Upton Something

No, I don’t mean Upton Sinclair, but I’m sorry, I just haven’t been able to come up with a pithy two-word phrase that would encapsulate the opposite or counterpart of Downton Abbey. But it so happens that I watched the first episode of Series 3 (“Season 3” in the US) just as I was finishing Ruth Rendell’s latest novel, The St. Zita Society, and I couldn’t help thinking of it as just such a counterpart.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, and Ruth Rendell are both life peers and hence members of the House of Lords. He is Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Conservative, and she is Baroness Rendell of Babergh, Labour. Though they are of different generations, they surely know each other. But Fellowes belongs to the literary/show business set that Rendell so often mocks. And he seems to admire nobility: both the hereditary nobility of titles (he was upset that his wife, the niece of a childless earl, could not succeed to the title) and the nobility of spirit that one finds among the loyal servants of the titled. In Downton Abbey scoundrels are few, and they are mostly outside these two sets, like the upstart press lord Sir Richard Carlisle and Bates’s wife Vera. And of the mostly noble rest of the characters, some are excruciatingly so, like Matthew Crawley and Anna Smith-Bates.

The St. Zita Society is also about rich people (titled and not) and their servants, but nobility is not to be found among them. With a few exceptions (all of whom belong to ethnic minorities) they are all mean, or stupid, or both; or else insane. I don’t know any writer who can get into the mind of a mentally disturbed person, and get their thoughts and actions to follow logically from their state of mind, better than Ruth Rendell. Here, as elsewhere, the one crazy person plays a crucial part.

It isn’t that Ruth Rendell does not recognize human decency. In the Inspector Wexford series, the inspector and his family and associates are mainly intelligent, sensitive persons. And in the novels written under the name Barbara Vine, which are invariably in the first person, the narrator is always such a person as well. But as for the world around them, look out!

One thing that made me feel that Ruth Rendell’s book is perhaps an intentional antidote to Downton Abbey is a plot element common to both: a lord’s daughter marrying his chauffeur. But the circumstances are as different as the eras (almost a century apart) and as the two authors.

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