Only Connect: ‘Downton Abbey’

Downton Abbey, a mansion of many rooms with as many stories as characters, weighs in as the Brits most touted “costume” drama since Brideshead Revisited in 1981. In 2011 Downton was dubbed the most “acclaimed” English-language television show of the year. Writer Jessica Fellows has an über hit and ten million “hooked” viewers. Downton Abby is currently in Part Two of its three-part series, and the question is still, “Who will inherit Downton?”

Downton Abbey is set in Highclere Castle in Hampshire, where the actual interior filming occurs. Servant scenes are shot in Ealing studios; the outdoor scenes are shot in Oxfordshire. But Downton’s more than a place; it’s an archive holding the past, a spirit of the age, a monumental memorial, and a legacy for the future. It’s also a “sentimental education” and a repository of English wit and duty. There’s aristocratic decay, American “new money,” and a match that has produced three daughters and no direct heir. Part One opens with a thwarting of the  family plan to secure Downton’s future, when news arrives that both potential heirs, including Lady Mary’s “intended,” have gone down with the ship.

The Titanic, the ultimate symbol of Victorian progress, the unsinkable ship that sinks, thrusts the narrative into a modern twentieth-century world. Not only the vulgar high society with its hierarchy of social classes and social stratification but also fin de siè cle decadence and bohemianism give way to Edwardian flashiness. Things falling apart are rendered in a flourish of details—an actor’s stare (a bit too long),  a throw-away gesture (nuanced resistance), a blasphemous lie—infusing new meaning into a plethora of daily routines performed in lavish period costumes, complete with steamy seamy bedroom backroom intrigues, both up and downstairs. History’s entangled in private lives. Public tragedy parallels personal tragedy.

Social criticism fuels the plot, which is driven by the Earl of Grantham’s search for not just an heir but a spiritual heir. The story is about  both who will inherit England, and what will become of the star-crossed lovers who constitute a suitable match of title and occupation. The first season is filled with scandals and betrayals, all exclusive, privileged, unfortunate, clandestine yet expected; there are all the components of social melodrama, intrigues and intruders, set pieces, gilded dinner parties, failing fortunes and broken engagements, and those smug young women thwarted in love. Jane Austen on steroids.

And there are daydreams, plain facts, self deceptions, even mystery with a touch of gothic. There are three daughters, all excluded as rightful heirs who are expected to marry. There are perfectly-coiffed hair, sibling rivalry, jealousy, and revenge. There are suffragettes and blue-stocking politics. There are rape, untimely death, miscarriage, and homosexuality (still illegal at the turn of the century), with a touch of forbidden encounters and the taint of desperate blackmail.

Part Two intensifies the darkness with what Wilfred Owens calls “the pity of war” and the irony of “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” With 1916 and the Battle of Somme, Downton assumes different rules of engagement. There is everything from MIAs and PTSD, to amputees and suicides, all the luck and muck of war; there are gender and class wounds, crumbling conditions, and house divisions at home. The two Englands are now less distinct; there’s an easing of the stratified system, an intermingling of upstairs and downstairs, agrarian and industrial, aristocrats and middle and servant classes. What they’ve all inherited is the war.

The historical background is 1916-1919. The personal lives affected by “war is hell” are foregrounded. Downton’s remarkable grounds and picturesque landscape give way to trench war and hospital scenes of the recovering and dying, the consequences of war, the war wounded a marked contrast to the social arrogance of Downton, Part One. The collective mood is one of disillusionment; the tone is somber.  Suddenly more introspective and complicated, characters (previously loved or loathed) seem less pawns of an archaic system and more human and humane. The dance of lovers, Lady Mary and Matthew Crowley, continues, both seemingly getting beyond their own pride and prejudice with an enlightened sympathy brought about by the devastating impact of World War I.

The train is that agent of progress taking young men off to war; the horses and fox hunt take a back seat to the automobile, now being driven by a woman, Lady Edith, who, having been thwarted in love by both an aristocrat and a farmer, turns her attention to serving soldiers. Lady Sybil, having joined the suffragettes in Part One, is now a volunteering Florence Nightingale who’s romantically attached to her chauffeur, an Irish sympathizer mourning the disastrous defeat in the “Easter Uprising.” Even the timeless Englishman, the gentleman, the Earl of Grantham joins in support of his country by offering Downton, his life’s work, as a hospital for injured soldiers. Part Two, as counterpoint to Part One, is a melding of class and an acceptance of what it means to be part of the human community. Courage, hope, integrity, and progress rise up from downstairs. The old order crumbles in an avalanche of change…with more than a third of the series yet to come.

Greatest hit or greatest distraction? Downton’s fiddling with our heart strings. And we’ve heard this tune before. During revolutionary cycles of history, a few things reappear, over and over again—fairytales, superheroes, drawing room comedies, subjectivity, natural supernaturalism, and aesthetic decadence – to name just a few. They’re back, big time. And they’re usually back when things are once more starting to fall apart, when pessimism goes viral, values get jumbled, the “we” gets lost in the “me,” politics get down and dirt(ier), people take to the streets, war cries are in the air, and another Titanic sinks. Downton’s our beloved Jane Austen—with a difference. The story’s grittier, the satire’s more vinegary, and the drawing room’s less sappy when it opens its doors to the Great War.

The cliché fits, so I’ll defer to it: history repeats when we’re not careful. We’re all the rightful inheritors of Downton Abbey, which connects the past with the future. Keep an eye out for the Downton mirrors. The series is an exquisite and powerfully rendered slice of history and modern culture, and it restores ethics—to a world jaded by irony, chic, and razor blade slashing—to its rightful place, thereby balancing art’s ethical-aesthetical scale. We’re all heirs and Downton’s here to remind us that the imaginary Downton “Abbey” is a real Highclere “Castle,” and as E. M. Forster says at the beginning of his own story about a “dwelling,” Howards End (1910), “Only connect…”


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