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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 30 NOVEMBER 2012 — It would be difficult to imagine two views of England more different than Downton Abbey and The Crimson Petal and the White. Downton sweeps over green lawns and honeystone castles, through busy basements with servants in starched white aprons and garden parties with ladies in shades of pastel. The Crimson Petal hurries through grimy streets fully of dingy nooks. Even the upper class live in dark houses full of winding staircases; adventurous souls who venture to the slums risk a horrifying death. Neglected children peer out of doorways; drunks cackle from below. It seems worlds away from the streets and sitting rooms of Downton.

Both series, though, concern themselves with liberation — and specifically female liberation. In Downton (PBS), the enemy is the entail —  a form of inheritance, now long gone, in which a piece of land passes to the nearest male heir. In Downton that means that the selfish but highly capable oldest daughter Mary, her two younger sisters, their mother, and their grandmother (a dowager countess) are all at the mercy of a bicycle-riding progressive lawyer from the provinces, who dresses himself without the aid of servants and sniffs at the family’s privilege and tradition.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley and 
Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey

This heir, Matthew, is not the only way that modern life intrudes. Robert, the earl of Grantham, has married an American wife. His daughter Mary challenges the entail. The youngest daughter, Sybil, falls in with the family’s socialist chauffeur and enlists as a nurse in the war. Even the Dowager Countess, masterfully played by Maggie Smith, occasionally allies with the younger girls and their modern American ways — when it suits her interests.

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey

But if you like the gutsy ladies of Downton Abbey, you will love Sugar, the heroine of The Crimson Petal and the White. She’s part con man and part avenging angel — imagine Becky Sharp in a corset with a knife. When we meet her she has risen to become the star attraction of Mrs. Castaway’s brothel. She charms men by night, and by day writes a novel of revenge fantasies where she tortures the men who have stolen her innocence. One of the men who falls under her spell is William Rackham, the heir to a perfume fortune, who is unsuccessfully trying to establish himself as a Victorian sage on a par with Matthew Arnold. Inspired by Sugar, he turns his creativity back into the business; she eventually becomes his companion, lover and friend. Transported into Rackham’s house as a servant, she observes the full panoply of women’s oppression. Rackham’s wife Agnes (the very image of a Rosetti portrait) has gone mad and is likely being raped by her psychiatrist; Rackham’s daughter Sophie has been abandoned by her parents and left with an overly- strict governess. From her relatively privileged position, Sugar becomes a guardian angel to the women of the Rackham household and a few of her old friends, breathing life into women who had assumed their roles as household furniture.

Romola Garai (Sugar) and Chris O'Dowd (William) star in 
The Crimson Petal and The White.

The series’ dispositions —  sunny or goth — depend on the attitudes of the men in them. Hugh Bonneville presides with benevolent disposition over the dramas at Downton Abbey, managing no more than a shrug and a wrinkled forehead when his daughter shows up in Arabian pants or a Turkish guest turns up dead in the bedroom. Modernity may be trying, but with Lord Grantham in charge everything will eventually turn out all right. Not so in the Crimson Petal and the White, where parents are alternately punishing and neglectful, and the atmosphere pulsates with moody electronica.
Although there are some moments of relief, they only collapse into betrayal. It is always a mistake to put away one’s revenge novel.

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham,
Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham
 and Jessica Brown-Findla as Lady Sybil Crawley in
Downton Abbey

The two series provide an interesting set of bookends on our century’s love of the British Victorian. In some ways tradition is a relief. It is always fun to rebel against a safe father, with a wide eyed dowager countess on hand to establish the strict standards of outraged propriety. How wonderful to live in a world so set and so disciplined, even though we know that we are currently engaged in ripping it up.

And how good, on the other side, to see the blood, the sweat and the grime that we are leaving, and to see the knife rip the throat that oppresses us. "Look how awful things were back then," we tell ourselves. "Surely they must be better now."

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American.  A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, she last reviewed the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Headline image: Romola Garai (Sugar) stars in The Crimson Petal and The White.

The Crimson Petal and The White Flower 
Starring Romola Garai, Chris O'Dowd, Amanda Hale, Shirley Henderson, Gillian Anderson
Marc Munden, director
Acorn Media
DVD Release: 25 September 2012
2 discs

Downton Abbey, Season 3 returns with guest star Shirley MacLaine on 6 January 2013 on PBS Masterpiece Classic.

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