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Downton Abbey Is in My Blood

A genealogical search reveals my dirty little secret life as a closet Brit!

By Elizabeth Wray | December 19, 2012
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Elizabeth Wray writes stories, essays, and articles for a variety of publications. She currently lives in New York.

Brendan Coyle as John Bates in PBS' Downton Abbey
Brendan Coyle as John Bates in PBS' Downton Abbey
Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE
Despite my name, I never related to my Anglo heritage. Still, I get caught up in imperial dramas — and one of my favorite eras, now being chronicled by Downton Abbey, is post-World War I when the entitled Brits are freefalling and the Yanks are in ascension.

Lady Sybil marries the Irish chauffeur (hurrah!) and launches a new bloodline. We know their great-granddaughter Kathleen will marry Vijay, begetting Ravi, who will marry Lupe. We’re an American audience, after all. The noble old Crawleys are going down. Ain’t it grand!

A Childhood Spent Dodging Anglos

I grew up in Oklahoma with olive skin, full lips and a proclivity to dance — not the typical Scotch-Irish-English type. Surely someone of my folk had mated with an Indian or a black cowboy. I went to graduate school in New York City and worked as a bartender at a Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. When my regulars asked, as New Yorkers do, what I was, meaning my heritage, I evaded the question: "What do you think?"

I decided to believe the majority opinion: northern Italian. When I looked in the mirror, I saw myself at 25: operatic mouth, intense feelings, tears. Most of my friends were weepy Irish poets.

I didn’t admit it back then, but I was fighting an uphill blood battle. My father was a Shakespeare professor. My mother was a theater director with a penchant for that most English of Irish writers, Oscar Wilde. I was named after Her Royal Highness Elizabeth I and brought up in the Anglican Church. We ate roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every Christmas. I majored in . . . English. I still get excited when they announce the books that have won the Man Booker Prize. The current audiobooks on my iPhone are Mansfield Park, A Tale of Two Cities, North and South and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. OK, they’re all plot-driven and easy to listen to while on the treadmill, but still … it’s embarrassing.

And the topper? I grew up playing dress-up in my mother’s costume shop. The striped taffeta gown worn by Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest was my favorite. My clothes to this day could be costumes and by far the hottest category on my Netflix account is Movies Based on Classic Literature, aka English costume dramas.

And I am, indeed, awaiting the January return of Downton to PBS, with bated, bloody English breath!

From Chaucer to the DAR

A few months ago, I received an email from Michael Nolan, a friend from my Cuban salsa class who had started a business as a genealogical sleuth. That struck me as a good excuse to confront my ancestry head-on. I rang him up.

"So, what do you want to find out, Elizabeth?"  he asked.

I gave him the list: "Is there a non-Anglo hiding out in my family tree? What accounts for my dark-skinned grandfather? Is there any truth to our being related to John Adams?"

After what Michael considered a relatively easy search (if you come from conquering people, the records tend to survive), the answers to those questions were what I dreaded: No; I don't know; and no.

Well, I didn’t dread hearing there was no connection to Adams. Even though the surname is rampant in my family, the illustrious link never made sense, because, with the exception of my parents, no one I’d ever heard of on either side of my family had ever left the Deep South. A Yankee relative? You gotta be kiddin’. As for my grandfather's dark skin, it was disappointing, if not surprising, to learn that there are some doors even a genealogical dig can’t pry open.

And my deep desire for non-Anglos in my blood? Even just one emotive Roman Catholic, please! Nope, nary a one. Just Brits going back to Chaucer’s day. And some Scots who, sanctioned by His Majesty, invaded Northern Ireland (aka The Plantations) around 1610 to “homestead” and who must have mucked it up there as their sons sailed to Virginia in the 1640s.

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Over the centuries, my folk sunk deeper and deeper into the American South – farmers, gunsmiths, preachers all, with an occasional war hero in the mix. My favorite: Dicey Langston, a teenager during the Revolutionary War. She rode her horse across flooding streams to warn her brother and his band of South Carolina Patriots of an imminent raid by Bloody Bill Cunningham and his Loyalist troops – and saved the people of Laurens County. Another time, she threw herself between her father and a Loyalist gunman sent to kill him, sparing his life. Here was an ancestor worth claiming. So what that she bore her husband, another war hero, 22 children and history never heard of her again.

Dicey was my fifth great-grandmother. My mother was named Miss Good Citizenship of Alabama in 1939 and invited to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. But that was the year the DAR refused permission for Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall, and my mother told the DAR, "No, thank you."

Roast Beef With Downton Chaser

Meanwhile, it’s winter in America and I’m counting on Downton Abbey as an antidote to post-holiday blues. Nobody serves up drama as delicious as that of the Brits. I’ll be rooting for the Irish chauffeur and his once-entitled feminist wife, Sybil. I'll be hoping that head housemaid Anna finds a way to spring her true love — Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet — from prison and that their progeny to go on to university. They are my folk, the common folk. I wish I could warn them not to get caught up in the fascist politics of the 1930s and promise them that in another couple of generations, they’ll be able to dress just like the Crawleys for a pittance.

When I look in the mirror these days I see thinning lips, not quite the same intensity and only a slight chance of tears. I look more like the Anglo I am. My empire is passing, but all is not lost. I have a trunk full of costumes that I’ll pass on to my daughter some day. Now I’m able to laugh about my heritage, thanks to genealogical tracking — and a lifetime of gorging on English costume dramas.
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