Monday, 11 August 2014

Some thoughts on The Goldfinch and Donna Tartt's writing

Vanity Fair has a July 2014 article summarizing the critics: "It's Tartt--But is it Art?"

Much of my reading time the past month has been devoted to the oeuvre of Donna Tartt. I was turned on to her work through my book club, which assigned the 2013 Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch (easily 200 pages too long, making me suspect Tartt never had a darling she was able to kill). I then turned to the other two of her tomes, and read them in sequence: The Secret History (1992), and The Little Friend (2002).

There is no doubt that Ms. Tart is a magnificent talent; as Laura Miller put it in her 2002 review of The Little Friend, Donna Tart definitely has "the hoodoo"...she creates great characters and dynamite atmosphere. BUT...while I read her thinking "Wow, this is a great writer," I finish the books without being able to call them great books. Ayelet Waldman put her finger on the problem with this book, in particular, and all three of Tartt's books, generally: "one day, in the middle of writing the book, she got up, went to work, and suddenly decided to just type the words, 'The End,' at the bottom of the page." The books just aren't satisfactory (The Little Friend being the least satisfactory of the three). The amount of time we invest just isn't rewarded with enough of an epiphany at the end.

And I say this as a reader who would LOVE to love her books, a reader desperate for a new literary immortal, a WOMAN immortal, especially. The main problem, as I see it, is that Ms. Tartt writes atmosphere, character, and dilemma, but she frustrates the reader, sometimes by just going on for unnecessary pages and chapters, but ultimately because she hasn't found themes that resonates deeply enough for me.

May she, one day soon, find her grasp equal to her reach. To make it into Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and Harper Lee territory, she has to write about justice and injustice, plain and simple. A good long--and, especially, an overlong--story simply isn't enough.

I look forward to learning what you think about Donna Tartt's writing...

PS Coincidentally (?), the word "Goldfinch" appears on p. 365 of The Little Friend.

PPS Other reviewers have taken the name Harriet to refer to Harriet the Spy. Why not Harriet for Harry Potter, I'd like to know, especially given the nickname Boris gives Theo in The Goldfinch (Potter)?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

FREE sample of a great summer read...

Hi there

There are so many wonderful books by so many incredible writers. I know I can't keep track of them all. So, since I'm a Montreal writer with a great book you may not have heard of, a book that might be your perfect summer read, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about it, and offer you a free sample.

The FREE story is here:; “Pie” won Gemini Magazine’s first flash fiction contest. I hope you enjoy it; it’s a story that has deep resonance for me.

THE MEANING OF CHILDREN is an award winning collection of 14 short stories, most of them published in CanLit magazines (The Antigonish Review, carte blanche, Descant, Exile Quarterly, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, Windsor Review, etc. etc. etc.).

It won the David Adams Richards Prize from the Writers Federation of New Brunswick, the Mona Adilman Prize for fiction on Jewish themes (a JI Segal Award), and made the 2011 CBC-Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice Contest Top 10.

The Paperback is $14.40 and the E-book is $5.08 $2.99

"Beverly Akerman’s collection of stories THE MEANING OF CHILDREN manages to capture with both wit and wisdom the effervescence, the indignities, the curiosity, and the fear that are part of a child’s eye view of the world. This book is teeming with wit and quality observation."
~ JI Segal Award Jury

"A keen, incisive vision into the hidden world of children as well as intimate knowledge of the secret spaces that exist between the everyday events of life. A work with a brilliant sense of story…Magical, and so refreshing for me to read. I absolutely loved it and I hope it goes on to do marvellous things. Yours is a luminous talent."
~JoAnne Soper-Cook, Author and Judge, the Writers Federation of New Brunswick's 2010 David Adams Richards Prize

THE MEANING OF CHILDREN was favourably reviewed by The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, The Rover, and The Western Star, among other are a couple more comments (many more, including the incredible Readers' Choice comments, can be found here):

“This isn’t the invented childhood of imagination and wonderment…[here] children both corrupt and redeem: each other, family relationships and the female body.”
~Katie Hewitt, The Globe and Mail

“Akerman holds up our greatest fears, not to dwell on them, but to marvel at our commitment to life, especially to passing it on to others.”
~Anne Chudobiak, The Montreal Gazette

“A collection of 14 short stories which covers the range of experience from the point of view of children, mums, and also aging parents as well. It’s all there in this lovely little book, short stories about life in a family that might just resemble yours. A wonderful gift for mother’s day, perhaps more long lived than the usual cut flowers.”
~Anne Lagacé Dowson, CJAD Radio journalist (Interview:

Anyway, that's my spiel. Hope I haven't bent your ear too much and that you have a wonderful summer. 

And thank you for supporting great books and their writers!

Best wishes,

Beverly Akerman

PS THE MEANING OF CHILDREN would love to make your college or university syllabus!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Meaning of Children to be featured at The Literary Gathering Book Club June 5th

Moved to see my book on the reading list of The Literary Gathering, "a monthly book club for stimulating our minds and our taste buds." Meetings take place in Hamilton, ON. The theme for their June 5th meeting is "Short and Sweet." Hope you enjoy it, ladies! Intriguing list of books read...they've been meeting since monthly since September 2007.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Doodnaught not first Canadian doctor to rape his anesthetized patients


Tuesday’s sentencing of anaesthesiologist George Doodnaught--to a decade in jail for sexually assaulting 21 women under his care during surgery--should have been good news. But then I read this comment from the presiding judge, Ontario Superior Court Justice David McCombs: “There are no reported Canadian cases in which an anaesthesiologist sexually assaulted sedated patients in an operating room during surgery.”

Wait a minute, I thought. As Columbo might have said, one thing bothers me. With Google doing the legwork I discovered, though the judge was technically correct--there are no reported stories of an anaesthesiologist sexually assaulting his sedated patients—this has happened before, not long ago, and in my home town. It’s the story of the Montreal plastic surgeon who sexually assaulted his anesthetized patients, and was let off the hook because society doesn't believe the victims.

In April 1995, Quebec’s College of Physicians found Dr. Marc Bissonnette guilty of sexual assaulting a female patient who was under anesthetic on the operating table in his clinic. The assault had been witnessed by her mother and aunt who testified in the criminal trial they had gone to the plastic surgery clinic on July 6, 1993 to take the woman home following a breast implant replacement operation. Finding the door locked, they gazed through the partly shaded window which gave onto the ground-floor operating room. They testified they saw the doctor exposing his penis, then having sex with their unconscious daughter/niece.

Unfortunately, the Quebec Court Judge hearing the criminal case, Pierre Brassard, rejected the mother’s and aunt’s testimony, citing inconsistencies. He opted instead for Dr. Bissonnette's version: that the patient pursued him and managed to entice him into having sex with her right before her surgery.

Because, you know, preparing to have your breasts carved up is such a turn-on.

Apparently, Judge Brassard said the doctor could hardly be blamed for succumbing to the patient’s wiles, because she was that kind of woman: the kind of woman who testified that she had had sex with a bartender after knowing him for only a few months.

The judge’s comments astounded the women of Montreal, and the case kept on astounding.

Three months later, while making some repairs to his mother’s roof, Bissonnette fell and was partially paralyzed. He was so disgusted with the media by then that he forbade the hospital treating him to comment on his condition.

The College fined Bissonnette $6000 and suspended him from practice for two years.

By March 1996, his paralysis partially remitted, Bissonnette was again conducting surgery full-time, albeit from a wheelchair, this time at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. “Before he was charged, he had an impeccable record,” said Dr. Pierre Masson, the hospital's director of professional services.

No use letting one small hitch spoil a perfect record.

The Crown appealed the criminal acquittal and lost. Both the College and the anaesthesiologist appealed the College disciplinary committee’s ruling. As a result, the fine was struck but the suspension extended to five years.

Fortunately (read unfortunately), Marc Bissonnette, like Doodnaught a true serial sexual predator, couldn’t help but continue preying upon those most vulnerable to him: his patients. And so, finally, following complaints in 2002 and 2003, he was banned for life from practicing medicine by Quebec’s College of Physicians in 2010.

Judge Brassard retired from the bench. In 2005, his son Alain, a well-known criminal lawyer, died in a car accident after going through a stop sign, bouncing off an oncoming car, and hitting a tree.

I have a daughter. And I like to think that, within her lifetime, sexual equality will wax as sexism wanes. But that will never happen if we don’t remember—and hold to account—the ones who cannot credit the words of those assaulted and victimized by sexual predators. And that is so whether the survivors are women or men, boys or girls. And whether the abusers are priests, colonels, university footballers, doctors, pig farmers, or judges.

Again and again, we are forced to endure those in positions of authority who hear reports of abusers's earliest misdeeds discounting the complainants--their stories have "inconsistencies," they wouldn't make good witnesses, they are young, powerless, poor, drug-addicted, or just plain flakey.  

They say justice is blind. But we don't have to be.

Unfortunately, those who forget history--including the history of rapists and their survivors--condemn us all to repeat it.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Who the hell is Katherine Monk, and what is she doing reviewing movies in my Montreal Gazette?


I know newspapers are dying but do they have to speed up the process by eliminating local writers and stuffing their pages with cheap crappy content from their wire networks??

That's what I found myself asking this morning when I read Katherine Monk's take on the new Kevin Costner flick, 3 Days to Kill. Sent the following to the Montreal Gazette. We'll see if they publish it. I'm not holding my breath, which is why I'm including it here:

“Who the hell is Katherine Monk, and what is she doing reviewing movies in my Montreal Gazette?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d had that thought on reading Monk’s movie reviews, but this morning, as I read the sidebar titled “Costner Clunkers,” cheek by jowl to her truly execrable take on Costner’s 3 Days to Kill, I finally had to write back. Seriously, a sophomoric McDonald’s metaphor throughout because the director’s name is McG? Where—and what--is Monk’s beef?

Costner may have made some bad films, but the guy has made a phenomenal 56 of them in a career that started in 1979, according to Wikipedia. His oeuvre has been recognized by a slew of awards: BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Primetime Emmys, and two Oscars--best actor and best director--for Dances with Wolves. Not too shabby, by any normal person’s reckoning. Yet all Monk could find time to mention were Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland?

Let me prod Monk’s memory: Kevin Costner is a bona fide Hollywood star. His movies are iconic, among the best of his (and my) generation. These include the aforementioned Dances with Wolves (a $15 million blockbuster where most of the dialogue took place in Lakota!), The Big Chill (which Monk weirdly labels a clunker because his scenes, probably all flashbacks, ended up on the cutting room floor), and the absolutely perfect Field of Dreams (who can ever forget the chill chased up the spine by his whispered “If you build it, they will come?”)

Costner was also magnificent in No Way Out, The Untouchables, Bull Durham, JFK, The Bodyguard, and Thirteen Days. Westerns, romances, historical thrillers, docudrama, and baseball. Actor, director, producer. That is quite the range, totally ignored by Ms. Monk.

Yes, I’ll admit, the quality of Costner’s pics is also highly variable, from iconic through magnificent to, admittedly, at times, downright lamentable. But in a career cruising up on 35 years in length, how could it be otherwise? You try things and sometimes they don’t quite work out. Through it all, he has maintained a gentlemanly aura, truly amazing in a world where “there is no such thing as bad publicity” remains a mantra. Here’s hoping his next reel will push him into Clint Eastwood territory.

Coming shortly on the heels of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sordid passing, I feel Monk’s tunnel vision on Costner’s career is doubly sad: it underlines how we only seem to appreciate our great performers when they are taken from us, and it is also echoes the many changes The Gazette has undergone in the past few years. I often disagreed with John Griffin’s reviews, but at least there was a thoughtfulness, a depth, to them. They reflected my Montreal reality in a way that Monk’s--and Jay Stone, another Postmedia wire service parachute--do not.

In our wired reality, if I wanted to read a collection of ahistorical clichés masquerading as reviews from a Vancouver Sun writer, I could read the Vancouver Sun online. When I want to know what a savvy Montreal film critic thinks of Costner’s latest work, I should be able to find that in my Montreal Gazette. Head office may believe that gutting quality locally derived content is required in today’s sad business context, but as a long-time Gazette reader, I must tell you it only hastens the circling of the drain.

(By the way, Monk slammed the film, which I haven't seen, yet still, mystifyingly, rated it 3 stars; Rotten Tomatoes gives it 28%...they also have a post on Costner's 10 best films you might enjoy. It's reviews like hers that now send me to Rotten Tomatoes, rather than The Gazette, when I want to find out about new films.)

Monday, 20 January 2014

Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 3: Rape culture and the slimy slope of situational ethics (please see Note 1)

SPOILER ALERT: conjecture on the season 4 plot appears in the last paragraph of this post. (Not that most of us probably couldn’t see it coming…)

Anna and Mrs. Hughes in episode 3

Last night’s episode of Downton Abbey was even darker and more troubling than the previous week’s violence. And that’s because, in this latest installment, action tantamount to rape is advocated by those we have taken to be “the good guys.” That we are beguiled into viewing it as justified only makes us complicit, bringing us one step lower on the slippery descent into situational ethics.

Episode 2 featured two major skirmishes in the battle between the sexes: Green’s rape of Anna, and Edna’s “seduction” of Tom. The contrasts between these acts are multiple, from the genders of the perpetrator/victim, through location of the event, and the style of depiction: man vs. woman, downstairs vs. upstairs, explicit violence vs. implied non-violence. And the reactions Sir Julian Fellowes cultivates within us, the viewers, when faced with each of these despicable acts, are also very different: fear, horror, and tears vs. vague unease.

Tom Branson

Both victims are among the most attractive and sympathetic members of the cast, haling from among the virtuous lower classes. There is also the aspect of their relative blamelessness: though Anna had no reason to believe ill of Green (beyond the tingling of Bates’ spidey sense), it’s hard to avoid the impression Tom should have known he was playing with fire in rekindling a relationship with Edna. The two attackers also issue from among the poor, albeit the undeserving, non-virtuous kind (they’re also clearly the less attractive member of each doomed couple).

In both sexual attacks, the sympathetic natures of the victims are taken advantage of in order to gratify the perpetrators’s needs--for sex, power, and, in Edna’s case, as a gambit to improve her social situation. Can a man be raped? Episode 2 makes a clear case for the affirmative.

Edna Braithwaite

But it is episode 3 that I find more alarming, and specifically the scene where Mrs. Hughes confronts Edna on Tom’s behalf. But first, let’s backtrack a smidge: having plied Tom with whiskey and slipping into his room, Edna approaches Tom the next day, demanding he commit to marrying her if their encounter results in a pregnancy. Tom refuses to accept the premise of the question (a neat lesson also stressed in West Wing, Season 7, which I’ve been watching recently). Conception, Tom tells Edna, isn’t that simple. Edna challenges Tom: so he regrets their encounter?

Tom, in his sad sappiness nearly a fit heir for the dopey Lord himself, responds: “I am already full of regret. There is nothing but regret in me” (though I’m guessing it was something quite other than regret that issued from him on the night in question).

Later, in London, Lady Mary recognizes Tom is in difficulty. When he refuses to open up about his problem, she advises to find some way of unburdening himself. Which sends Tom to Mrs. Hughes, the one person in whom Anna has also confided.

The stalwart Mrs. Hughes, believing herself partly to blames for Tom’s situation—for having she assisted in, albeit grudgingly, Edna’s return to Downton as a ladies maid. She subsequently confronts Edna on Tom’s behalf, but not until she’s discovered the Mary Stopes book Married Love, a sensation at the time, in Edna’s room.

Dr. Mary Stopes

According to Mrs. Hughes, possession of the book means Edna had planned the whole thing, and that she must have known all about preventing pregnancy. Unfortunately, Fellowes—and, by extension, Mrs. Hughes, are mistaken on this. The version of Married Love available online only hints at methods of contraception—primarily douching, presumably, and possibly condoms:

It should be realized that all the proper, medical methods of preventing undesired pregnancy consists, not in destroying an already growing embryo, but in preventing the male semen from reaching the unfertilized egg cell. This may be done either by shutting the semen away from the opening of the womb, or by securing the death of all (instead of the natural death of all but one) of the two or three hundred million spermatozoa which enter the woman…To render inert the ejaculated spermatozoa which would otherwise die and decompose naturally, is a simple matter, now familiar to every intelligent physician and layman.2

How to do this, Stopes writes, is “knowledge…easily obtainable” elsewhere. Apparently, one of the commonly used fertility regulators of the time was “half a lemon, partially squeezed out and then inserted in the vagina to cover the cervix like a cap.”3

But I digress.

My point, finally, concerns the lengths to which Mrs. Hughes appears prepared to go in her attempts to foil Edna’s plan:

Edna: What proof have you got?

Mrs. Hughes: None, at the moment. But if you persist in your lie, I’ll summon the doctor and have him examine you.

Edna: You can’t force me.

Mrs. Hughes: Oh yes, I can. First, I’ll lock you in this room. Then, when he’s arrived, I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down, if that’s what it takes.

A forcible gynaecologic examination? Does that sound far from rape to you?

In the face of Mrs. Hughes’s determination, Edna folds. And we, let’s face it, are stoked. Because a devil, for once, has got her comeuppance.

Edna: He still seduced me. You can’t change that.

Mrs. Hughes: You made a man drunk and climbed into his bed. You call that seduction? Because I don’t.

Edna rushes out. To Tom, Mrs. Hughes allows she was bluffing, that a doctor’s examination at that point would have found nothing.

But haven’t we, too, been seduced? Seduced into accepting the threat of a near-rape as a justified response to Edna’s aggression. 

Ethel Parks
And finally—SPOILER ALERT—having watched the entire fourth season, may I say that another Downton character could have used the lemon treatment, and that it is not a coincidence that Fellowes’s choice of the names Ethel, Edna, and Edith is not, thematically speaking, a coincidence.
Lady Edith


1This is not a summary of the episode. For an excellent recap of episode 3, please see Robin Kawakami’s Wall Street Journal blog piece, here

2 Stopes, Mary Carmichael. Married love or love in marriage. New York, NY: The Critic and Guide Company, 1918. Available online at

3 Short, R.V. “New ways of preventing HIV infection: thinking simply, simply thinking.”
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 May 29; 361(1469): 811–820. Published online 2006 February 3. doi:  10.1098/rstb.2005.1781

Monday, 6 January 2014

Downton Abbey: from "jumping the shark" to sharknado (hook's still in deep, though)

At long last, possums, we're back in Downtontown, and I couldn't be happier! It's a show millions love, yours truly included, though this love can't blind me to the show's faults.

And so, in honour of Downton Abbey's season 4 launch last night on PBS, I'm reposting last January's  rueful commentary on Downton's lunge over the top (below). But first, a few nits picked from last night's episode, and the shape of the season to come:

--A few too many info dump scenes, or overly short scenes, for example, the one where Lady Mary finally breaks down to Carson (Carson, and not her own father! How pathetic is that?), and the other between Carson and his old friend Grigg. These scenes reminded me of that West Wing axiom: no meeting ever lasts much more than 30 seconds. Would that real life was this way! Yes, yes, I know: short scenes keep the story clipping along (as does all that rushing around), but lesser writers are forever cautioned to make each scene exist on its own merits and not simply to set up a future plot point.

--I'm sorry, but even Lord Crawley couldn't be that big a ninny (the Dowager's repeated references to fetching the Nanny to care for him were downright ridiculous). 

--Speaking of Nanny, there's another laughable pseudoconflict generated at breakneck speed. It gives me no pleasure to say it (by which I mean it gives me HEAPS of pleasure), but Downton Abbey's becoming a caricature of itself. From "jumping the shark" to sharknado.

--Despite Cora Levinson Crawley's supposed shiksadom (see below), last night's episode leaves little doubt Lady Edith being set up for a "peril in Germany" story line, lifted right from Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (a much worthier miniseries, IMHO).

"Sorry fans, no Yiddishkeit at 'Downton Abbey'"

The reason neither Martha Levinson nor Lady Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern) are Jewish, it turns out, is very simple: They’re Episcopalian.  
We know this because the definitive guide to Season 3, Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis’ “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey,” tells us so. (They should know: She’s the niece of Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator.)...

--Finally, still in the Jewish content vein, could somebody PLEASE tell us why Fellowes' is allergic to actually casting Jews as Jews? Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti?? SERIOUSLY? (Okay, I know Martha Levinson isn't supposed to be Jewish but simply a brassy nouveau riche New Yorker...but isn't that kinda the same thing?) I suppose he'd feel comfortable casting Whites in Blackface to play Blacks, too? (PS This last is a joke...sort of)


Downton Abbey jumps the shark (January 9, 2013)

Downton Abbey's season 3 premiere: Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, foreground) continues to do dopey things, his mother-in-law, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) is fizzle and a gasbag, and viewers are reminded of familiar Downton truisms: “Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble.”

Photograph by: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece-PBS

Spoiler alert! Contains Downton plot twists: If you haven’t yet seen the opening episode of Season 3 (or, for that matter, Seasons 1 or 2) and plan to, you might want to hold off on reading this article. It contains some of the notable developments in the plots of the series.

I’d been psyched for months by the promise of the newest season of Downton Abbey, which the New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley recently called the Fifty Shades of Grey of its ilk: “soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex.”

But I was hugely disappointed by the two-hour series opener the other night, which drew the Crawley family — and voyeurs like us along for the ride — to new depths of fatuousness.

In the interregnum prior to the start of Season 3, hubby and I took the opportunity to rescreen Seasons 1 and 2. I’d been struck by writer Julian Fellowes’s apparent initial intention to make Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley (played by Hugh Bonneville), the heart of the series. The opening credits have him striding majestically through the grounds, golden lab at his side. But it wasn’t long before daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), whose young Turkish lover shockingly expires in her bedchamber (in most morality plays, death is what happens to the girl seduced, not the rake) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, who makes the most of the immortal line “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house — especially somebody they didn’t even know”) began to steal the show from him, and run with it. Lord Grantham becomes sadly befuddled — for example, imagining that he will see active duty in France during the First World War.

But this year’s offering is a contraption so creaky with ersatz conflict that it reminds me of Oz the Great and Terrible at the moment Dorothy discovers that behind the curtain is an ordinary little man.

Opening with the revelation of Lord Grantham’s utter and advised-against squandering of the family’s fortune in Canada — as June Thomas says on Slate, “they sure do return to the same themes over and over: Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble” — the episode continues at breakneck pace to the wedding of Mary and Matthew — though skipping completely what true Fifty Shades fans would prefer to have seen: the honeymoon. But first — oh, irony — it picks up their latest complication: the father of the late Lavinia, Matthew’s one-time fiancée, has died and Matthew is third in line to inherit his huge fortune.

While the issue of whether the two men before him as inheritors are alive or dead is needlessly spun out, Matthew — looking a tad overfed and unctuous, proving himself a fitting heir to the doltish current lord — announces his resolution to give away the money should it come his way, because taking it would constitute a form of theft. He arrives at this weird notion through tortured guilty logic: Lord Reginald Swire could only have intended the money to come to Matthew because he was the great love of Lavinia’s life, but Matthew betrayed that love, sending Lavinia to an early, broken-hearted death by way of the Spanish flu.

It makes Harlequin romances appear deep.

Lady Mary castigates Matthew with the deadliest of accusations. In refusing Swire’s bequest, in his willingness to allow, dare one say it, Downton to be lost, Matthew is, she charges, betraying that he is “not on our side.”

Seriously? This is the complication on which Fellowes seeks to hang the season?

It was the moment that Downton Abbey, despite its high production values and effervescent cast, finally jumped the shark.

And it was only downhill from there.

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey.
Photograph by: Image courtesy , Nick Briggs

Shirley MacLaine, looking like she might have had a tad too much plastic surgery, was a total fizzle, her Martha Levinson (mother of the U.S.-born Cora, Lady Grantham) little more than a gasbag of accented clichés.

I'd heard rumours Dan Stevens (Matthew) would be gone from Downton, and this flop of a premiere was just the impetus I needed to root around the Internet to discover what happens to his character, while imagining all the time I might regain Sunday evenings by not having to watch the rest of the series.

As if.

Like Fifty Shades of Grey, Downton Abbey has become, most assuredly, one more in a long line of life’s guilty pleasures.