"Downton Abbey" for grown-ups

Get ready for the BBC miniseries "Parade's End" by listening to Ford Madox Ford's WWI masterpiece

By Laura Miller

Published February 7, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

                                                                               (Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

The popularity of "Downton Abbey," the British stately-home soap, has set some of the series' more bookish fans on a quest for Edwardian literature. Besides providing Maggie Smith with the opportunity to play a zinger-delivery system known as the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, "Downton Abbey," in its more serious moments (which are admittedly few), examines a way of life on the cusp of profound change. Even if we're not living in a Jacobethan castle, we can sympathize with just how unsettled all those characters feel.

In a similar, if more elevated, vein, a BBC dramatization of the four Ford Madox Ford novels collectively known as "Parade's End" will arrive on American television at the end of the month. (HBO will air the miniseries beginning on Feb. 26.) The screenplay is by Tom Stoppard, and Benedict Cumberbatch, of "Sherlock" fame, stars. "Downton" comparisons will abound, though some viewers will be disappointed to find "Parade's End" lacks a mansion and wisecracking old ladies -- not to mention the complete absence of attention paid to the servant class.

The "Parade's End" miniseries, already acclaimed in the U.K., will be a richer experience for those who take the time to read Ford's novels first. Steven Crossley's sensitive, nearly 40-hour narration of all four books can be obtained as a single download. The first book, "Some Do Not," is a fairly straightforward account of the life of Christopher Tietjens, the youngest son of a Yorkshire squire, who works as statistician for the government during the lead-up to World War I. Tietjens is brilliant enough to pinpoint the starting date of the war, but hamstrung by old-fashioned standards of gentlemanly behavior that prevent him from jettisoning his wife, Sylvia, a cruel, unfaithful socialite, and consummating his love with Valentine Wannup, an impoverished suffragette.

"Downton Abbey" fetishizes the rituals and paraphernalia of a vanished age at the same time that it invites us to see how it was inevitably, and justly, dismantled. "Parade's End," written in the 1920s, is more ambiguous. Tietjens believes the world's been headed downhill since the 17th century, but in defending the remnants of this old code of honor, he isn't fighting for his own power. Instead, he makes himself a martyr -- rather absurdly by contemporary standards. You can't help but admire his unbending integrity at the same time that its scruples are so obsolete as to be ridiculous.

The middle two novels, which take place during the war, introduce more stream-of-consciousness narration. This turns about to be a particularly felicitous way to encounter that technique: Because the reader already has her bearings with the characters and their relationships, she's more free to enjoy the effects. "No More Parades" begins in a station under bombardment by the Germans, a terrific and terrifying scene in which "an immense tea tray, august, its voice filling the black circle of the horizon, thundered to the ground. Numerous pieces of sheet-iron said 'Pack. Pack. Pack.'"

This is surely the hardest sort of fiction to narrate, but Crossley seems to know the material so well that he's never disoriented himself. The novel's characters are numerous, and he is particularly good with the women, whose viewpoints take up a great deal of the story. (Not for Crossley the risible practice of adopting an artificially high-pitched, drag-queen voice whenever a woman is speaking.) Although Cumberbatch, cast against type, delivers an impressive performance as Tietjens in the miniseries, Stoppard's teleplay is telegraphic. You can only really appreciate what the actor does with this deliberately inexpressive man if you've read the books.

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Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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