Sigh… I just finished watching the last episode of “The Paradise,” Season two. It’s a British period drama about the inner workings and excitements of a Victorian department store. So, here’s the part, in my affectionate description of these types of shows, where my long-suffering husband likely tunes me out, replacing my yammering voice with the soothing sounds of nature in his head.
“There’s a girl named Denise and she’s, um, Scottish?... but not that hard Glaswegian Scottish, just sort of soft… and she’s just beautiful and really tall and my God, her waist is tiny and she’s in love with the owner of the… CALM BLUE OCEAN WAVES, CHICKADEES CALLING IN WINTER, WATERFALLS IN A B.C. RAINFOREST.” Ugh, poor man.
I love me a BBC period drama like a Victorian spinster loved tiny dogs. LOVE! If I have a trying day – the boys have had me up at dawn, one of them is teething, the other MUST HAVE WAFFLES, but there are none, I’ve just done a massive grocery shop on foot and at the checkout realize I don’t have my wallet – I have a glass of wine, or maybe a glass-and-a-half (let’s not get crazy here, I’m not a Barrymore) and sit down in front of the blazing flat screen and crank up the Netflix to the tune of “Pride & Prejudice” or “Downton Abbey.” Some nights it’s “Little Dorrit” or “Mr. Selfridge” keeping me up until two in the morning with the plea to my drooping eyelids and violently nodding head of “JUST ONE MORE EPISODE, then I’ll go to bed.” There’s something in the happy, admittedly nerdy and pathetic sigh that I exhale at the end of a costume-drama binge-watch on Netflix that melts away all the mundane ick of the week.
I’ve only recently realized that the soul-affirming effect of these series is the product of a tenderly nursed obsession with British romance and what I call my “English Country Fantasy Life.”
As far back as I can remember, my mom has been a great consumer of British literature and history and its interpretations on television. I can recall many a night, falling asleep to sound of the boisterous fanfare opening of “The Antiques Road Show,” or the operatic whimpering of the Edward Gorey-animated fainting lady on PBS’s “Mystery!” For years, my sister, my mother and I have passed around our copies of the 1995 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Initially, the three of us would sit down together and watch all five hours and twenty-seven minutes of it in a day. Now, with limited time, with careers and overflowing children and grandchildren, we scarcely get past the dum-deedle-deedle-dum of the opening overture before one of us has to dole out the Goldfish crackers, break out the Play-doh or change a sagging diaper. We have also now come to know the value of those five plus hours. In the amount of time it would take to watch only half of P & P, I could bake cupcakes, wash all the bed sheets, eat four of those cupcakes over the sink, wash the dog poo off some tiny rubber boots, move all the living room furniture around, move it back to where it was originally, learn a new song, write a column for the paper, erase it and start another or simply spend the entire time searching for pictures of Johnny Depp in tight pants on Google.
In fact, the development of my English Country Fantasy Life likely began with that 1995 mini-series when I first saw a soaking wet Colin Firth emerge from the lake at Pemberley, his long white tunic clinging to his chest like a baby monkey clinging to its sexy, wet Colin Firth monkey mama.
Yes, that’s where it started and then it grew. Is it the poor-girl-meets-rich-guy-and-they-fall-madly-in-love scenario? A little. Is it the clever-girl-outsmarts-rich-idiots-and-marries-the-one-she-loves-anyway scenario? Maybe-sorta? Is it the “poor” girl-still-lives-in-a-stunning-country-house-with-creeping-ivy-and-garden-in-full-English-bloom-with-access-to-a-million-pretty-dresses-horsies-library-and-a-house-staff-to-feed-her-and-wash-her-bloomers-in-lavender-water? Uh-duh. Yes. Nail on head. Not having the vote, having a severely limited scope of life possibilities, a total lack of civil rights and being tied into my whale bone underwear every day would – let’s agree – be soul-sucking, but wouldn’t it also kinda just be dreamy?!
My English Country Fantasy Life looks like this: baking bread daily with the sunrise, walking in the fresh mornings with my sheepdog, the heavy dew beading off my wellies, the sun glistening off the whisper of the sea beyond the far away hills of green and chalky cliffs of white.
The English Country Reality? Me reluctantly waking at dawn, eating a cold pop tart while I battle traffic on sheep-width roads, to drive my kids to a school in the nearest city, peering through a rain-pummeled windshield, with red, irritated, hay feverish eyes, then rushing to get home to figure out how the flippin-‘eck to make ends meet in this isolated jolly ol’ hell hole.
It is just a fantasy. I know. These period dramas are a total guilty pleasure, fulfilling my need to escape. For just a few hours – admittedly more than a few, if I can manage to ignore my life for that long – I sit on my couch or hide under my duvet and immerse myself in this dream of perfection, this life of simplicity where the sun almost always shines (except for when people die or are separated by tragic circumstances of class), where there are swans on ponds and horse hooves on cobblestones, where one’s only responsibility seems to lie in learning to sew, sing, dance and play the piano forte and where men are curly-haired, stoic, polite but brooding, wet Colin Firth. It’s a beautiful fabrication by skilled writers and well-funded producers, but I will drink that cordial. And I will continue to foster my English Country Fantasy Life, because Jane Austen would want me to.