Getting Ready for Downton Abbey

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Did you catch Downton Abbey when it aired last year on PBS?  If not, you missed out on quite a gem, but don’t despair.  The first season will be re-airing on most PBS stations beginning in December.  Check your local listings…. It is not to be missed!

The phenomenon of Downton Abbey was unexpected, but very welcome.  It has been a smash hit in Britain, America, and Australia. The miniseries, set in a splendid country manner house in Edwardian England is smart, beautifully filmed, and full of engaging characters. The storylines are equally split between the aristocracy who live upstairs, and the servants who work to keep the vast country estate operating.  None of the characters are all good or all bad (with the possible exception of a particularly loathsome butler… nasty as he is good-looking.)   

Some of the appeal of the miniseries is its glimpse into a way of life that is no more.  The ball gowns, the servants, the weekend hunting parties full of aristocrats and diplomats…..but for me the appeal was in the beautifully drawn characters.  Beneath the façade of privilege and gentility these are real people who struggle with heart-breaking choices.  There is joy, beauty, and despair, all wrapped up in a beautifully filmed package.  Set your DVDs.  Clear your calendars.  Do whatever you must, but don’t miss Downton Abbey

Here is a sneak peek of the first season:

Have You Ever had a Disastrous Thanksgiving?

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life 2 Comments

I will always remember my first Thanksgiving as a married woman.  As a brand new stepmother, I was determined to make the holiday special for the step-kids, which I assumed meant The Turkey Dinner.  Now, I am not much of a cook, and had never done the whole turkey-thing from scratch.  I was working full-time, plus a part-time job, which meant I was less than thrilled to take my single day off work to spend it in the kitchen…..but I was up to the challenge. 

Martha Stewart will never need to fear competition from Elizabeth Camden, but I was quite proud of that meal.  The turkey was fine, I made ALL the associated fixings from scratch, I was thrilled down to my toes at how well the gravy turned out, and the whole apartment smelled amazing.

The reaction of my family?  “We don’t really like turkey.”  It was a battle to get them to turn off the TV off (I ultimately settled for the mute button.)  As proof that men sometimes just don’t get it, my husband was the biggest offender of the group, fixing himself something from the fridge because of his indifference to turkey, then parking it in front of the football game while the rest of us were still eating.  

That was ten years ago.  It was the last turkey dinner I’ve ever made. 

The following Thanksgiving, I polled the family for their favorite meal.  BBQ came out on top.  Okay!  This is something I can do!   Aside from the meat, I buy everything else pre-made.  Bush’s Baked Beans, a vat of mashed potatoes from the local deli, frozen garlic bread that heats in the oven, and a couple of Marie Calendar pies.  It is a feast the entire family enjoys, and it is a tradition Bill and I look forward to every year.   

Oh, and I’ve given up battling Thanksgiving Day football.  Sometimes, if you can’t beat ‘em, you’ve got to join them.  

Livraria Lello

Elizabeth Camden Splendid Libraries 2 Comments

Today’s Splendid Library entry is actually a bookstore, but I can’t resist adding it to the list.  The architecture of this building features a love affair with carving wood.  It is impossible to miss the joyous carving, spiraling, tracery, sheer, uninhibited joy in the woodwork.  It is the Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto, Portugal.  Build in 1906, this neo-gothic bookstore sells new, used, and antiquarian books.  The pictures are courtesy of Peter Rukavina and Matthew Furtado.



The Madame X Scandal

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Part of the fun of reading historical novels is the opportunity to experience a different era and way of life, all from the comforts of your favorite chair.  A good historical novel not only captures the details of a particular time, but must also explore the different mindsets and attitudes of the era.

The Gilded Age was progressive in so many ways, but the notorious Madame X scandal underscores the rigidity of the era in regards to sexuality.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was the rising star of the Gilded Age.  His splendid portraits had vaulted him to the pinnacle of the artistic world, and he was sought after by aristocrats and robber barons to be immortalized in paint.  In 1884 he was commissioned to paint Madame Gatreau, an American woman married to a Parisian banker.  A famed beauty known for her provocative wardrobe, she allowed herself to be painted in a sexually suggestive manner, with one strap of her plunging gown brazenly slipping from her shoulder.

When the portrait was unveiled at the Academie des Beaux-Arts it caused an uproar on both sides of the Atlantic, destroying Gatreau’s reputation and knocking Sargent off his exalted pedestal.  In an attempt to repair the damage, Sargent renamed the portrait Madame X and re-painted the dangling strap into its proper position, but the damage had been done.  Commissions dried up and Sargent left France for friendlier climate in London. 

Looking at the portrait today, it is hard to see what caused the uproar, but apparently the mere suggestion of sensuality was enough to ruin Sargent’s ability to earn a living in France.  David McCullough recently wrote about the scandal in his book The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisThe scandal of Madame X is an intriguing glimpse into the attitudes of the gilded age, so different from our own.

What a difference a day can make….

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It is easy to get caught up in chasing after things….. a promotion at work, a new car, a vacation to France.  Or we beat ourselves up because we don’t have the goodies that our friends and neighbors have.  This video is a reminder of how many people would give anything just to be normal.  To be like everyone else. 

This video shows a little girl getting a first look at her new face after Operation Smile paid her a visit.  It is a poignant reminder of how grateful we should be simply to enjoy the gift of being like everyone else:

Splendid Libraries: The French Edition

Elizabeth Camden Splendid Libraries 1 Comment

Did you know there are websites where you can browse French castles and chateaux for sale?  Click here if you’ve got a spare 10 or 20 million.

I had fun cruising around this website.  Naturally, I flocked straight to the ones that had libraries in them.  There weren’t that many, but the castle pictured to the left is a charmer for the “just reduced” price of 7.4 million dollars.  It is a 14th century castle, and folks….. it has the original front doors!  The castle overlooks the Dordogne Valley and features a respectable library:

Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life, What Inspires You? Leave a Comment

There is a Japanese saying that I have engraved on a bracelet I often wear.  Fall Seven Times, Stand up Eight.  This phrase has served me well over my years as a writer, because I wrote lots and lots of manuscripts (around five or six, depending on how you count) before I got to the level to be published.   

Very few things of tremendous value come easily.  One of my famous quotes from a movie is in A League of their Own.  Geena Davis is struggling to play baseball in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.  She is juggling family complications, the physical demands of the sport, and profound loneliness.  She is ready to throw in the towel and tells her manager, Tom Hanks, that she didn’t expect it to be so hard.  And Hanks replies: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

I love this line, as it encapsulates the odd combination of struggle and satisfaction that comes from tackling something really big.  Most really worthwhile things in life are hard.  Raising kids, starting a business, training for a sport, writing a book….it is the hard that makes it great.  Savor it.  Embrace it.  I believe that people underestimate what it takes to succeed in life, because frankly, we rarely witness successful people fail.  We see brilliant athletes perform, watch famous actors on the screen, etc.  For every famous athlete, how many kids never made the cut?  Or how many actresses are still waiting tables, praying for their big break?  Those failures are invisible to the wider public. 

Just how many times should you fall before you throw in the towel and move on to something else?  That of course, is a very personal decision.  How badly does the aspiring singer want it?  How good is her voice?  What financial commitments does she have, and what sort of sacrifices will her family endure while she pursues her dream?  The honesty and humility it takes to fairly assess yourself is something not everyone can do.  Perhaps the singer was the very best soprano in her high school class.  Perhaps she won first-place in a city-wide competition with hundreds of other sopranos.  All well and good….but when she is competing on the national level with the very best sopranos from every high school in the entire country, now she is facing off against thousands of terrific singers.  Add that to the tens of thousands who are within ten years of her age, and you see how small her odds are of making it to the Metropolitan Opera.  And most of us will never know about those thousands of hopeful singers, because the only people we know are Lena Horne and Beverly Sills.

What to do?  If she can’t be the next Beverly Sills, does that make her a failure?  Of course not.  But if the only thing that will satisfy her is that level of fame, she is unlikely to be successful.  Perhaps she can be the best singer in her Church.  Or share her love of music with her children. 

If she loves singing for its own sake, she will enjoy the journey as she explores “what if.”

Back to Tom Hanks.  “It is supposed to be hard.  The hard is what makes it great.”  You should never give up on something only because it is hard.  Find a better reason.