Department of Fluff: Cultural Studies Fun With British People

January 10, 2013, 9:20 am

Margaret “Daisy” Suckley is on the far left. Photo credit.

This has been Mass Market British Culture Week at chez Radical (perhaps tomorrow we will have an Austin Powers festival.) So far we have been:

A Day Late and a Pound Short. Monday I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, Season Three, broadcast on Sunday. It clocked in at almost two hours, which was a bit like lying on the couch eating salt water taffy for the evening. I can’t tell you anything very specific about the episode because I am sure there are people out there who have not watched it yet.  I do have a few comments:

  • Memories of the class warfare theme from #election2012 are still vivid. This may be why I was particularly struck by how the series has settled in to an utterly specious and ahistorical fantasy about the harmonious relationship between the servant class and the master class in interwar England. Downton Abbey functions organically, everyone is white and everyone has a job, whether that job is to be an Earl, a housekeeper, a cook or a Dowager Countess. Everyone likes his or her job, everyone is aware of the responsibilities attendant to that job. The only working class character who is suspicious of the social order is the Irish former chauffeur (now Sybil’s husband.) Even he eventually ceases his Republican rants, won over by the democratic impulses of several members of the family, and agrees to wear a tailcoat in this episode (I don’t think this gives much away.)
  • The problem with keeping us all on tenterhooks about whether Matthew and Mary will get together, and if they will stay together, is that they are a not very sexy couple and it is hard to invest in them. In fact, there are no sexy couples in Downton Abbey. Hence, you realize that the whole point of the Mary-Matthew tension is building audience investment in the stately homes of England and the preservation of the nobility.
  • The idea of those endless and everlasting Downton family dinners either in the servants hall or upstairs is horrifying; dressing up in tails every night seems very nice; an unreconstructed British class system, where the scullery maid works for seven shillings a month, is horrifying; having said scullery maid deliver coffee and rolls to your bedroom in the morning seems nice. And so on.

Hence, we will all continue to watch Downton Abbey because it requires nothing of us.

House Party from Hell. With Royalty. Last night I saw Hyde Park on Hudson, the new film about Franklin Delano Roosevelt that stars Bill Murray as FDR and Laura Linney as his sixth cousin Daisy, with whom the president has an, ahem, intimate relationship.  (From the small amount of research I have done, however, it is not a certain thing that Daisy was one of FDR’s mistresses, as the movie claims in its final frame.)

The action of the film, however, revolves  both around the affair and a visit from the King and Queen of England, who are in search of an alliance against the Nazis. Meanwhile, Eleanor Roosevelt and the elder Mrs. Roosevelt are squaring off in all kinds of oblique ways, mostly having to do with the social events, the entertainment, and whether anyone is allowed to have a drink. And everyone needs a drink, all the time, because the bedroom arrangements, the foreign policy decisions and the threat to democracy are so complex.

It is a pleasant and undemanding movie. Bill Murray was plausible as FDR; and I thought the way the filmmakers dealt with his disability was gracious and historically important. ER (played by English actress Olivia Williams) was kind of sexy and smart, as you know she must  have been, and there is a moment where the audience is given a glimmer of insight as to the enduring, complex tie of the Roosevelt marriage.

We are given an unambiguous glimpse of how Eleanor’s collection of female friends was viewed by FDR’s entourage, even though said friends never appear. Curiously, the filmmakers are quite definite that ER’s posse are all  lesbians, or “she-men,” as Missy LeHand explains it to Daisy. Although I would applaud this narrative decision, it has been a source of great historiographical controversy, largely because ER’s archive hints strongly at desire but documents no sex acts; and the Roosevelt descendants have vigorously asserted that their mother hated sex of all kinds (ER biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook once cleverly asked why you would ask anyone’s children to be an authority on their parents’ sex lives.) It strikes me as telling that, since the nature of the Daisy-FDR affair also seems ambiguous, it has not been controversial for the filmmakers to depict shrouded heterosexual, acts between them.

There was so much sex, and so many couplings inferred, that I couldn’t help but think how much this depiction of the Hyde Park estate reminded me of the various Mormon compounds depicted in Big Love. Everyone in the county is related to each other and descended from the original settlers. FDR is the patriarch, masterminding the household’s intimate lives, accountable only to his mother, and coordinating his sex life. ER is the First Wife, living in her own separate house, and there is a sister wife arrangement among all the other women surrounding FDR that works pretty smoothly except for a brief hitch (Daisy, thinking she is the only mistress, “discovers” secretary Missy LeHand and FDR in flagrante delicto in a small cabin on the estate that the president has strongly suggested is “their” place. She has to be skooled to the system and eventually fits in to the rotation.)

What of the King and Queen of England? Well, they watch the bedroom farce play out all weekend, and puzzle out all of the confusing cultural signs, such as: who are these women, and why does everyone stay up all night at Hyde Park yelling at each other? The great narrative tension in the royal suite is, Will the King eat a hot dog, thus allowing Americans to jettison their Anglophobia (apparently undimmed since the War of 1812) and provide the popular support FDR needs to ease the United States into World War II?

I enjoyed the film, but it does say something about the quality of  Hyde Park on Hudson that the Wikipedia entry on Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley is really far more interesting, at least from the point of view of this former New Deal historian. From it, you will learn that:

  • The movie’s claim, at the end, that Daisy’s diaries revealed the affair with FDR is not sustained on Wikipedia. So we’re back to maybe-maybe not on this.
  • Daisy attended Bryn Mawr for two years, but was forced to drop out prior to completing her degree.
  • Daisy raised scottish terriers, and gave FDR the famous Fala, whose grave you can visit at Hyde Park.
  • Of interest to historians: Daisy was FDR’s personal archivist, set up the Presidential Library, and worked there until 1963.

What is this week’s cultural studies lesson? British people acting British-y is highly marketable in these former colonies, and depicts a happy alternative to the political world in which we actually live. I do wonder whether Americans are that uneducated, know so little history, or are so besotted with the idea of personal presidencies that they really find it believable that the Lend-Lease Program was developed over after dinner drinks. I also wonder what British people, who I imagine as slightly better educated in their national history and seemingly robustly royalist, think of the now-popular depiction of George VI, aka “Bertie,” as incapable, bereft of a father figure and in need of coaching by tutors and American heads of state.


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