Category Archives: Aristocracy

The Duchess Effect

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I’ve been seeing lots of stories recently about “The Duchess Effect” or “The Kate Effect,” about how the Duchess of Cambridge’s clothing choices are wielding considerable influence on the fashion industry, especially over the last year since her marriage to Prince William.

While I’m not a rabid royalty watcher, I have always felt sympathetic toward Kate (I’m sorry; I can’t yet bring myself to call her Catherine.) I hated how the British tabloids trashed her and her family in the years before her marriage and can’t help but feeling a bit of “haa haa on you” when I see these same tabloids tripping over themselves, breathlessly covering her every move. I don’t think Kate has made one misstep, which has got to be hard with potentially billions of eyes on you every time you run out for a Starbucks.

I have noticed the effect the Duchess has on fashion. Indeed, I’ve even fallen head-over-heels in love with a shawl she wore while shopping (I blogged about it here) and the white coat she wore to Prince William’s passing-out ceremony. But model my wardrobe after Kate’s? Hmmm.

First, have you really studied a picture of her? She’s TINY. Not short tiny, but skinny tiny. A single thigh of mine is bigger than her torso. Okay, not really, but let’s just say a lot of the stuff she wears wouldn’t look good on my “curves.” For example, before she was married she was frequently photographed wearing skinny jeans stuffed into boots. First, I consider “skinny jeans” to be a pair of pants I can fit my butt into after a week of dieting. Second, if I stuffed my jean bottoms into a pair of skinny boots, I’d cut off circulation to my feet. The bottom line: where Kate looks slim and chic, I’d looked like an overstuffed sausage.

Then there’s the fact that you have to shop to get Kate’s look. And frankly, I hate to shop, except if the shopping involves yarn … then I’m up for the game. But people who really love Kate’s look must have to spend a fortune by quickly snapping up an original the moment Kate’s photographed in it (the royal blue engagement dress by Issa) or spend too much time hunting down a knockoff.

And then there’s that fact that I’m 17 years older than the Duchess. I’m more in Princess Diana’s generation, but NOT Prince Charles’s, thankyouverymuch. It’s weird because I don’t think the Duchess dresses in a particularly youthful manner (a criticism she receives from a lot of print journalists who cover fashion), but maybe it’s that I don’t place as much emphasis on fashion as I did in my 20s and early 30s, and go more for what looks good on me and what fits the life I have today. I’m more apt to look at a pair of wellies the Queen is wearing and wondering if they’d be a good choice for summer gardening … or should I get less sexy rubber gardening clogs? Does that make sense?

I like seeing how her fashion choices inspire others, though. The blog What Kate Wore reports on everything Kate wears and gives details on where you can buy. The green shawl that I adore has its own Ravelry group. BurdaStyle offers pattern suggestions for Kate fans who like to sew. And not Kate fashion, but an Australian pattern company developed a pattern for “The Pippa Dress.” Now that’s something you’ll never catch me in, although Gorgeous Things did “gorgeous things” with it … and she’s even in my generation! (She looks seriously stunning in it.) Don’t sew or knit? The Daily Mail frequently covers Kate and will tell you what brand she’s wearing.

So what do you think about all this “Duchess/Kate Effect” business? Do you think it will wear off? Do you catch yourself admiring certain clothes Kate wears or would you rather not be bothered? Please comment below. As for me, I’m sure I’ll keep watching but I don’t see myself patterning a wardrobe based on another person’s look. I am, however, going to cast on that shawl. Kate seriously ripped off my style.

End of the season

Last night in the States was the tw0-hour Christmas finale of Downton Abbey’s second season. What did you think? I’m going to watch it again today on PBS.com since I missed chunks of it here and there; my husband decided to fix our dishwasher just as the program came on, which meant many interruptions. Harrumph!

I enjoyed the scenes with Daisy last night, esp. her role in the kitchen. (I won’t say anymore in case you haven’t seen it.) Then today I found this interesting piece on NPRs site about Downton Abbey’s sumptuous food scenes and how they don’t correspond with our perceptions of British food as being lumpy, tasteless, and bland.

I’ll leave you with this to enjoy with your lunchtime soup. The only scene that’s missing is the ending scene in last night’s finale. 🙂

Book Review and Giveaway! Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor

ETA: I’ll be closing the comments section on this post at 5 p.m. ET on January 13

Here stateside many of us are eagerly counting the hours to the premiere of Downton Abbey’s second season on PBS (Sunday at 9 p.m; check your local station to confirm). The word from the UK is that this season is a bit of a dud, but I’ll still be watching simply because I love the cast of characters and am willing to give the anachronisms a pass.

Anyway, earlier this week I was contacted by Penguin Books to see if there was any interest in an autobiography they were reprinting called Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor. Written by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady-maid of decades, it details what it was like to work “in service” during a bygone era of British aristocracy.* Since Rose grew up in the village of Ripon, which figures in Downton Abbey, Penguin wondered if I would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. But of course!

Last night I crawled into bed early with my book, intending to skim a few pages, but I ended up reading a full three chapters. This simply written story starts by detailing Rose’s upbringing in a loving working-class family and how she knew from an early age her career would be working in service for her social superiors.

I was drawn in by the descriptions of Rose’s childhood and the expectations her parents — nay society — had for her. Children worked and worked hard at the turn of the 20th century. Almost as soon as Rose could walk, she was helping her mother with the backbreaking work of washing clothes (her mother, a laundress, took in the neighborhood aristocrats’ laundry). She was also responsible for polishing the stove each week (again, another grueling chore especially when you remember stoves back then ran on wood or coal) and helping her parents take care of their younger children. There’s no hint of complaint in her recollections, although she remarks:

“People have often said to me how lucky I was to be brought up in a village in the beautiful countryside with the freedom of the fields and lanes, the simplicity of life among animals and above all in peace. It sounds lyrical as I write it and perhaps in a way it was, but most people forget and sometimes I do that for the most part life was continual hard work even as a young child.”

She later writes that people often dismiss the struggle and low wages as relics of a different era, but she wrote:

“Things were different. There was no National Insurance, so there was the constant fear of getting ill, of being out of work, of growing old without a family to look after you and being buried in a pauper’s grave. There was no electricity, no sewerage, no running water, no refrigeration; fruit and vegetables came and went with the seasons.”

It’s clear that Rose is a smart girl, which serves her well in service. Her parents scrimp and save so she can be tutored in French and acquire finer sewing skills to become a proper lady’s maid, which will afford her the chance to travel and see the world, something Rose desperately wants to do. As a knitter myself, I giggled at her complaint of having to knit her father’s socks, which seemed to go on forever, round and round, but seemed to get done as she kept him in new socks for years. I got as far as Rose’s first placement, a lady’s maid to two daughters of a wealthy London family. Her experience here gives her insight into her role as a servant to the upper classes. She describes her relationship with one of the daughters:

“We weren’t friends, though if she was asked today she might well deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us any loser [sic]; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at that time. That was the accepted way of things.”

I thought that was a fascinating illustration of how times have changed, especially with those words “miss it at that time.” Today, such chilly separation between employer and employee would be unbearable, don’t you think?

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor was first published in 1975 and is being re-published by Penguin this month. Along with my copy, Penguin has send another copy for me to give away to a lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is comment below, making sure you add your e-mail address to the appropriate field — it will not appear on the site! — so I can contact you should you win the book. I’d also love to hear whether you’ll be tuning into Downton Abbey this Sunday — or, if you’ve already seen it, what you thought of the 2nd season. I’ll be picking a winner a random next Friday (lucky Friday the 13th!) and yes, the contest is open to anyone no matter where you live, although if you’re overseas it may take some time for the book to show up. Just can’t wait? Order the book on Amazon.

I am counting the hours until bedtime so I continue reading this treasure of a book. I’m eager to find out more about the relationship between Rose and her witty, yet often tempestuous, mistress.

* An interesting note. Lady Astor, whose birth name was Nancy Langhorne, was a spirited American lass who moved to England in the early 1900s after a disastrous marriage to a fellow American. In England, she met Waldorf Astor, also born in America but resettled in England, and married him, thus becoming Lady Astor. Later, Lady Astor became the first female member of Parliament. Which just goes to show, with enough money, even an American can stand in Parliament.

Settling in

Has it been nearly a month since I posted? Unpacking has taken much longer than I suspected it would. We’ve moved to a house with less square footage, and although we have a large storage container on our 2 acres to hold our overflow of “stuff,” we’re stuck doing a lot of sorting and deciding. It seems that every day I’m dropping flattened cardboard off at the recycling center or donating household items to shelters. It never ends.

Some random photos:

My cookbook collection, about 80 percent of it. There are a couple more boxes of books out in the storage container. Sadly, this is my collection after culling — I donated roughly 100 books before our move.

The livingroom is looking a wee bit more settled, but still there’s a lot of work to do. This is the scene that greeted me this a.m. after my son’s raucous playdate from yesterday and some furious knitting (mine) from last night. The sofa has been stripped of its slipcover for a washing, thus contributing to the disarray. The rattan chest a/k/a coffee table is going to be replaced shortly, and our tv stand, which is not in the photo, is awaiting a coat of paint. I can’t wait to do the big reveal on this project!

Lastly, I’ve discovered our Victorian-style wall sconces are excellent tools for sock blocking! This sock is one half of a pair destined for my step-mother down in Connecticut, a pair of Elizabeth Zimmermann Woodsman’s socks.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of knitting but unfortunately most of it is holiday related so no pictures. I cast on Thea Coleman’s Irish Coffee a couple weeks ago, but had to put it aside to focus on gift knitting. However as a reward for knitting three four hats over the last week, I purchased Anne Hanson’s Fartlek hat pattern a couple nights ago and will be knitting myself a nice warm cap for the holidays. Ok, yes, I find the name “fartlek” amusing (and so does my son), but I really like the design and have the perfect yarn for it:

It looks a bit more colorful in the photo than it really is. The lighting today is quite poor.

In other Anglophile news:

  • My hopes for the coming season of Downton Abbey on PBS next month have been dashed by this review in the Telegraph. SPOILER WARNING: Read at your own peril.
  • Speaking of Downton Abbey, this Daily Mail article about Julian Fellowes’ decidedly unaristo ancestors is a fun read and shows us the class divide in England is still alive and well.
  • Did you know that November was Wovember, a time to wear and celebrate wool? (I know I dug out my woolies!) Here’s a fascinating expose of retailers who erroneously label clothing or fabric as “wool.” I think this mostly happens in England; in America, wool means fabric made from the fleece of sheep or other fleecy animals or it refers to yarns spun from animal fleece. Will double-check on this!
  • Lastly, I’ve been enjoying — nay, loving! — the CraftLit podcast, which I listen to when I’m slogging though stockinette hell or walking our local bike path. Why it rocks? Half the podcast is taken up with craft talk, mostly knitting, and the other half is a recorded book from the public domain … and yes, my Anglophile friends, the books are mostly British! Host Heather Ordover has the most evocative voice and spot-on delivery. I’d listen to her read the ingredient list on a spray bottle of Roundup. And the lady knows her literature. I love that she prepares a little introduction to each chapter, offering tidbits on the social history of the time, explaining political history and etymology of words. (Who knew that Bram Stoker got off on the word “voluptuous”? I didn’t.) Anyway, it’s definitely worth a listen, and I heartily recommend Dracula, even if you’re not a fan of horror fiction. The readers are excellent and it’s truly a scary book.

Thoughts on the royal wedding

Today my friend Peg wrote on my Facebook wall, “Why oh why have we not seen more from you on the royal wedding? Are you not buying into the hype? Too busy? Will you be watching LIVE at 5 AM?”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The truth is, I’m just not into it. But why? You’d think that a rabid Anglophile such as myself would be all in a tither over this — the fanfare, the pageantry as only the British can do, the sense of history being made, the fashions, and whether or not William and Kate/Catherine will smooch on the Buckingham Palace balcony as his parents so famously did in 1981? — but I’m not. And this week I finally figured out why.

You see, I was 16 when Charles and Diana got engaged and married and thought it was all so romantic. Diana was just a couple years older than I was, and seemed so innocent and yes, very princess-like in that there was a lot of talk about her excellent bloodline (because back then you had to be an aristocrat to marry a prince) and whether or not she was a – gasp! – virgin. And we all know how that marriage worked out. Thirty years later, the world has changed. William led a very different life from his father and his courtship of Kate was thoroughly modern. They lived together in college, have lived together after college and during their engagement, and while there’s some snarky talk about Kate’s humble origins, there’s no talk about her “purity” (or his, sheesh). They’re just a young couple, like many others, who seem well suited to each other.

When I was 16 and watching Charles and Diana marry, I was starry-eyed about men and marriage. Today, I know that marriage is a lot of work, even for royals. (Men, too, are a lot of work. Many are a piece of work, but I digress.) This week will be all pomp and ceremony, but the real road is ahead of them. I’ll be more interested in how they relate to the public in the coming years, given that anti-monarchy sentiment is high. Will they continue to live a normal-ish existence in the coming years? How will the monarchy change as a result? Those, to me, are the interesting questions … not who’s designing Kate’s wedding dress.

So will I be up at the crack of dawn on Friday to watch the festivities? Probably not. Instead I’m going to sleep in (my son has the day off from school) and I’ll come down and watch all the videos posted online at the BBC, CNN, and more. I’ll be in my jammies, drinking chai, and no Philip Treacy millinery in sight.

What about you? How do you feel about the wedding? Do you plan to watch it live or will you catch the highlights when it suits your schedule?

Someday My Prince Will Come (or will he?)

Several weeks ago, a publicist at Penguin Books asked me if I’d be interested in receiving a copy of Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, about a young American woman whose goal, for most of her life, was to marry into the British royal family … specifically, to marry Peter Phillips, Princess Anne’s son. I’m not enamored of the royal family, but I do have to admit, my curiosity was piqued to read about how one goes about snaring a Windsor.

Jerramy Fine, the author, was raised in Colorado mountain country, a place where rodeo, not polo, ruled, and where she spent her first 18 years convinced she’d been switched at birth. Her parents were bona fide hippies, but she imagined her real parents were English aristocrats on vacation in Denver. From her earliest years, Fine was fascinated with England — specifically, the British royals — and when she was six or seven, she saw Peter Phillips’ name in the line of succession and decided he’d be her prince someday, never mind that technically he’s not a prince. Thus began her quest for princessdom.

Ok, let’s stop. I  just don’t get princesses. At. All. Although I loved reading about queens and princesses when I was a child, it was because they tended to get their heads lopped off (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Marie Antoinette), survived awful childhoods (Elizabeth I), or became pawns in intricate political intrigues (Mary Stewart, Jane Grey … both of whom also lost their heads. Literally.)  I’ve never wanted to be one, and instead, fantasized about a life in letters. I don’t like fluffy pink frou-frou. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I spotted a penis on the ultrasound at my four-month pregnancy checkup and thought, “Thank God — no princesses!” Sure, being a princess looks glamorous — lots of designer clothes and jewels, first-class travel, gorgeous digs — but the price for all this seems to be a loss of privacy and a highly restrictive life where you can never just be “normal.” No thanks.

In the first few pages of the book, Fine admits that everyone in her life knew she wanted to be a princess. She never hid or shied away from her intentions. When people told her she was living in a fantasy world, she writes, “My question was this: What’s so wrong with living in a fantasy world? Seriously. What’s so wrong about ignoring the conventions and practicalities of the so-called real world, and actually pursuing your childhood dream? Sometimes I think the ‘real world’ is just a phrase invented by adults to give credibility to the miserable lives they’ve created for themselves. Feel free to call me delusional, but I was someone on this planet who, no matter how silly it seemed, was actually listening to my heart — I trusted it, believed it, and followed it. And in my opinion, there was nothing more ‘real’ in this world than that.”

Hmm. As someone who’d frequently heard growing up I should give up on my dreams of becoming a writer for something more “practical,” I could identify. So I kept reading.

Unlike most girls who dream of becoming a princess, Fine’s desire never waned. All through high school, and even college, she kept a tattered picture of Peter Phillips taped to her mirror, and immersed herself in everything British and royal. Fine brilliantly contrasts her interests with her “real” life … a father with long hair who eventually becomes a cannabis priest, a mother who refused to wear a bra and rails loudly in supermarkets about food additives (my kind of woman), a skateboarding younger brother named Ezra. And it’s hilarious. As well as frustrating because I think we all know the horror of being young and stuck with family who just doesn’t get you.

Fine eventually makes it to England during a junior year abroad program, and sets the wheels in motion to meet her future husband. She makes a few friends in aristocratic circles, actually meets Princess Anne (her future mother-in-law!) at an event, and feels even more certain that the path she’s chosen is the right one. She returns to England as a graduate student, and this is where things get interesting. Fine begins to see that the England in her fantasy life doesn’t quite measure up to the England she’s living. First off, she’s at the London School of Economics, a haven for foreigners, not Brits, so she finds it hard to meet the natives. Then she discovers how very different Brits are from Americans … whereas Americans tend to welcome new friends, the British are far more reserved and prefer to hang out with people they’ve known for ages, interlopers need not apply. Yet Fine does manage to ingratiate herself into an aristocratic Oxford set, and participates in some hi-jinx with British men that further confuse her. During her stay, she experiences some highs and lows in her pursuit of Peter Phillips: she discovers he’s got a girlfriend (low), but she’s American (high), which means there’s hope for her.

Since we know that Peter Phillips ends up marrying a Canadian (and is, in fact, about to become a father and make Queen Elizabeth a great-grandma), we know that Jerramy Fine doesn’t get her prince. Or does she? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I thought Fine’s single-minded pursuit of her prince a little … well, mercenary. When she’s in England, she refuses to hang out with anyone who doesn’t have a British accent; then when she realizes variations in accents are indicative of social class, she becomes even more discriminating. But since the book has a satisfactory ending and I felt that Fine had learned something during her journey, her earlier behavior didn’t bother me. Indeed, what I liked about her was her refreshing honesty. She never hid her intentions from people who were sure to knock her down. And even if you have no interest in royalty or princesses, this memoir has enough commentary on Britain and British life to appeal to most any Anglophile.

Have you read Jerramy Fine’s memoir? What did you think? Add your opinion to the comment section below.

Is it eccentricity that unites Britons?

Yesterday I received notice from British bank First Direct of an amusing survey they’d done of 1,000 Britons that claims one in 10 Brits is an “eccentric” — that is, a person who’s creative, individualistic, and free-spirited — and that more than 32 million Brits exhibit eccentric traits. Famous Britons they deemed eccentric include Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London, above), Stephen Fry (actor/author), Vivienne Westwood (fashion designer), Boy George, Russell Brand, and the Osbournes.

I do tend to think of the British as being more eccentric than Americans; I assume it’s because the long-standing English class system encouraged the (mostly) upper-classes to develop charmingly bizarre personal habits that had to be tolerated by the classes below them. I can’t think of many American eccentrics, maybe because we tend to label anyone who marches to the beat of a different drummer as OCD or simply crazy. I came up with Andy Warhol, Hunter Thompson, J.D. Salinger, Julia Child, Michael Jackson, Pee Wee Herman, and Tim Burton, the latter who now lives in Britain, so go figure. I couldn’t think of one American fashion designer or figure who could be called eccentric, but the UK has (or had) Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Isabella Blow. Even Anna Wintour is a little “off.”

This trait is probably why I’m so fond of the British. What about you?

Sarah Ferguson’s Oprah appearance — a recap

… and surprise, surprise, the taped interview took up the whole hour-long show.

It was a painful interview to watch, quite frankly. First, because I take no enjoyment watching someone’s distress on national television. I’m not condoning Sarah Ferguson’s behavior nor do I feel particularly bad for her as I think she’s got more advantages than most 50-year-old women have in this world. But she looked … shattered, I guess is the word, and I guess I’m a big softie because I don’t like watching anyone fall apart, even if they’ve brought most of the trouble on themselves. Then second? I’m not a huge fan of daytime talk shows, “Oprah” especially. The shows are just way too new agey for me, with guests talking about their “authentic selves” and “Little Sarahs,” which makes me think of … never mind.

With that out of the way, the highlights for my European readers who may only see short clips:

  • Oprah was warm and fuzzy, but also fairly direct with Ferguson. She called her on some b.s., like when Ferguson claimed “a friend” had introduced her to the undercover journalist and when she tried to explain (lamely) how she started with $40K payout (meant for “a friend”) but eventually increased her price to £500,000. Wasn’t that $40K some kind of down payment on the £500,000?
  • Ferguson said the journalist had stolen the identity of an Indian businessman whom her friends and associates knew; they checked references and everything shored up.
  • Yet unbelievably, Ferguson also claims at the first meeting, she knew the “businessman” was a journalist with the News of the World and called him on it. Her solution was to draft up a confidentiality agreement, which of course, the “businessman” eventually tore up. Yet Ferguson, so “out of her mind,” by this point, ignored her suspicions and pursued the money trail.
  • As Oprah viewed the tape with Ferguson, Sarah uttered, “I feel sorry for her.” She also said, “The woman on the tape is out of control.” Oprah called Sarah on this, too, curious as to why Ferguson would refer to herself in the third person while watching the tape.
  • Sarah is not drunk on the tape, nor does she ever imply she has a drinking problem. Instead, she was just drinking that night. Finally, something I can believe.
  • When Oprah queries Sarah on the dates of all the meetings with the News of the World folks, Sarah interrupts her with, “You know better than me.” Wait, was Oprah at those meetings?
  • Sarah Ferguson says the £500,000 figure was “plucked out of the sky” during her meeting with the businessman. So I guess Prince Andrew didn‘t suggest this figure?
  • When Oprah asked Sarah about her divorce payout, suddenly Sarah was mum and said she couldn’t discuss it because she had signed a “confidentiality agreement.” Which is odd, because she’d been talking about that $20,000 a year settlement to anyone who would listen a couple weeks ago.
  • She wouldn’t reveal anything about Prince Andrew’s response to her actions or what he said to her.
  • And the apology? She kind of said sorry at the very end of the interview, but it was more like, “I’m sorry for letting down my family, my friends, my charities, etc.” It wasn’t the big huge confessional apology I expected it to be.

To tell you the truth, I felt kind of icky after watching this. I didn’t believe half of what she claimed and I felt like I was watching a small child try to wiggle her way out of a bad pinch. Not fun. I sincerely hope Sarah Ferguson figures out a way to deal with her problems in a responsible manner and finds some peace with herself. She’s clearly not a happy woman.

If you’re here in the U.S., did you watch the interview? What did you think? Were you sympathetic to her story, or did you feel it left more questions than answers? Add your comments below.

Sarah Ferguson to apologize on “Oprah” next Tuesday — and Hail Britannia on BBC World Service to discuss

So Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York and self-appointed fixer for royal access, is getting a huge career boost: She is getting 10 minutes on “Oprah” next Tuesday to tell her side of the story to an American audience.

I’ll definitely be watching as I’ve been contacted by the BBC World Service again to offer my opinion on Ferguson’s appearance and expected apology. (The BBC show will probably run on Wednesday, June 2. I’ll post more details as soon as I get them.) Will she make a similar apology in the UK, where the British are far more annoyed with her behavior than Americans seem to be? Is her “Oprah” appearance part of a carefully crafted plan to win sympathy with American viewers as Ferguson’s only hope for future success is here in America? (She may be hard pressed to improve her financial situation in Britain at the moment given how she seems universally loathed and reviled by the public.) And I hope she tells us how her ex-husband and two daughters are coping with her disgrace; I’d love to hear what the Queen thinks too, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.

Sarah certainly hasn’t been hiding for the last week. She was in Los Angeles earlier this week to collect an award for her charity work (where she received a big round of applause from the audience), and she’s now in New York at the Book Expo America conference doing PR for her children’s book. I give her credit for not hiding, but I do wish she’d stop saying she “hates adults and loves children,” a veiled snipe at her recent troubles. Although I think Ferguson’s in a tough place and I’m quite sure she adores children, she’s brought trouble on herself by acting more like a child and less like an adult. Harsh words, but there you go.

Stay tuned … and do add your comments below. I’m especially curious to hear your opinions on Ferguson’s upcoming “Oprah” appearance.