Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

On the tail of the royal wedding is probably an auspicious time to examine our particular fascination (as Americans at least) with the British aristocracy. The runaway success of the British series Downton Abbey confirms that this obsession still runs deep.

When I heard of the series, I thought it was created just for me. I have written before about my love of the interwar time period in England. From Gosford Park to The Remains of the Day, I have come to adore the upstairs-downstairs dynamic    (upstairs are the landed gentry; downstairs are the people that serve them).

Downton Abbey actually begins right before World War I, with the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately for Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his family, his heir and daughter’s fiance drowned when the ship sank. Now his three daughters and wife face the possibility of losing everything if he dies due to a pesky entail.

What the show does so well is explore how people attempt to reconcile their personal desires with the social constraints around them. Both the Earl’s family and the servants that work for them must follow a set of archaic protocols. Dress for dinner. Lock up the maids’ rooms at night. Elaborate hunting parties (though I think those still happen).

But history is quickly catching up with the family, and you can practically watch the old ways come crashing down on the beautiful abbey. The smallest differences in age, like between the eldest and youngest Crawley girls, become monumental as both take on new world views as to what they are capable of as young women. Funnily enough, the most thrilling victory comes for one of the housemaids, who manages to escape and become a secretary. (Just fifty years before Peggy Olson…)

I’m not doing the best job of explaining the plot, but then again I don’t want to ruin it. Suffice to say, it is heavy with drama of seductions, plots, love affairs, covered up deaths, and (gasp!) ruined reputations. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, and has been renewed for a second season so I suggest catching up. One of the best things I’ve watched this year.

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