A close friend whose opinion I value recently suggested to me that ‘Downton Abbey’ was just the sort of show that might appeal to me given my love of history and of all things British. I confess to having been a fan of the film ‘Gosford Park’, of having devoured Galsworthy’s ‘The Forsyth Saga’, and to having once been an avid viewer of the old series, ‘Upstairs / Downstairs’. So, I ask you, why was I so slow to catch on to ‘Downton Abbey’?
Perhaps because I have been too caught up in the usual ‘shoot ’em-up’ fare so firmly entrenched in American television.
But now, instead of being bewitched by serial killers, sexual predators and drug lords, I find myself increasingly transfixed by the ever-so-correct late Edwardian Brits as they struggle to determine their place in the transitional world of the early 20th century. And what a century it was: horse-drawn carriages to motor cars; the installation of electric lighting inside manor houses; the first telephones; and, of course, the growing emergence of the women’s suffrage movement.
The late Edwardian period was an era in which everyone had their distinct role to play, in ‘service’ or out. There were not many options for poor women: they could hope for marriage to a farmer, a shop keeper, or working as a servant for one of the aristocratic families. Men fared slightly better – they could become solicitors or doctors if they had the money for education, but many did not and went instead into service for the wealthy.
In an early episode of ‘Downton Abbey’, Lord Grantham admonishes his heir, Matthew Crawley, for refusing to understand his responsibility as a caretaker of a great estate and for not making use of the services of his butler. The heir is ‘progressive’, believing a butler’s work silly and unnecessary. Lord Grantham reminds young Crawley that each man has his part to play in this world – both servant and lord – and who is Crawley to question it?
Indeed, in late Edwardian England, this distinct understanding of well-defined roles and the societal benefits derived from them made that particular world ‘go round’. Today, Grantham’s views project an uncomfortable impression of ‘noblesse oblige’, one not admired by our 21st century sensibilities; yet, on some level, I found his earnest remarks noble in their paternalism – aristocrats like Lord Grantham took seriously the well-being of the people who lived in their towns and on their estates. The best of the aristocrats were not unmindful of the well-being of their country ‘neighbors’. Contrast that state of affairs with our cold, uncaring government bureaucracies, who know neither the names nor the concerns of the every day people those organizations profess to serve.
Would I like to live under Edwardian paternalism? No. But there is a certain charm to the idea of everyone knowing their role in how things should continue to function. Was there unhappiness and discontent ‘downstairs’? You bet! There was also much sadness and dissatisfaction with life amongst those who lived ‘upstairs’. It was of a different sort, to be sure, but it did exist.
Life was soon to change for both lord and servant with the advent of The Great War. Yes, World War I, that terrible war that altered the fabric of empire, as well as life throughout Europe.
Nothing was ever again the same. Society changed, and the lines between aristocrats and those of the middle classes began to blur. And the servants? Suddenly there were opportunities other than service for those smart enough to grab them.
I like ‘Downton Abbey’ because it is not mindless. I like it for its acerbic wit (thank you, Maggie Smith, for your dry one-liners that make me long to be of the manor born!), its subtle machinations and intrigues both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, the beautiful costumes, the intelligent, sometimes subtle dialogue, and the lovely sets and scenery.
I wish there more shows like ‘Downton Abbey’ – I’d watch more television if there were.