Doubting Downton Abbey

These thoughts will make me a minority of one among family and friends, but are not singular in the broader world.  The English writer and critic A.N. Wilson, for example, has lashed the series for depicting a world that is not only long gone but may never have existed ( ), while tele-don Simon Schama sees it all as snob saga ( ).

That point leads directly to an idea about why currently beleaguered, battered and bewildered Britain has gone for the show so wildly, and in turn why the American public has as well.  At a time when their economies are eroded, spirits smashed and egos eliminated, DA shows an ordered world in which people (mostly) behave well and those who do not get punished, where those same people all know and appreciate their places, and where change might be bewildering but can be handled.  In short, that imagined world stands so contrasted to the present one as to heighten the old sense of “things were never so good as they were back then”.

In England, at least part of this debate swings around the person of the series writer, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, now Baron Fellowes of West Stafford in Dorset following his elevation to the peerage by the Cameron government in recognition of his services to the Tories, a rare affiliation in the arts world.  Julian Fellowes was formerly best known for his portrayal of Lord Kilwillie, sparring partner to the eccentric Hector MacDonald (played by Richard Briers) in Monarch of the Glen, another series that developed a rarefied if decaying world.  However, Fellowes was pulled in as a writer on Gosford Park, won an Oscar and since then has been in demand as a supplier of upper class period dramas.

Fellowes was seen initially as an “insider” to all this upper class as his father had a minor title.  The “tall poppy” syndrome being what it is world-wide, though, the English press soon identified that as a “bought” title and traced Fellowes’ origins to more humble stock.  He himself did not help by going public with his disdain for things such as people using the word “toilet” and the fact that his wife, the great grandniece of Lord Kitchener and a former Lady in Waiting to The Princess Michael of Kent, could not in her own right to the Kitchener title.

It is perhaps too easy in all this to see the origins of some of DA’s frailties.  Take, for example, Lord Grantham’s increasing anxiety through series two about his role in locality and nation brought about by the war.  Grantham is a thoroughly good chap, tempted by but eschewing a relationship with a servant, apologises to Bates for over-reacting, and wants to “do his duty”.  In a sense, this personal conflict in the upper classes has been a recurring theme in English thought since that time, although the now aged academic scrabble between Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lawrence Stone over “the crisis of the aristocracy” puts the process at least three centuries earlier.  It is too easy to move from that to thoughts about the role of such people now, especially as Fellowes has joined them at precisely the time the House of Lords has been leg-roped and the stately homes are falling at increasing pace.

By the end of the series many of its characters are speculating on the likelihood of life after World War One: from the DA daughters down on through the lower house, staff all display the tension of a struggle between the “normal and the new” and, again, that is almost the anthem for present day Cameronian Britain.  The retreat from Europe, the row over user pays for university study, the apparent unbridling of “the City” and a hard return to Tory values, whatever they are, are all echoed in the series in some way or another.

As A.N. Wilson suggests, though, many, many viewers will see all this as a piece of fun rather than as a social parable, and that is true enough.  Professional writing analysts, on the other hand, might argue it a cloyed piece of fun.  By the time Mr Bates (a perhaps unfortunate name) is dragged off at the end charged with his ex-wife’s murder, it almost comes as a merciful relief, because by then he has so stoically borne an unimaginable series of setbacks to marrying the enduringly loyal Anna that he looks like a loser.  The equally stoic Lady Edith meanwhile puts in a sterling war effort, gets taken in by an astonishingly demonic figure allegedly a threat to the line of succession, then gets assured by her grandmother (aka Maggie Smith) that her time to marry will come even if she is “the plain one”.  Edith and her sisters emanate directly from the tradition of Austen and Bronte, and there are moments when you expect the arrival of Mr Collins – oh sorry, wrong series.

Looked at hard, this is neither great writing nor plotting and it appropriates material from every quarter: the heroic and honourable below stairs man does his duty in the trenches and dies as a result of protecting his officer who just happens to be the Grantham heir.  That heir suffers a broken back but makes a great recovery so the future is guaranteed, and pledges to stick by his loyal fiancée (even though he fancies Lady Mary something rotten) because she has stuck by him.  Loyal fiancée then falls to the Spanish flu, and the series sequel is set up when he declares that he and Mary are cursed, so she goes off to marry the reincarnation of media baron Lord Beaverbrook.  Meanwhile a black marketeer gets what is coming to him, a housemaid falls pregnant to a convalescent military officer who reneges on supporting her then dies at the front.  Most unconvincingly of all, Lady Sybil finally falls for the chauffeur, a distinctly unattractive Irishman torn between being a socialist who regrets the death of the Tsar in the revolution and seeking atonement for his relative martyred in the Easter Rising.

It is impossible to avoid comparing this assemblage with the marvellous earlier country house drama, Brideshead Revisited.  That had the distinct advantage of being at least based on the sardonic, witty and coherent insights of Evelyn Waugh, and its tight following of plot and setting gave it a compulsion that DA lacks essentially.  Not all the BR characters were likeable, but they were understandable, and that is not consistently the case with DA – the three sisters are a case in point because there is no systematic development of their characters, they rather flit from stance to stance with little in the way of an explanation.

There are, of course, marvellous moments in Downton Abbey and almost all are brought about by great acting.  Maggie Smith is now almost on a Bollywood-like production line as she moves through several versions of the Dowager Countess, the loveable conservative who makes it all explicable and acceptable, but who at the end begins masterminding the social transformation of the unfortunate chauffeur.  She could make a reading of the Yellow Pages a memorable event, so her presence alone prevents the entire show from deflation.

Should it all be taken this seriously?  Almost certainly not, but the furious acclaim for the series worldwide surely says something about the state of that world, what it wishes for, and what it laments.

One Response to “Doubting Downton Abbey”
  1. Can’t really argue – but we romantics still love it

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