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During the past month, my version of emotional first aid for the draining stresses of our world included spending evenings binge-watching all six seasons of DOWNTON ABBEY from a PBS DVD collection featuring pre-WWI England when fascism was brewing elsewhere. My husband and I began viewing on New Year’s Eve and finished this week. In the beginning, I asked him what he observed as we empathized intently with lives that never were until we began dreaming about them. He said he noticed the Downton people were really snarky. I thought about disagreements with my siblings as I was growing up, and I had to admit I didn’t remember our exercising any Machiavellian plots to destroy one another. However, given recent evidence, I realize snarkiness hasn’t diminished as a pastime in this world. Now we call the machinations conspiracies designed for control, and they’re more popular than popcorn.
Living together in the Downton mansion, changing outfits and sharing tea, would certainly force family members to interact with one another for good or ill. (Those who’ve done their best to stay home know exactly what that looks like in smaller quarters.) Strict rules of conduct such as those of the aristocracy in the series might prevent carnage, although in the case of numerous royal families in history, proximity fomented rebellion and even murder. Could today’s extended middle class families in the U.S.A. tolerate living as one indefinitely? Those families who barely survive family holidays might not want to try. Recent events suggest some have difficulty living according to the rules of civilization when required to share the same country with people they disdain.
Contrasts between economic/social classes as well as mores changing over time are themes DOWNTON ABBEY faces. As the mother is often the unsung matriarch in many American homes that are superficially patriarchal, at Downton Abbey the head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes seems to be the behind-the-scenes mother figure. Men like Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and butler Mr. Carson reminded me of the well-meaning but largely ineffectual fathers in the old 1950’s TV series. Women are a rising power in the world of Downton as they have been since Downton times, and the dowager has all the best lines.
Most Americans recognize that we have not eliminated class distinctions in this country. In fact, our upper class, which is generally determined by money and not birth, can be quite as disconnected from normalcy as the British aristocracy—but in a different way. The family in Downton is astounded that villagers are so curious to see inside their mansion that they would pay for a tour. To the family, it’s just a house they’ve always lived in, after all. Wealthy Americans, the nouveau riche in comparison, are perfectly aware of their longing to impress with their opulence. Rather than feeling gratitude to the workers who make their lifestyle possible, many enjoy the fact that they can use employees or followers as mere cogs in their wheel of success. Meanwhile, the dazzled inferior masses fantasize that one day fate will magically elevate them and free them from the consequences of their behavior.
As for diversity, Lady Mary Crawley in the series is brutally honest when she admits to a Black musician who is in love with a Crawley cousin that the girl doesn’t deserve him—she’s more in love with his difference than with him—and society will not tolerate their union. He would’ve had no easier path in the United States at the time…and later. Happily, the family is less judgmental about a Jewish suitor than they were about one of the daughters marrying beneath her station to a common worker. Privileges of birth aren’t easily discarded—even as the series timeline approaches WWII.
I enjoyed the resonance that Dan Stevens, the selfish Beast who earned his humanity by learning empathetic love in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, is also the heir who begins the modernization of attitudes and ambitions in DOWNTON ABBEY. Loving, tolerating, and adapting are all themes in our lives that are demonstrated in the series. Come to think of it, those aren’t bad goals for any of us as we work to reinvent our future with hope and promise.