Entertainment, Movies and TV

Occasional Quote of the Day: “What is a weekend?”

She’s known best, not for her own words, but for those put in her mouth by others. For six years, much to our delight, Maggie Smith has seamlessly inhabited the person of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. The character is a remarkable old lady with a (well-protected) soft heart, a sharp tongue, and a bon mot for every occasion.

Today’s quote of the day, actually the product of the fertile imagination of Downton Abbey’s creator and screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, encapsulates the enormous social upheavals taking place in Britain just ahead of World War I. The aristocratic Crawleys have discovered that the future of their magnificent estate no longer rests in the hands of “the family proper.” The heir (James) and his son (Patrick) have both gone down with the Titanic, along with the family’s hopes for a stable transition to future generations, via the marriage of Patrick to Lady Mary Crawley, the current Earl’s oldest daughter.

Upon investigation, they learn that the next Earl of Grantham will be someone (for reasons which should be obvious) none of them has ever met. He is a distant cousin who is a lawyer and, more importantly, is the son of a middle-class doctor from Manchester. While every upper-class bone in their bodies resents him and wishes him elsewhere, their noblesse oblige, sense of duty and tradition require them to embrace him (and his mother).

The first dinner isn’t an unqualified success, as the family finds Matthew modern, brash, classless, and, in a word, deplorable. He makes it clear that the dress code requirements of the upper classes make him deeply uncomfortable. It is his determination to work as a lawyer (an actual job!) and to treat his commitment to the estate merely as a “weekend” obligation that fussels Lady Violet’s boogie to an unconscionable degree.

“What is a weekend?” she asks in her own inimitable way.

It’s a fair question for 1912. Such things were not known among the aristocracy, who didn’t need a “weekend,” to enjoy free time away from their jobs, either to spend it with friends or to go on a little holiday. They could do that whenever they wanted, regardless of the day or time of year.

Until the early decades of the 20th century, weekends were not enjoyed much by the lower classes either, as the concept of a standard “working week” with time off for rest and recreation was not codified in law until the very late 19th century. (The OED records the first use of the term “weekend” in the periodical Notes and Queries, in 1879, by which time Lady Violet would have been in early middle age.)

The fact that Matthew knows what weekends are, and that he is so comfortable with the term and expects to enjoy them himself, is an indicator of his own less-than-aristocratic upbringing. It also previews the dislocation that’s about to occur in this family’s life as it propels through what is quite possibly the most significant single decade of social upheaval in the history of Great Britain.

Much as I love this quote, it’s not my favorite emanation from the Dowager Countess. That one follows the death of Mr. Pamuk (a storyline lifted from real life and proving the DC’s point), as follows: “Last night! He looked so well. Of course, it would happen to a foreigner. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.” Or, perhaps it’s this one, which I’m finding more and more true every day: “At my age, one must ration one’s excitement.”

On that note, perhaps my favorite on-screen quote from this grandest of dames isn’t from Downton Abbey at all. Perhaps it’s from a different performance altogether, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which she pithily observes: “At my age, I don’t plan that far ahead. I don’t even buy green bananas.”

Copy that. Good advice to start with, and it just gets better every day.

There’s something about this lady that brings out the best in the screenwriters. Couple that with her impeccable delivery, and you have a winner every time.

Happy 84th Birthday, Maggie Smith. Fifty years later, and you’re still in your prime.

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