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Anna (she has no last name until the wedding vows themselves), but only at her insistence [this post is destined to be out of date as soon as I hit publish – the finale is day after tomorrow].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.
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.”