Downton Abbey: dealing with change and searching for significance



CONTAINS SPOILERS: Downton Abbey appeals to me the way Jane Austin does. It’s thoughtful reflection on the human condition and relationships makes the setting somewhat irrelevant. Nobles and servants alike deal with love, pride, fear, and the longing for significance and belonging. Yet the setting is what creates the tension in the story. Downton Abbey takes place in a time of tremendous social change. The characters are products of the social expectations and traditions associated with British peerage. The modern era is pushing against the way of life they’ve always known. Downton manages to weave social and historical perspective into its storytelling but story and characters are its heart.

Robert Crawley takes his responsibility as a member of the British peerage seriously. He feels an obligation to his servants, to the people in the community, and to the traditions of the nobility to which he was born. He is willing to lose his house to preserve the integrity of that system. His personal desires are second to his sense of honor. The butler Carson represents this same commitment to tradition on the other side of the house. Carson treasures his role and is fiercely loyal to the Crawley family. They both find significance in their roles, as does his mother Violet and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes.

Downton’s heir Matthew has made a place for himself in the modern world as a lawyer. He comes to Downton with prejudices toward the lifestyle of nobility. As he spends time learning about Downton from Robert, Matthew comes to appreciate Robert’s perspective. He is not won over by the philosophy of the peerage but by Robert’s grace and honor.

Though she thinks of herself as a modern, Mary is fiercely protective of Downton Abbey and her family’s image. Mary is willing to compromise her personal happiness to preserve reputation. Honor creates much of the tension in Mary’s and Matthew’s relationship. She may want to tweak the status quo but Mary is not ready to discard it. Mary’s says in the final episode of Season 2, “Sybil’s the strong one.  She really doesn’t care what people think, but I’m afraid I do.”

Sybil’s sense of honor is more about being true to herself than true to a system or meeting others’ expectations. Sybil becomes a nurse and marries Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who is also a socialist. While the rest of the Crawley family clings to the past, Sybil and Tom are more interested in embracing the future. They want to ride the tide of change and invite her family to ride it with them. Along for that ride are Matthew’s mom Isobel Crawley and gay footman Thomas Barrow, neither of whom are willing to accept their assigned positions in society.

As an American, Cora is more open to Sybil’s marriage. She’s settled into being part of British nobility but never forgets her American roots. Robert recognizes Sybil’s marriage not only because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter but because Cora pushes him toward a modern perspective. Based on what Cora is wearing in the final episode of season 2 she’s an early adopter of fashion, which indicates her openness to change. The twenties at Downton should be fun to watch.

Honor also figures in the love stories. Tom and Sybil are uncompromisingly true to themselves. For them there is no honor in love without honesty. Their marriage seems to be just a much a social statement as an expression of love. Daisy also struggles over honesty in her relationship with William. Matthew is torn by his love for Mary and obligation to Lavinia. He is ready to settle for dishonesty rather than perceived dishonor.

Starcrossed lovers John and Anna face considerable and unrelenting obstacles to be together. Their love story is full of old-fashioned earnestness, sacrifice, and simple villains, while the Matthew-Mary struggles are more modern, internal, and complex. Much more Jane Austeny. Except for the part about hiding Mr. Pamuk’s body. That’s more like a Shakespearean comedy. It looks as if Matthew’s and Mary’s stars finally straighten out at the end of season 2 as they find a way to be together that doesn’t compromise either’s sense of honor.

Downton makes me long for a more gracious age. The dialog is crisp. Characters say what they mean to say. They manage to convey their feelings and express their thoughts with eloquence and deference to one another. It is unfortunate that rightfully discarding the shallowness of the many social conventions and prejudices of that time might also render manners, graciousness, and honor as obsolete social conventions. Those ought to be ageless. Like love and Jane Austen.

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