Downton Abbey is the British-produced, period drama on PBSthat everyone… including me, is watching. It’s a character study of two classes: the lords and ladies of privilege that occupy the drawing rooms in the castle that is their home; and the household keepers who maintain all of that fuss and fury. It comes in weekly installments not unlike the monthly chapters written by British social critic Charles Dickens who skillfully applied his observations of character and society of 19th century England to his novels.
Downton is itself a skillful character study of character: people who have it and people who are… still in training, shall we say.
It’s also been described as high soap opera and there’s plenty of intrigue to be had. Among the cast of 27 regular characters there is…
Robert Crawley, the 6th Earl of Grantham, is the Lord of the manor. While he’s clearly aware of his title, his responsibilities extend beyond the household to the farms and town that he supports.
On the opposite end of the hierarchy, there’s Daisy, the scullery maid who’s innocence won’t allow her to see that her crush onThomas, the first footman, can never go anywhere because he’s “not like [the other men] in service,” Mrs. Patmore, the cook reminds her.
The three Crawley daughters – Ladies Mary, Sybil and Edith, all spoiled to the hilt in the first season, learn to grow up in the second by helping the war effort, understanding that each has an important role outside of choosing which clothes to wear to dinner.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper opera without a villain andDownton Abbey has two: Miss O’Brien, handmaid to Lady Grantham, is the resident Lady Macbeth who, along with her regular duties, excels at turning rumor and innuendo into high art; and Thomas, first footman, whose smoking is only exceeded by his contempt for the Lords and Ladies he feels in bondage to.
Of course, what would any opera be without the plucky comedy relief ably supplied by the Dowager Countess of Grantham, (Robert’s mother), who divides her time between mounting her high horse and spouting the show’s best zingers. Fans refer to these as Lady Grantham moments.
After Robert has decided to make Matthew Crawley (a distant middle-class cousin), his new heir, the Dowager is reluctant to see Matthew’s mother, Isobel, as the equal she has now become.
“You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look,” Lady Grantham observes in a peak of creative criticism. “I never knew such reforming zeal.”
“I take that as a compliment,” Mrs. Crawley says.
“I must have said it wrong,” the Dowager amends.
One of her best comes at dinner with the newly installed Crawleys. Matthew makes clear that he intends on keeping his law practice instead of devoting all his time to care for Downton. “There are plenty of hours in the day and I have the weekend.”
Always imperious, the Dowager asks, “What is a week end?”
Upon closer examination, however, there is more virtue than vice in the castle.
Lady Mary Crawley, eldest daughter of Robert, feels ashamed for having been caught snooping into the private rooms of the staff with a visiting relative and apologizes.
“Why do you apologize to the help,” her boorish visitor asks.
“I always apologize when I’m in the wrong,” she says. “It’s a habit of mine.”
Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, not only keeps the house maids running but lends a compassionate ear and voice to everyone, including Mr. Carson, the butler. “You are a man of integrity and honor who raises the tone of this household by being part of it,” she tells him.
Lord Grantham himself is loyal to a fault. When he learns that Mrs. Patmore has developed “an affliction” with her eyesight, the Earl, at his own expense, sends her to a specialist for an operation. Mindful of others, when he discovers that Carson has had an unsavory past, Lord Grantham quietly remarks, “We all have chapters we would rather keep unpublished.”
Carson the butler oversees the lower manor. Instructing Mr. Bates, the new valet for his Lordship, Carson makes clear that there are certain standards to be maintained. “A good servant reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves.” However, his loyalty to the house comes, not only from a strong sense of duty, but, as he expresses to the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, “They’re the only family I’ve got.”
After watching a number of episodes, what stands out for me are the little moments of social commentary.
After Robert Crawley reverses his decision – against the advice of Carson – and retains Bates as his valet, Carson begins to see the real value behind the man.
“I hope you don’t judge me too harshly,” he says, in apology to Bates.
“I don’t judge you at all,” Bates says. “I have no right to judge you or any man.”
When Matthew Crawley becomes frustrated with Moseley, his valet, because “it’s superfluous to our [middle-class] lifestyle,” his Lordship takes him aside.
“Is that quite fair, to deprive a man of his livelihood when he’s done nothing wrong? We all have different parts to play,” the Earl reminds him, “and we must all be allowed to play them.”
What’s fascinating to me is what the drama reveals about us. We are an amalgam of attributes – some admirable, some not – that are revealed most when facing a crisis. Sometimes, we rise to the occasion; sometimes we fail. But we are all in this together, and the opportunity to do better is always there; to learn the lesson and do a better job of it next time.