Downton Abbey

It’s taken me several weeks to come to terms with why I’m addicted to the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey, since it’s basically a soap opera. The Matthew-Mary courtship made the front page of TV Guide (remember this is PBS) and the Abbey held its own against the Superbowl, rating second in the same time slot. So I’m not the only one watching. I’ve settled on the following explanation – Downton is about honor (or we should say honour). The hidden key to the series in Mr. Bates – his name is John, but in the world of Downton first names don’t exist except for the lowest servants – the chambermaids and footmen. Bates is the first person we see in season one, episode one, and the carrier of a secret he is very tight-lipped about, even at his own peril. He is a man for whom honor must be preserved even at the cost of appearing completely dishonorable. At the verge of the end of season two, we find him about to face trial for the murder of his wretched wife, who was poisoned. Meanwhile he’s married the honorable chambermaid Anna (she has no last name until the wedding vows themselves), but only at her insistence [this post is destined to be out of date as soon as I hit publish – the finale is day after tomorrow].

The Family, that is to say the Crawleys by name and the Granthams by title, are headed by the mostly honorable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and his American wife Lady Cora. The ever useful Bill Bryson informs us that precisely 500 of these marriages of American money and English title occured at the turn of the century, one example of the series’ historical accuracy. The couple has no son, but rather three daughters whose sibling rivalry is of Freudian and mythological proportions. When the original heir to Lord Grantham dies on the Titanic, his third cousin (once removed) enters the picture – the aforementioned Matthew Crawley, and the cat and mouse with the eldest daughter Mary ensues. A review in the New York Review of Books noted the biographical parallel – series writer Julian Fellowes is a stunted heir to an Earlship himself, and holds a lesser title. This obviously adds to the authenticity of the portrayal of class relations and tensions.

The series is also about class, and changes in the British class structure in the early 20th century. Like the 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs, and Gosford Park (written by the same Julian Fellowes), Downton views the house from the servants’ perspective as much as from the masters’. The working class characters continually read the writing on the wall that portends a flattening of English class. In one scene, a stifled charlatan rails on Lord Grantham that one day his type will have to answer for their arrogance. The Earl replies that “luckily … that day has not yet come.” Maggie Smith, who play the Earl’s mother, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, gets the best lines. When the Abbey is turned into a convalescent home, she asks “is it conducive to rest and relaxation, all this mixing of classes, setting everyone on edge?” In one unbelievable moment, in her early encounters with the middle class lawyer-turned heir Matthew, she asks “what is a weekend?” Actually the term is relatively new, or at least was at the time.

Julian Fellowes

I like to think it is these two things – honor and class – that draw so many to Downton on Sunday nights. It’s not the opulence of the place, at least not that alone. Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed had a similar family and a similar history – it was turned into a hospital during WWI, but it is no grander than any of the mansions featured on the innumerable shows about the lifestyle of the rich. Their clothes are another matter – the mysterious Mr. Bates is the Earl’s valet, an occupation the middle-class Matthew calls “silly … for a grown man.” But the result is immaculate. Still, being early 20th century, the clothing is subdued by todays standards. No, it’s virtue and social class that bring us back week after week, and Fellowes’ penchant for throwing obstacles in his characters’ way – the soap opera aspect. As he stated, “you can’t just show them sitting around eating cucumber sandwiches.”

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2 responses to “Downton Abbey

  1. leialoha perkins

    As a novelist and short story writer who has no small envy of writers of drama, whatever the lineage — theatre, movie, tv, skit, punch and judy — I think your view shows a generational distaste for an earlier generationʻs class taste and breeding. Hawaiʻi once had the same kind of privileged class with similar tastes — the sense quality remained but widened to include other objects: cars instead of canoes, silk instead of kapa. Honour remained. Classy in its own category. Todayʻs Middle Class is broad on the material side and narrow on the appreciation side, perhaps because of the breadth of the material and the scientific clarity with high tech specificity that are in themselves genuinely awesome to, say, the softness and ambiguities of human motivations of behaviour and beliefs. Downton Abbey is a superb series of the history of a family challenged to changes beyond its power to stop but not beyond its power to redefine its own re-estimations of personal (honour) and social values (conduct that enhances the society upstairs and down), all of which goes with not only money (seen in Downton, the furniture, the fine clothes, jewels, fox hunting, horseback riding AND cars), etc. The family has a sense of responsibiity — Mary, for instance, chooses to marry a heel of a newspaperman (despite thinking his taste for their mansion Haxeby is vulgar — Carlisle thinks of paintings that he can buy, not what he might inherit from, e.g., Maryʻs family) RATHER THAN suffer her fatherʻs beloved Downtown Abbey to ridicule because of her secret (a Turk for lover dying in her bed). She is sufficiently proud not to allow herself an escape from the sure-fire humiliation that would follow discovery — she can speak of it as a horror (because he died, not because he tried) and she owns her fault in the liaison even though Mr. P, the handsome Turk, was alone to blame for presenting himself in her bedroom and forcing her into submission (finally with her collusion). She is young. And though bolstered by social rules is not above breaking them even when, on the one hand, horrified at Mr. Pʻs presence in her bedroom late at night, she allows herself the experimental pleasure. Sheʻs vulnerable, despite her constant cueing to the rules. Sheʻs extraordinarily intelligent (admits her mistakes, takes the punishment Delivered by Herself . . .except with one person, her father, w hose sense of honour, which means respect on principle regardless of the price, she cannot breach For His Sake, not herʻs). Sheʻs selfless in many ways, especially after The Great Mistake with Mr. P. Before that, sheʻs spoiled –accepts her parentsʻ concern about who she marries andt hat she marries well And is snit against her sister Edyth, whose only fault was being born second and not as beautiful a creature in physical form but beautiful and humble in fact, even admitting she envied Sibyl, the younger sister-rebel innocent who takes up Nursing with genuine interest and even flies the Castle Coop to marry a Fenein. Each of these characters are four dimensional, not paste-ons. Mr. Bates is NOT the Main Character. The FAMILY is.
    Mr. Bates is a lower social levelled case of the Family. He reinforcest heir values: like Mary, he will go to great lengths to save others discomfort and even knowing the truth — and that he arrives at Downton an injured Vet shows the odds against him. Early in the series, he is placed in a position of vacating . . and does so, without complaint; it is the Earl that saves him the LAST Minute, from a sense of FAIRNESS, as Bares saves the Earlʻs House and Family from Humiliation by preferring t o return to his wife. And so on. If you think characterization is easy you do not know whereof you speak. The history of an entire family is a
    feat. It makes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Faust simple one person depictions. There is a thing called Social Lateral Depth. Hawaiians know that well — and haoles, apart from sociologists and those tuned to social relations, tend not to, but prefer psychological (not lateral but vertical depth, e.g. one person, deep down vs. a whole family, broadcast deeply outward because social rather than psycho. I think your PRONOUNCEMENT on Downton Abbey comes from your having seen what i call The Hack Episodal Series. THERE ARE TWO SERIES for SEASON 2. The series you saw is true as of the war, but not what happens after it. The version you saw (which i saw with your family) had an IMPOSTOR return as the dead young Crawley heir that had been announced as killed in the downing of the Titanic. That episode which shows the Imposter speaking to Edyth and saying “Iʻm surprised you donʻt recognize my voice,” goes on and on, showing he knew a lot about her . ..yet Edyth, who has shown in her ministrations of the injured returned officers that she is very keen on knowing people, very personally, and especially when they are at a disadvantage, a fact reinforced when she denies the widower Lord Anthony Strathern his gentle claim that he is too old for her . . .she sees that he cares for her . ..and his injured arm like his age is not an impediment to her liking him as much as had he been different. Edyth does not recognize the Imposter, or did not in the episode I saw (with your family). Well, I bought the BBC dvd (a pbs.org sale). THIS VERSION IS THE REAL JULIAN FELLOWES VERSION. Everything in it is OF A CONSISTENT PIECE. the pieces come together IN CHARACTER. and the ending is humble (for Mary) and insightful (for Matthew, who has needed his motherʻs critical prodding to understand Laviniaʻs death as she would have chosen him to see it). UNTIL YOU SEE THIS VERSION, you have not seen the proper ending. i think the second is the Americana ending.
    Itʻs purely commercial, to keep the story going, no matter that ait ended.
    In addition, i think, also, if what you say is true– Downton Abbey ran a good rating while a Championship Football game was on — the public on both sides of the Atlantic agreed on the merits of Downton Abbey.

    The Brits are superb dramatists. Shakespeare is still in their blood. They have ACTING SCHOOLS the way we have CULINARY schools like the Cordon Bleu in NYC, courtesy Paris. UNFORTUNATELY, their tastes have run into Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes; Entertainment troughs. Their quality is high, no doubt. But Downton Abbey is of an upper cut. It is very, very hard to write. Let me assure you. And the acting is of the same quaity cut. Hats off to the Brits. ALSO THEY APPRECIATE THEIR SCRIPT WRITERS. THEY NAME THEM BY NAME. THEY DON”T MERELY GIVE THE ACTRESSES AND ACTORS THE MARQUEE HIGH LIGHTS. And itʻs an art to themʻ the busienss is not the primary objective but obviously it can be. The Am erican public has agreed, except you. And I think thatʻs because you saw a TRAVESTY version. iʻd be glad to lend my my BBC-America dvd. But this time, donʻt be fooled by who comes onto screen first. This is not a thesis paper: in the first paragraph, the subject is up front! Please, get a life on lit. Itʻs history, written down, sort of in an ON GOING sequence of sometimes inconsequential parts until later when they fall together . . .seemingly b y chance, but actually only in the seeming.

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  2. Leialoha A. Perkins

    Correction: There are not two ” P. Gordon/ P. Crawley” episodic versions of Downton Abbey. It only seemed so. Error acknowledged. -Leialoha A. Perkins

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