Brideshead Castle vs. Downton Abbey

Today’s Op-Ed pages in the New York Times carry a story (“The Stately Gift Shops of England”) about the English country house. This is by novelist Charles Lambert who credits this institution’s survival to the heritage industry and its primary advocate, the National Trust. Lambert also offers a comparison of two fictional country houses that achieved popularity on TV:

With due respect to the artistic abyss between the two, Mr. Fellowes’s classy period soap [Downton Abbey] reminds me of “Brideshead Revisited.” Evelyn Waugh’s stand-in narrator, Charles Ryder, is as dazzled by the aristocracy as Mr. Fellowes seems to be, as reluctant to admit that the kind of social stratification the house represents might not actually be worth preserving. Waugh’s famous regret, that “Brideshead” was “infused with a kind of gluttony,” is partial recognition of his own bulimic nostalgia. “Downton,” though, pretends egalitarianism isn’t even a threat, just as long as holes are punched in the box of class privilege to let in a little air…I don’t know what Waugh thought of the National Trust, although I can imagine him wrinkling his nose at the tea towels and fridge magnets and “homemade” marmalade that fill the gift shops annexed to most large houses…

Waugh’s quoted comments on his novel are contained in his preface to the 1960 revised edition. No one seems to have remarked on how these two country houses are mirror images of each other, in at least one respect. Brideshead is set in the South (Wiltshire) yet was filmed in the North at Castle Howard (Yorkshire). Downton on the other hand is set in the North (between Ripon and York) yet was filmed in the South at Highclere Castle (on the Berkshire-Hampshire border). In both cases, however, the house succeeds brilliantly in establishing itself as part of the story. Neither belongs to the National Trust and both are occupied by long-established families, although both have gift shops and are open to the public. Indeed, the occupants of Highclere are part of the Herbert family into which Laura Waugh was born. The family’s Italian villa near Portofino (where Waugh met Laura Herbert for the first time) was called Altachiara, which is roughly the Italian equivalent of Highclere.

This entry was posted in Adaptations, Brideshead Revisited, Television, Television Programs, Waugh Family and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.