The Daily Beast noted that the last time a PBS show was at the center of national conversation was when Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary aired in 1990. Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey has generated critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and enviable ratings. The final episode was both celebrated and mourned in England and the United States and across the globe.
I confess I was captivated after viewing the first episode. I have been an ardent reader and viewer of British novels and programs including the collection of Masterpiece classics. But I was not prepared for the immediate hold that Downton Abbey had on me. What was the glue that caught the eyes of curious viewers including me and addicted us like loyal soccer or football fans to PBS each Sunday evening for six years?
I have distilled the epic program down to three themes that resonate and stay with me as I walk through my ordinary days: the only certainty in life is change, democracy lifts women up but ever so slowly and life begets loss.
Oh my, how things changed from the opening of the first season with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the last episode on New Year’s Eve of 1925. The automobile had replaced the stable of horses, electricity lit up the estate and the telephone invaded the cloistered world of Downton Abbey. Music became a pleasure to be enjoyed at the touch of a radio dial regardless of class or wealth. Health care practices modernized and saved lives in contrast to the former archaic methods that hurt more than helped already sick patients. Women cut their hair short and raised the hems on their skirts, discarded the layers of heavy fabrics for lighter, body skimming designs and adapted the male trouser to a woman’s body; all styles that remain with us today. The Downton downstairs team of servants grew smaller in number requiring them to become generalists rather than specialists; the cook had more of her own prep work to do. Housemaids, under butlers and footmen left the estate for jobs that paid more and provided free time on weekends and in the evening.
We watched the girls and women who lived upstairs at Downton Abbey in awe of their transformation and we sympathized with the downstairs girls and women who kept the Abbey going. We cheered for the young housemaid who aspired to be a secretary and secretly completed a correspondence course in typing and shorthand. But we were equally satisfied by watching the 18 year old Lady Sybil’s efforts at advocating for the housemaid’s aspirations and success. We watched Lady Sybil become actively involved in canvassing for the labor movement against her father’s wishes and applauded her interest in securing a larger role for women in society. We watched Sybil defy convention and her father by choosing a man she loved (one of the downstairs contingent) for a husband as opposed to a man of wealth and rank. We wondered how Lady Mary stayed on her horse riding sidesaddle on hunts in seasons two and five. We were relieved when we saw her riding full seat in season six, but we did not take seriously her father’s advice when he noted that it might be unladylike. We didn’t need Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton, to include a line for Lady Mary to ask for anyone’s permission; we had watched the “Blessed Lady Mary”, what Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper called her, long enough to know she was her own person and we delighted in her strength of mind. Lady’s maid, Anna, taught us that violence against women was something to be ashamed of for the victim and should be hidden. Unfortunately, that notion remains with us today. We watched one season run one into the next as the legal system ground out slowly to bring Anna justice and some semblance of healing and acceptance although we remained convinced that she still believed that she was “spoiled” by her experience. The law and rights by which English girls and women lived were improving but at a snail’s pace.
Then, there was “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew”! The relationship between Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley, her cousin many times removed and heir to the estate, captivated Downton viewers. At the height of their happiness, Matthew was killed and we watched Mary slide into a long depression. Grand wealth and privilege cannot insure against loss and unexpected death. But Lady Mary was lucky. Her family and her wealth provided a cocoon that enabled her to retreat and grieve in style for months. Many others with similar losses that lived and worked in the great house or in the village were not so lucky. They needed to limp through their lives and just get on with it. It was certainly common practice that for people in the working class, the death of a wage earner or a mother was followed by the placement of children to others. Without any safety net in place, families lost their homesteads and men abandoned their children to distant relatives. Children were farmed out to work on farms or at estates as pot scrubbers or stable boys for room and board. In subsequent episodes, we watched as Lord Grantham loses his health, a pregnant maid loses her job with no reference, and another young widowed maid nearly loses her head by encouraging the inappropriate sexual advances of Lord Grantham. We watched the young Lady Sybil die during childbirth. Life begets loss. Some are better equipped than others to ride out darkness when it appears at their doorstep.
Most Popular Character
“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere!”
Undeniably, the most popular character in Downton Abbey was The Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley, played by British actor Dame Maggie Smith. The mother of the current master of Downton and grandmother to Mary, Edith and Sybil, Violet pushed the envelope of what was then considered to be a conventional life for women. We admired and relied upon her strength to speak her mind though delivered in a frail voice diminished by age. While outwardly she pushed back against change, when it came to family life she moved the family forward and together. She shielded Mary rather than banished her for what was then considered scandalous behavior (letting a man into her bedroom and into her bed where he died). She sent steamer tickets for granddaughter Sybil and her Irish husband so they could attend Mary’s wedding knowing that Lord Robert Grantham, her son, still resented having a liberal Irish chauffeur in the family and preferred them both to remain in Ireland. She nudged Mary out of her depression by quietly challenging her; “You must chose life or death.” And later, in an attempt to rein Lady Mary in following the untimely death of her young, handsome Matthew, she advised Mary to “get control of your emotions before they get control of you” and “to make peace with yourself.”
We loved the fact that Lady Violet Crawley had a past. No corset no matter how tightly tied could have kept Violet from enjoying the passions of life when they crossed her doorstep. And like exquisite chocolate, she did not have to confess how many she had tasted to savor the experience. We respected that she had her own independent life separate from being a mother and grandmother. She wisely laid down her outsider attitude toward Mrs. Crawley, Matthew’s mother, and developed a close relationship with her former adversary. When Violet could not contain her anger toward her daughter-in-law Cora for replacing her on the hospital board, she packed herself up and sailed away to Paris until she could control her tongue so as not to cause further disharmony with her son Lord Grantham and his family. She cleverly advised and admonished her son but she did not replace him or his wife in their important roles as parents and grandparents. We admired her wit, her determination and her strength.
Characters that Taught Deep Lessons
“I’m going upstairs to take my hat off.”
Lady Mary Grantham was born to position and wealth but she was confined to the restrictions placed on women during the Victorian era. Her job in 1912 was to wait for a suitable husband while she changed her clothes three to five times a day. We admired Mary for her beauty and designer haute couture but we may not have been as comfortable with her directness of manner. She communicated her feelings and opinions and pushed back with haughty comebacks; behavior we came to expect and admire in her grandmother, Violet but found ourselves wincing when Lady Mary dished out the same treatment. Lady Mary knew what she did not want more than she knew what she wanted. She held people accountable including herself. She sought out both comfort and advice from her loyal admirer, Head Butler Carson, even though he was a servant and not part of the proper inner circle. She was generous to herself by trying out a variety of potential husbands and not caving into pressures by them or her family to select a husband sooner than later after a proper mourning period. She was adaptable and grew through a new decade, one that seemed to match the force by which she propelled herself forward. Her father, an increasingly fragile Lord Grantham, stipulated that he could see that Downton would be secure if left in her hands; that indeed the whole county would be. Her father eventually saw in Mary what the viewers came to admire: a woman in possession of a strong sense of self including her foibles.
“I’m not foul, Mr. Carson.”
The prime antagonist of Downton Abbey was Thomas Barrow, the under butler we loved to hate. In the beginning we saw him as a fox smart conniving man with a slippery false front. He used others with less power than he and gamed them at every corner. His need for power within the archaic structure of the servant hierarchy was palpable and he was successful at playing all the main characters. Bright, literate and looking to the next day, he was quick to see that the outbreak of war was his ticket out. Thinking he was volunteering to be a doctor’s assistant, he joined the war effort only to be assigned at the front in the trenches where he bumped into Matthew Crawley, now an officer, and served him tea in much the same way he had back at Downton Abbey. Thomas knew his odds at surviving in the trenches were slim so he closed his eyes and raised his hand with a lighted cigarette at night and was quickly shot by enemy fire. He was returned home to recuperate and then was reassigned to his preferred plan as an orderly at a military convalescent hospital.
We see Thomas open up by befriending a seriously depressed soldier who eventually takes his life and then befriending the handsome young butler, James, even when he had been set up to make a move on him believing he preferred men to women as Thomas did. The more Thomas opened up and set aside his bully behaviors the more the Downton principals rejected him. Carson encouraged him to move on and look for other employment while the shrinking roster of servants excluded him from their activities. Mrs. Hughes encouraged him to see a change in employment as a new beginning, a chance to meet new possibilities for friendship and love as a homosexual. Thomas was finally able to open up and confessed to her and to the viewers that he had a need to be needed, to be liked and to remain part of the Downton family where he was rooted.
In the end, Thomas’ redemption comes by opening up and by setting his anger aside. He learns to love in friendship and connection and to accept himself. Thomas’ story is without the glitter and romance of Lady Mary or the Chauffeur Branson who married up to a great lady upstairs. But in the end we recognized Thomas’ struggle as being like our own. While we may not have outwardly cheered for Thomas when he remained against all odds at Downton and replaced Carson as head Butler, we recognized his internal struggle and profound personal growth. We are contented that he will remain where he is safe and needed.
As the lights dim on Downton Abbey, the lesson that remains may be that we come into the world alone and that is how we all will leave. It is what one chooses to do with the time in between that matters most.