Down on Downton?



Downton Abbey aired its 2-hour season finale in the US on Sunday, and I have to admit that I, too, was a Downton Abbey sucker, although I could also enjoy the many parodies of the show.

The success of the show can of course be attributed to the great setting, a good script, great actors and enough ruckus (Lady Sybil and Matthew dying—who saw that coming?) to keep us hooked.

But aside from the high quality of the show itself, I have been wondering what the alluring factor has been for people to tune in every week: this rather feudal upstairs-downstairs soap is a relic of the past for many of us: we don’t belong to a servant class anymore, nor do we have an estate of several acres, farm income, or at night, always a nice fire in the library, the finest port and servants who get us ready for bed.

And yet, why are we so depressed that the show is over, even though the makers of the show did a good but saccharine job of tying up all loose ends: there was good fortune and happiness ever after for the ugly duckling, Lady Edith, who had resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood but married up to Bertie while her evil sister Lady Mary had married down to a dashing race car driver who decided to become a used car salesman, the humiliation (and vulgarity) of which was undoubtedly softened by Mary’s pregnancy, Carson had to quit because his Parkinson tremors made a mess of Downton’s immaculate white table linens, but deus ex machina, the humbled Thomas could take over as the head butler, Daisy found love, the Bates finally had their baby even though many of us thought she might miscarry the entire bloody season, Robert had a renewed appreciation for his wife after seeing her activism at the local hospital, and Mrs. Crawley married Lord Merton after all, even though he was dying, but then was not dying after all, like in a true Hollywood miracle.

I have never seen a happier and more commercial ending of a show, and, yes, fun to watch, but a little hard to believe…as is the thing that attracts us to Downton in general, which is the portrayal of a pseudo-utopian and arcadian world that is not immune to tragedy and adversity but always regains its balance with the greatest amount of grace, decency and fellow feeling.

Downton Abbey works like clockwork because it is a community that is self-sustaining and propped up by compassion. When someone, whether it is upstairs or downstairs, receives a blow or gets the wind knocked out of him or her because an unfortunate event, people gather round and prop up the person, until he or she can continue on his merry way again.

We don’t have that sense of community anymore in America, or maybe we still have it in rural areas of this country, but we certainly don’t know what that is like in Manhattan, the South Side of Chicago or the Tenderloin in San Francisco. Our love for the series is a nostalgia for a time we never experienced but we have it hardwired in us, because people, as Streisand sang, do need people…

There’s another thing though that we’re nostalgic for and that is the shared sense of decency the characters exude. With a Republican Debate behind us that looked more like a barroom brawl than an actual competition for the highest office in the land, we’d rather hand over the country to Robert and his labrador than to a bunch of immature men who taunt each other with schoolyard slurs. We have fallen a far way, the world has gotten a lot uglier and so we escape into costume dramas in search of the perfection of the past.

But was it really that perfect, or better than our own imperfect present?

This morning, my eye was drawn to this picture on Facebook, posted by an art historian, showing, to her horror, that Edith was posing next to a monstrous Italianate statue of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon with his sister Evelyn.


On the FB thread someone, rather hilariously, commented that bridesmaids were never to outshine the beauty (or common looks) of the bride and that may have been the reason for placing Edith right next to this piece of Italian kitsch, but there’s more to this Earl Carnarvon, his most noted dent in history having been involved in penal reform (making things worse for people in jail—and they must have been pretty terrible already in those Victorian/Dickensian times) and meddling with politics in South Africa to such a degree that it triggered some terrible conflicts, and eventually the Anglo-Boer War.

But, needless to say, Carnarvon was a great lover of the arts and beauty, maybe to make up for his own lack in that department?


His nickname was Twitters because of his tics and twitches, which may have been, who knows, a result of inbreeding in the Carnarvon family, which, apparently, he himself was not opposed to either as his second marriage was to his first cousin. There was lots of inbreeding going on in these families as it was a way of holding onto land, power and wealth, so the Downton Class really was the 1% Bernie likes to vilify so much in his campaigns, and as far as the inbreeding goes, it may have been more accurate to call the series Down in Appalachia.

So… that idyllic setting of Highclere Castle has some of its own skeletons, and its residents may not have been as noble, grand or gorgeous than the series likes to project. Our blindness to this fact and the realization that the Downton era may have been just as fucked up as our own times is an important reality check to have, although part of me likes to believe that the synergy of the community we saw in the series was an actual thing of the past that we’re eroding and supplanting with “faux” and virtual communities of the Internet.

This doesn’t take anything away from the series. I am still a fan. We all need to recreate fairy tales to escape our trivial lives, right?

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