The best things about Downton Abbey

In honor of this coming Sunday’s stateside premier of Season 5 of my new favorite show.

1. It makes cleaning more fun, or at least more exciting.  My heart’s a lot more in making beds and dusting if I pretend I’m a housemaid (preferably a nice one with a happy story, like Gwen) or imagine that Mr. Carson will be inspecting.

2. It gives me an alternate family, co-workers, and social circle.  It’s such a fleshed-out world, crowded with characters–like a Dickens novel or the Harry Potter universe.  So if I get tired of the people I’m around, which occasionally happens, I can just go to Downton.

3. It helps me brush up on my knowledge a period of British history I’ve neglected.  Oh…they had the Roaring Twenties too?

4. It makes me appreciate my sister and my mom.  Not only because I watch the show with them, but also because they’re not Mary, Edith, or Cora.  Thank goodness.

5. It’s got some of the most crush-worthy men on television.  Good-looking, capable, smart, upwardly mobile yet humble.  If only they could all stay alive.*

*This is not a spoiler for those still catching up, because it’s extremely veiled.  Speaking of spoilers, if you’ve already seen Season 5, please be courteous and don’t write any devastating comments.

Be Our Guest

As you know if you read my May post entitled Disney Memories, Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney animated movies. In that post, I wrote about what an excellent role model I think Belle is. (I don’t agree with the assessment that she’s a victim of Stockholm syndrome; I think she makes an independent and well-considered decision to pursue a relationship with the Beast.) But there’s one thing that bothers me about the portrayal of Belle, and that is that during the classic song “Be Our Guest,” practically a hymn to fine dining, she doesn’t actually eat anything. Sure, she takes a little sample of the grey stuff (and apparently finds it, as advertised, delicious), but after all the song’s fanfare about how she’s going to be sated with food as well as with music, she walks away from the table having eaten essentially nothing.
This post is not going to be a diatribe about the unspoken assumption that a Disney princess couldn’t possibly have a physical body that needs to eat, drink, rest, etc., although I think it’s important to discuss that assumption. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a recent way in which Disney has gone some way toward correcting the missed opportunity for somebody to actually eat all that food that Lumiere and co. prepared with such gusto.
Earlier this year, Walt Disney World added a new section to Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. Aside from the fun roller-coaster called the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a throwback to the first Disney movie, the new section pays homage to two animated features from the early 1990s, now a nostalgic time for people in their 20s and 30s: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The visual focal point of the area is the Beast’s castle, which, unlike the iconic Cinderella’s Castle, is merely a cluster of decorative turrets on top of a huge faux rock formation, giving the impression of a large castle viewed from a distance.
Inside the “rocks” is where the culinary magic happens at Be Our Guest, a full-service restaurant with a French-inflected menu and majestic decor that should please young (and older) princesses looking to step inside their favorite movie, as well as adults who prefer a grown-up atmosphere. Guests can eat in the West Wing, an authentic (if better-lit) re-creation of the Beast’s gloomy Byronic bachelor pad, the Rose Gallery, where the centerpiece is a larger-than-life music box featuring a dancing Belle and Beast, or–where my family was seated–the Ballroom, with a breathtaking high ceiling and tall windows looking out on a dim “French countryside,” where it’s perpetually snowing. Guests are allowed to tour all of the dining rooms, as well as the vestibule with its beautiful tapestries and stained-glass depictions of scenes from the movie. Periodically, the Beast (announced by a striking selection from the film’s musical score) sweeps through the dining room and enters his study, where (as a commanding voice from above informs us) he will be receiving guests.

I ordered hot tea because I often do in restaurants and because I had a cold (alas) and thought it would feel good on my throat. I wasn’t thinking about Mrs. Potts and Chip, but I was delighted when my little teapot and cup arrived (plain white, no faces) and my sister reminded me of the connection. Everything on the menu looked good; I chose the braised pork, coq a vin style, served with creamed cauliflower and asparagus. It was excellent, and I can only imagine how much more excellent it would have been if all my senses had been working properly. Others in my party ordered ratatouille, sautéed shrimp and lobster in a pastry crust, and lamb with a side of buttered celery root, and everyone really enjoyed their meal.
For dessert, we were invited to try the grey stuff (a dessert featuring grey frosting atop a chocolate shell), and everyone else in my family did, but I chose, mainly on the basis of visual appeal (we were shown the desserts table side), a beautiful triple chocolate cupcake topped with a raspberry and a chocolate square embossed with the restaurant name. It also happened to be delicious.
Although we didn’t end up going into the study to meet our host, we felt royally welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed our meal. I tried to enjoy it for Belle, too.

Charles Dickens on Christmas (no, not THAT story)

Good evening, readers, whom I have been sadly neglecting this year.  And merry Christmas.  I am probably losing some of you due to the fact that every time I have posted recently, my post has been about Charles Dickens.  It’s just that I love him, and you know how it is when you’re in love.  I actually bought a Charles Dickens finger puppet/refrigerator magnet the other day.  Yes, I did.

I promise that after this post, I’ll take a break from Charles Dickens.  But I want to quote him in this, my annual Christmas post.  (For previous years’ posts, click the “holidays” category in the menu on the left.  There’s an Easter post and a Thanksgiving post in there, but other than that, they’re all about Christmas.  Most years I’ve written more than one annual Christmas post.)  Every year, whether I write something funny or something profound, or a little of each, my goal is to get you to think about Jesus.  Christmas is his day, after all, even beyond the sense in which every day is his day.

Last night I read a few stories from a massive volume entitled The Selected Illustrated Works of Charles Dickens, purchased in the same transaction as the puppet/magnet.  I came across a piece I’d never read before, “The Seven Travellers,” composed of three short stories.  The piece ends with a description of the narrator’s walk home on a cold, quiet Christmas morning, during which everything reminds him of Jesus.  As soon as I read these few paragraphs, I knew I’d be letting Charles write my annual Christmas post for me.  Please enjoy this excerpt, and may the Founder of Christmas bless you richly.  [Note: A couple of the biblical references are a little obscure–a good reason to read, or re-read, the gospels!]

When I came to the stile and footpath by which I was to diverge from the main road, I bade farewell to my last remaining Poor Traveller, and pursued my way alone.  And now the mists began to rise in the most beautiful manner, and the sun to shine; and as I went on through the bracing air, seeing the hoarfrost sparkle everywhere, I felt as if all nature shared in the joy of the great Birthday.

Going through the woods, the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded.  As the whitened stems environed me, I thought how the Founder of the time had never raised his benignant hand, save to bless and heal, except in the case of one unconscious tree.  By Cobham Hall, I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, “in the sure and certain hope” which Christmas time inspired.  What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them!  No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden, and that “she supposing him to be the gardener,” had said, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”  In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him–of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from shore, by reason of the multitude–of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night.  My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?

Thus Christmas begirt me, far and near, until I had come to Blackheath, and had walked down the long vista of gnarled old trees in Greenwich Park, and was being steam-rattled through the mists now closing in once more, towards the lights of London.  Brightly they shone, but not so brightly as my own fire, and the bright faces around it, when we came together to celebrate the day.