Life at Downton

I find it strange in a way that the things I love the most, I blog about the least. It’s almost as if I am so wrapped up in cherishing that particular book or film or miniseries that I do not want to put it in words for others to read. But since Downton Abbey is airing on Masterpiece Theatre, it seems like high time to talk properly about it. (Which I will attempt to do without giving away too much for those who haven’t yet seen the later installments.)

… now I am feeling overwhelmed, and don’t even know where to start.

I think Julian Fellowes has created a masterpiece in terms of characterization. Throughout the episodes, you form conclusions about most of the characters that are either reversed or come distinctly true later on, as you come to know their different fears and personality traits. They seem fully human — and all of them tend to make mistakes, so none are at all times entirely above reproach, even Lady Grantham who I must admit, amuses me tremendously. Even where the plot can be a little redundant, it doesn’t matter because we’re so invested in the characters — in hoping Mary learns wisdom, in being delighted in Sybil, in pitying Edith always being overlooked, in enjoying the romance between Lord and Lady Grantham, in hoping Matthew makes some headway with his cousin, that Mr. Bates will share his secrets, that Daisy will wise up to Thomas, and so forth. I care about them all, each and every one. I want to see Gwen become a secretary, and Anna to be loved, and for Thomas to die a slow and painful death. In a fire, if at all possible — and O’Brian with him.

I loathe those two characters, I really do — Thomas in particular, since he’s such a cad. I think at some point I was supposed to feel sorry for him being abandoned by the Duke, but somehow his continued nastiness on all levels prevents it. Which I suppose brings me to my one complaint: the homosexuality. Since it bears almost no influence on the plot after the first episode (for which I am grateful) I must conclude that it was added for no purpose other than controversy and therefore find it utterly useless and quite out of place in an otherwise stellar drama. But all annoyance aside, he really is a marvelous villain and one of the few television characters I have loathed with my entire being, without hope for redemption. (The other, in case anyone is curious, is Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda. A nastier man never walked the literary earth.)

What I think is so clever about the series is not its marriage of “upstairs and downstairs” in a great old house so much as that it captures the feel of England during this time. They had not yet gone to war and so life was pleasant and traditional in the country, but things were changing. Yet some remained the same — as we see in the case of Mary and the Turkish visitor (I loathe to call him a “gentleman,” for he is not — I also have some serious reservations about what happened between them, because I’m not sure it couldn’t be called rape of sorts, since essentially he threatened her into it …), where she is entirely at his mercy, in the ritualistic dominance of man / woman relationships of the time.

Plus, it is entirely devoid of political correctness — the people upstairs are pleasant and generally good, concerned with their tenants and polite to their servants; even Mary is embarrassed to be caught snooping, whereas in another drama she might have had quite another frame of mind, yet there are “bad” people among them (such as the Duke, and Mister Pamuk); whereas the downstairs, or common people, are equally pleasant except for Thomas and O’Brian. (That Thomas is a villain at all is a tad astonishing but I find it rather refreshing, since to me it illustrates that your sexuality does not mean you are a “good person” — a homosexual is just as capable of nastiness as anyone else; if anything, it is treating his character as an equal to the rest of humanity, and is that not what the homosexual community desires?)

I like it that not all the characters are kind all the time; some of them are downright cruel to one another. Edith and Mary’s rivalry has an edge to it that is both disturbing and poignant, because it is like human nature, to be possessive, and jealous, and to pretend these sins do not exist is dismissing our own natures. It is not pleasant to watch but nevertheless impacting, because it’s brutally honest. At the same time, Mr. Bates is so very noble that he often lies at fault because of it; he is so determined to protect others that he suffers for it, both an endearing and extremely frustrating trait, because in my opinion, he should stand up for himself in plain terms, rather than leaving others to discern the truth and tell it for him.

Although I do love all of the characters independently (except for those nastier ones mentioned above), several of them stand out and appeal to me for different reasons.

The first is Mary, who seems quite cold but really is I think just terribly uncertain about who she is, what she really wants, and her own emotions. I identify with her in a sense because I think she’s more traditional than she believes, and is very much like her grandmother — blunt and at times unintentionally cruel. I think she fights with her sister out of her own unhappiness, as a means of sharing her own individual misery, but things touch her much more deeply than she would care to let on. I do not think she fully comprehends her own feelings and toward the end of the series, when they finally begin to emerge, I understand her desperation in musing aloud on whether or not she has ruined everything.

Next is Lady Grantham, her grandmother… who is, in a word, me in 50 years. I kid you not. The horrid, hilarious comments she is eternally making, accompanied by her tentative need for reassurances (particularly when it comes to Mary’s reputation), combined with her rigid views on morality and brilliant grasp of sarcasm … is very much like me. So much so that her reactions are generally similar to mine. (One of my favorite moments is in the sixth episode, when finding the truth out about Mary — there is horror, of course, but beneath it is a brash thrust of hilarious, morbid curiosity — how did the body get from one end of the house to the other?!) In case you think I am making it up, my mother reached the same conclusion.

I have a dear friend who reminds me profoundly of Anna — sweet, generous, focused on others… it must be nice being her, but far less funny, since Anna never gets lines like, “I suppose we can’t have him assassinated…?”

The last is… well, a combination of two characters — Mrs. Hughs, and Mr. Carson. I cannot say how much I love their positions downstairs. In a way, they are the father and mother of the downstairs brood — the parents who aren’t married and probably would never work up the courage to admit how much they like one another. But without them, the house would not run as smoothly as it does, troubles would not be so readily cast aside, and we would not have one of the loveliest, understated relationships in the series. I like to think that Mrs. Hughes chooses to remain not simply because she likes her position, but because she is content in who she is and the life she has chosen. I think it is far too tempting to go with the “bitter old maid” angle (which is perhaps O’Brian) in a housekeeper, so here it is refreshing to find a gentle but firm, motherly woman who has chosen this, rather than been forced into it.

Many costume dramas have won over my heart in recent years… and I think this one may top all the rest. I do not know entirely why except that I never grow tired of it. I am continually returning to it with a kind of delight that allows me to experience each emotion and glance anew. In a way, it feels a betrayal of my other favorite, the magnificent Bleak House, but as this is not an adaptation but an original story (thus, we never know what may happen next), it stands apart. Perhaps that is what makes it so great.

Also? Let us simply hand Maggie Smith some sort of an award. She more than deserves it.

3 thoughts on “Life at Downton

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  1. Now that we're halfway through this show in the US, I love it even more. The characters are so raw and authentic, watching this show just takes my breath away. Well said on all points! 🙂

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