‘Not to be Reproduced’ by Rene Magritte, via WikiCommons
Have you ever watched Downton Abbey? Chances are, if you haven’t been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you will have, but just in case, here’s a (very rough!) summary of the plot: the series follows the tumultuous lives of the aristocratic Crawley family on their country estate- Lord Grantham, Lady Grantham and their three daughters (cue illegitimate pregnancy, sudden deaths, illicit love affairs, being jilted at the altar, and some very random pig farming in between.)
The fashionable Crawley sisters around the time of the Roaring Twenties (Creative Commons licensed for reuse- originally from here)
The series moves from the brink of the First World War to (currently) the Roaring Twenties- the time at which the Valvayne siblings were Turned into vampires in my own novel. Perhaps even more interestingly, Downton also focuses on the lives of the Crawleys’ servants, who live in an Upstairs Downstairs parallel world of backbiting, gossip, frustrated desires and conformity. It is as if someone has opened up a very elaborate doll’s house of aristocratic life and working class life, and allowed us to peek inside at the minutiae of servants’ day-to-day existence- their hopes, dreams, and constantly thwarted expectations.
Whilst Lady Sybil Crawley shows off some 1920s-style trousers…
…Her servants within Downton Abbey are neat, orderly and very monochromatic
It was partly this that inspired the character of Percival Teale, the single solitary servant-cum-butler-cum-footman remaining within the grand Valvayne Manor estate. Percival himself is a vampire- well capable of looking after himself- and it’s never suggested that Percival is paid or given benefits or rewards to wait hand and foot upon manipulative, vindictive Edgar, tyrannical Virgil and the cossetted, vulnerable Violet. They don’t even appear to like him very much. With this in mind, why does he stay?
It’s not as though Valvayne Manor is particularly welcoming or comfortable to live in, either. The Manor itself is a monochromatic relic of Twenties’ style, filled to the brim with Art Deco figurines and furnishings. It is anachronistic, unchanging and brutally cold, (rather like the Valvaynes themselves) and as neat and colourless as a chess board. It has nothing of the warmth and opulence of (the fictional) Downton Abbey, and there are no other servants for Percival to connect with. As Violet coldly explains, they were all murdered by her elder brothers when they were high on bloodlust and out for the kill. Percival was the only one who survived the cull, and now he lives in the shadows of the gloomy black and white Manor, rarely speaking but always watching. Again- why does he stay? Why was he the only one left alive? And what is keeping him within the Manor?
Percival himself is a mystery, with his pale skin and pale hair, his watching black eyes and his tidy black suit. At one point, he appears to offer a moment of comfort to Florence Wintergrave, and yet he never seems to help or talk to Violet, who is even more in need of a friend. He follows their every whim, and yet there is a slight current of insolence in his tone, which Virgil is keen to pick up on. He’s dismissed by Virgil as a lower-class halfwit, but defended by Violet, who sees in him something of a kindred spirit- someone weighed down by grief and struggling to survive.
In reality, Percival Teale exists somewhere in between. In the closeted Valvayne world that exists purely on keeping up aristocratic appearances, where does Percival fit in? What is his back story? Is he-as Virgil suggests- rude and stupid, or is he simply broken, as Violet believes? And does a vein of cruelty run beneath that pale, pristine skin?
Within The Breathing Ghosts, there is one more twist in the tale, for when Percival exposes his true nature, his revelation turns their faded way of being on its head: master becomes servant, servant becomes master, and it’s no longer clear who is the tyrant, and who is the victim…