Did I Make the Most of Loving My Stuff: Let’s Talk About the Downton Abbey Season Premiere

Downton Abbey, Season 6 Episode 1.

Contains spoilers for Downton Abbey, Season 6 Episode 1. If you’ve seen other season 6 episodes, let’s keep the discussion just on episode 1 to avoid spoiling anyone else.

I want to talk about the auction.

If you didn’t watch the Downton Abbey season premiere and you don’t care about being spoiled, here’s what you need to know: the Darnleys are selling Mallerton Hall and downsizing into a smaller home. They are auctioning nearly everything the family has collected over the past several generations, including an enormous portrait of Sir Darnley’s grandmother. Lord Grantham is appalled that any family might choose to sell off their treasures and memorabilia, and he and Sir Darnley have the following conversation:

DARNLEY: We’re selling things we shouldn’t have, but I kept thinking of that poky little house on Thurston Square, and I don’t know what else to do.

GRANTHAM: You might have stored some of it, in case one of the children starts up another house someday.

DARNLEY: That’s a dream. Face it: in 20 years’ time there won’t be a house of this size still standing that isn’t an institution.

I grew up in a late-Victorian-era home that did not have servants’ quarters, but it did have a room that might have belonged to a nanny—or at least we assumed it did because it was small and had an inner door that opened directly into another larger bedroom. (I slept in the smaller room; my sister slept in the larger one. We kept the door open so we could talk to each other during the night, until we became teenagers and preferred the door closed.)

We lived in the rural Midwest, which meant houses like this were not particularly unusual. They still aren’t; if you want a big house, moving to a small town in Missouri or Iowa is a pretty good way to get one.

But now I live in a one-bedroom apartment, and although someday I might upgrade to a slightly larger condo I don’t ever see myself living in a home like the one I grew up in.

Which means that Sir Darnley’s words held an especial poignancy. It was almost as if my parents and grandparents were saying them to me.

Yes, Nicole, we know that the idea of your owning a home that’s large enough to have an entire room just for books is a dream. In 20 years, there won’t be a house of that size still standing that isn’t converted into multiple smaller apartments—at least not in the places where you’ve ended up living.

So. What are you going to do with everything our family has collected?

I don’t own many items that might be considered “treasures.” I have a pair of diamond earrings, a jewelry box inlaid with semi-precious stones, and a bunch of Ikea furniture that I will wear out or break long before it could be of use to anyone else.

My parents, however, have many items of value. Furniture. Antiques. A complete collection of the Great Books of the Western World. That’s before you get into the items with emotional value—photographs, beloved childhood toys—as well as the items passed down from one generation to the next.

What’s going to happen to all of this? At this point I should remind you of my Best Self resolution to stop speculating and start talking to people. Obviously the answer to this question is to talk to my family.

There was a lot I didn’t like about Daisy’s outburst, but the part I liked least was when she chastised Sir Darnley for selling his wedding presents.

Because—let’s be honest—what was he supposed to do with them? Yes, his tenant farmers bought him a pretty wooden box, and Mr. Mason went without beer for a week so he could save up the half-a-crown, but all of that happened before the clock struck 1900, and it’s 1925 now. Are the Darnleys supposed to drag that box around with them wherever they go? Are their children?

We all have to leave things behind. Even gifts from people close to us. Even the gifts that involved sacrifice. Mr. Mason has no doubt enjoyed many pints of beer since the one week he gave it up back in 1890. Sell the box without guilt.

When I was a kid, my parents used to go to auctions. Often, my sister and I came along in tow. The bed I slept in came from an auction, if I recall correctly; an old-fashioned iron frame bed that my dad spray-painted seafoam green. That twin bed traveled with me through grad school, at which point I left it behind.

I also left behind an antique desk that—I can’t even remember—did my dad use it as a kid? Did we find it in an attic?

The point is that, at least during the 1990s in the rural Midwest, auctioning off one’s possessions (or, more likely, auctioning off a deceased relative’s possessions) was an accepted thing. There were auctions and estate sales every weekend, if you wanted to go. There still are. This is what people do.

This weekend, Slate argued that Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was actually about preparing for your own death:

The things you learned didn’t stick and won’t ever be utilized; the books you think you’ll read one day will remain uncracked; that box of photos and letters will become nothing more than detritus for those who must clean up after you — so why not face facts and just get rid of it all now?

I’ve done this kind of tidying up every time I’ve moved apartments; I think of it as jettisoning anything that no longer fits in my life. But it feels cruel to think of my family’s possessions that way. That framed wedding picture that has been in the family for generations? I don’t have the wall space, and it doesn’t bring me as much joy as the Gilmore Girls fan art that I have chosen to display. To the storage unit it goes!

Honestly, I don’t think I can do it.

I bought two books this weekend. These are two more books than my bookshelves—which are, as regular Billfold readers might remember, built out of stacked wire crates—can hold.

I do not want to be the person who starts piling her books on the floor. It doesn’t work for me; every time my eyes sweep my small apartment I think pick up books pick up books pick up books and that just gets in the way.

So I have a decision to make. Either I never buy another physical book, or I start getting rid of the ones I have.

I could in theory buy a larger bookcase, but I’m not sure there’s room for one in my apartment.

You might not know this, but the Downton Abbey theme has lyrics:

They’re not particularly good lyrics; the opening couplet is:

Did I make the most of loving you?
So many things we didn’t do

But it’s hard not to watch the Crawleys and the Darnleys at that auction and re-write the lyrics as “did I make the most of loving my stuff?”

Because someday, even that portrait of your grandmother will get sold, or left behind, or—at best—packed into a storage unit for the next generation to deal with.

Did you enjoy it while it was there? Did you appreciate the wooden box? Do you still regret not finding a way to keep that desk you used in grad school, now that you do your work at a cheap Ikea table?

These aren’t easy answers. Do you have answers? What would you do, if you were Sir Darnley or Lord Grantham or Mr. Mason or Daisy—or me?

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