shroud of his crimson cloak. Since he had consented to lend himself to this mummery, he allowed a spirit of complete abnegation to possess him; henceforward he would stand woodenly; move woodenly; go where he was bidden; bow; respond, according to what was expected of him; a terrible passivity overwhelmed him, and he accepted it with fatalistic superstition.”
Lord Grantham, speaking with sympathy for Mr. Murray, whose legal skills have been much utilized in representing first Mr. Bates and now Anna, says, “We'll have him running a thieves' kitchen before we're finished.” A thieves’ kitchen is a slum or place where children are lured into crime. Perhaps the best known thieves’ kitchen in literature is that of Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Finally, I have one reference left over from last week, namely, the beautiful reading Mr. Carson gave at the memorial. His words are part of a well-known poem called “For the Fallen” written by British poet Laurence Binyon. The poem was written in 1914 and published in the Times. It is often read on Remembrance Day, November 11th, when people pause at eleven minutes after eleven o’clock in the morning to memorialize the dead.
The poem is included below, in its entirety.
Un-spoiler Alert: how could I resist looking ahead to next season by researching events in British history in 1925? But I almost wish I hadn’t, because I now have a fairly good idea of one significant plot twist that’ll be coming along next season. I won’t share it here, as I am no spoiler, but if you want to know, just write to me to ask.
See you next season.
For the Fallen
By Laurence Binyon
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam