I organize the story of my life not by dates, but by Masterpiece. Some of my earliest memories surround the Sunday night ritual of my mother’s disappearance behind closed doors to watch Upstairs Downstairs uninterrupted while my father took over her usual role in bedtime. I first understood the fabric of adult friendship when I observed my mother and a dear friend disappear behind those same doors to watch Poldark with girlish glee.
Some young women come of age with a Bat Mitzvah or Cinquenera. I knew I had become a woman when my mother allowed me to join her behind the doors to watch The Jewel in the Crown. Art Malik and his “galumphing girl” gave hope to a flannel-draped debater who had never been on a date. It only occurred to me while drafting the above that my fascination with India, now manifested by my obsession with Bollywood, began with a Masterpiece.
I lay on the family-room floor with rapt attention when By the Sword Divided initiated my interest in early modern Europe. In retrospect, my first academic publication, “Education, Economics, and Orthodoxy,” which scrutinized the impact of the Reformation on German families had origins in the fictional traumas I saw on screen.
I first fell in love with Cambridge, England while watching Love Song. The couple, whose academic rivalry fired their impassioned romance, came to represent my intellectual and marital ideal. When I secured a Marshall Scholarship for graduate study in Cambridge, I thought my wildest dream had come true. I was right. I met my husband at the opening Clare College Middle Common Room lunch just as the fictional lovers met on their first day in college. After two years of intellectual and romantic bliss, we exchanged vows in the college chapel, received our guests in the scholars’ garden, cut our cake in the college hall, and embarked on married life in a punt as Japanese tourists nearly fell off the King’s College Bridge in order to snap our image.
I returned to Masterpiece as young mother who had stepped away from an academic career. I set about to read all of Jane Austen while I nursed my second son. A friend loaned me her copy of Colin Firth’s turn as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. His subtle portrayal beautifully captured the early modern definition of masculine virtù I had read and written about as a graduate student. I persuaded my book club to hold an Austen evening and subjected them to comparative analysis of Austen’s heros’ and heroines’ virtùs and virtues.
I returned to work at my US alma mater and now dispatch a new generation of young scholars to the UK. This permutation on an academic career seemed particularly appropriate for someone raised in Masterpiece-infused Anglophilia. In conjunction with my advisorial responsibilities, I teach occasionally in my field. An American Studies honors seminar will forever serve as the ideal symbiosis of my various interests and roles. My charge was to introduce colonial American culture to students well-versed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but unfamiliar with the pre-modern world. To whom did I turn? Firth’s Fitzwilliam.
I found Austen such a useful tool with which to teach that the following year I gave a conference paper on Austen’s portrayal of virtù and virtue at a conference in Oxford. While I was away, two alumni of my seminar, who had succumbed to my contagious Anglophilia and were about to embark as a Marshall Scholar to Oxford and a Gates Cambridge Scholar, stood in for me with the curriculum I had re-crafted for Freshmen. Last June, the Marshall Scholar, now a doctoral candidate, and one of the Freshmen, now a Junior on study-abroad in Oxford, joined a large gathering of Northwestern Wildcats for a pint at the Turf, where Lewis and Hathaway retreated at the end of last week’s Masterpiece Mystery.
In my current role a blogger for the University of Venus and here, I attempt to serve a purpose not unlike – though surely not as expertly executed – Alistair Cooke’s. I stride the Atlantic and attempt to make two peoples, separated by a common language, comprehensible to one another. Masterpiece, like the Marshall Scholarship, manifest the ‘special relationship’ and hold a priceless place in our national culture.