For many of us, a Sunday evening in the winter without tuning to Downton Abbey would be simply painful. Over the past five seasons, PBS (WMHT locally) has presented the Masterpiece British period drama that captured our hearts and imaginations. We have watched the joys and the heartbreak of individuals of the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey. The production paints the lives of the blue-blooded Crawley family and its servants in post-Edwardian Great Britain.
Like many great family dramas, whether fiction or nonfiction, major events in the world history set the back drop of the story. History also serves as the cause and effect of the choices that the characters portrayed made for their families and the obstacles presented to them day in and day out. Downton comes to a close with Season 6 and an end to peeking through the drawing room curtains at the lives inside both of those serving and being served.
A local equivalent to the Crawleys could be the Trask family. Right in Saratoga Springs, NY, the Trask family from New York City was ending an often tragic legacy of their beloved home, Yaddo. The similarities are striking. The Crawleys and the Trasks—one fictional and one very real.
The Titanic had just sunk and WW1 was close to beginning as Downton’s fictional storyline begins. The aristocracy in Great Britain was trying to hold on to centuries’ old tradition and wealth. Household customs were rigid ones between the gentry and the domestics while in our young America, the rules were not so rigid and there was a new form of wealth and social status developing. The Trask family of Yaddo exemplifying the latter. Old money versus new entrepreneurial frontiers. Fortunes being clung to on one side of the pond and others being built on the other side. One time period and two distinct but engaging worlds to visit.
Downton Abbey begins its hold on our imaginations when the Titanic sinks with members of the Crawley family on board and more than 1,500 lives lost. Downton Abbey gets news that James Crawley and his son, Patrick, were aboard, leaving Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and the father of three daughters, in limbo. Without a clear heir to Downton, the story begins with the grand family in succession crisis.
In Saratoga Springs, life was changing rapidly at Yaddo as Spencer Trask, the philanthropist/businessman and beloved husband of Katrina Trask, has already passed and Katrina’s health, often bad, was worsening. Maevis O’Brien, a Yaddo maid, had paid for her brother from Ireland and his wife and children to travel on the Titanic (certainly not in the same class on board as we know the Crawleys might have). Maevis secured employment for her brother at the Cluett, Peabody and Company factory in Troy. Opportunities were thriving here in America but not so much in England during the same time. Like the fictional Crawleys, Maevis’s family was lost at sea. To the mistress of the house, Katrina Trask, this was a loss to her family even though Maevis was a household employee. Certainly very different from the relationships we see with the upstairs versus downstairs servant relationships in the series Downton Abbey.
The effect of innovation
The integration of the automobile in our societies also illustrates great similarities between the great families. Matthew Crawley, the later named heir to Downton Abbey, dies in a car crash after the birth of his son. It was a stunning way to end Season Four for us—the devoted viewers. Mary Crawley is left to mourn the loss of her husband, and the next season begins with Mary putting her life back together as best she can.
On this continent, Spencer Trask, driving his prized automobile, suffered a horrible accident, losing an eye and certainly altering his life and that of Katrina’s. A few years later, he loses his life in another accident in Croton, NY.
Spencer Trask was the first to embrace the electric light here in America. He saw the significance of how it would change society throughout the world and ran the first-ever electric company as a result of the vision.
We also see the changes that electricity brought to Downton Abbey on each episode. With every historical aspect in the show perfectly produced by series creator Julian Fellowes, we watch the lights go on in the mansion and follow along with the discussions in the servants’ quarters about a new invention called an icebox.
These types of parallels can be drawn across the continents over and over again. History drives society as much as society drives history. As we watch the last season of Downton Abbey with tissues in hand, perhaps plan a trip to Yaddo or any other great property in the Capital Region to experience the end of the Gilded Age “American style.” Make your own conclusions. Perhaps Julian Fellowes should visit one day; what a story he could weave about Yaddo and the Trask family!
Yaddo: A Saratoga gem
Yaddo was founded in 1900 by the financier Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina. Sadly, their offspring all perished young, leaving no one to inherit the property. Katrina Trask was a poet and always surrounded the estate in beauty to inspire the guests at the estate, who were often literary people, artists and the creative minds of the time.
In the founding document sent to Yaddo’s first group of trustees, the Trasks set out their hopes for Yaddo’s future and their sense of who the estate would serve: artists of promise.
The mission today of this 400-acre Saratoga Springs estate is to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment.
According to Yaddo’s website (www.yaddo.org), Yaddo now offers residencies to professional creative artists from all nations and backgrounds working in one or more of the following media: choreography, film, literature, musical composition, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and video. Artists may apply individually or as members of collaborative teams of two or three persons. They are selected by panels of other professional artists without regard to financial means. Residencies last from two weeks to two months and include room, board, and studio.
Visitors to the estate residence have included 71 Pulitzer Prize winners, 29 MacArthur Fellowships, 68 National Book Awards, 42 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 52 Whiting Writers’ Awards, and a Nobel Prize.
Visiting the gardens
The Yaddo Garden Association, founded in 1991, is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the gardens at Yaddo. Volunteers of this association do all phases of garden work. The Yaddo gardens, which consist of both a rose garden and rock garden, are open to the public seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to dusk.
The gardens feature a variety of plants which peak throughout the season. The roses begin to bloom mid-June and are at peak from about the third week of June through July and then peak again mid- to late August. The rock garden is in bloom mid-June through mid-September. The remainder of the estate is private and may be visited only on special occasions.
The estate is on Union Avenue, beyond the racetrack.