With millions of other Americans in front of the television on January 3, I was ready. My bowl of pop corn, my glass of Port, my Grantham breakfast blend tea, my London souvenir mug — my props for a photo on Facebook before the first episode, season six. Soon, the handsome Hugh Bonneville was there on the screen involved in a pre-program countdown. And finally, after what seemed like weeks and weeks of hype, that somber music as the opening titles of “Downton Abbey”flashed by on the screen.
When it was over, I wasn’t smiling with satisfaction. I wasn’t frowning either. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, but I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a terrific phase out and then I’m going to so miss this series that I have watched without fail and enjoyed so much for the past five Winters.”
As I snapped off the TV, my mind began to sift through questions and observations that had settled there during my viewing. Why was I feeling this way? I had once again truly appreciated the superb acting, the delivery of lines, the clever bon mots, the facial expressions. And I adored Edith’s pale blue felt hat.
Was it the pre-season hype? My local public television station saw the “Downton Abbey” previews as an opportunity to ask for money? More fundraising. Was it the seemingly endless discussions and reruns? Maybe. Too much build up and there’s bound to be a let down. Or was my reaction something to do with my own staying power?
Finally, it occurred to me that I had experienced a disconnect between my perceptions about life in 1925 and the way life was being presented as lived at Downton Abbey. The characters in this story seemed to be living in almost the same way that they always had, despite that World War I, as we all know, changed everything. The war had been depicted in earlier episodes as a major factor in the lives of the Crawleys and those of their assorted household help. By turning their mansion into a civilian “hospital” and rest home for the wounded veterans, they couldn’t possibly have not been changed by the experience. But this first episode of season six seemed to project a household little changed from season one, so their lives in 1925 didn’t quite ring true to me. Wouldn’t Mary’s demeanor have softened by now? The loss of her sister (in childbirth), and her husband (in a car accident), surely would have prompted her to feel a little closer to humanity? I realized that I was definitely annoyed by her smugness. Her cold distance from those around her had begun to override my interest in might happen to her. I eventually reminded myself that I was watching fiction.
Despite my misgivings after that first episode, I continued my Sunday evening routine, and with each new episode my fervour for the series returned. The ensuing episodes picked up speed and prompted a renewed interest. I definitely wanted to know how the Crawley family’s story would end. Would Edith finally, finally get her man? Would Mrs. Patmore start wearing her spectacles again? Would John and Anna move to Australia? (That seemed a plausible choice for them to me.) And when this amazing series did end this week, my Kleenex box was nearly empty. So many relationships ended on a positive note. Unrealistic, of course, but I admit it; I like happy endings. I’m a Romantic.
When the “Downton Abbey” season began this year, I racked my brain for information stored there about 1925. Of course, I wasn’t alive in 1925, but my mother was. In fact, she was graduated from high school that year, and one of my favorite pictures of her from that era was of her with other members of her basketball team. All the the young women in their basketball uniforms, looked strong and energetic and independent. Unlike the Downton Crawley women, they undoubtedly had no illusions about the hardships of life or the necessity of hard work. These young women were clearly more like the “downstairs” crew than the “upstairs” entitled.
Then, Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald popped onto my mental screen, and other writers from the “lost generation.” Of course, these references were to Americans, but to Americans who often lived in Europe. I thought, surely those sophisticated Crawleys would have been exposed to the new novels published with considerable fanfare, even then. Did they never venture out to the movies during their shopping sprees in London? Some of those movies might have empowered the “ladies.” Nary a word either from the more ambitious Edith, nor from Mary, about University. Surely one of them might have felt a twinge of regret that a higher education had been denied. They led circumscribed lives.
A few years ago, I discovered the fictional British Maisie Dobbs, the protagonist in a mystery series written by Jacqueline Winspeare. The ever plucky Maisie began her mature life as head of a detective agency after having been a nurse who served in France during World War I. Though she began life as the daughter of a servant, she was taken up by the masters for whom her father worked, so she understood the Upper Class. Part of the setting for the early novels was sort of a Downton Abbey household. An intelligent girl, Maisie read and got educated.
Maisie and Downton’s Edith represented different social classes, but in the end were closer in their approach to life. They dealt with their grief by engaging with the world. They recognized their capabilities and got on with it. Mary, asserted herself by assuming a managerial role in the running of the estate, but she remained coldly disengaged, it seemed, from the wider world. Her aspirations were all about saving the estate, fighting change. So it was entirely fitting that Edith, and brother-in-law Tom finally blew-up and told her what a fool she was, which finally forced her to change to the degree that she married a man without the class prestige that she had always assumed was her right.
“Downton Abbey” was a phenomenon, not just in England or in the United States, but around the world. Millions of viewers watched, season after season, and laughed or smirked or cried. Many of us swooned over the gorgeous fabrics used in the costumes worn by the Crawley women though we knew of course, that women in the ’20s probably never looked quite that elegant. Like many of those millions, I developed my own view of the various characters and wanted nothing but the best to happen for Edith, for both Toms, for Anna and John, for Mrs. Hughes and for the others. The series also provoked a renewed interest in history and geneology and undoubtedly sent many of us to the library or to the Internet to do our own research on the period the series portrayed.
When the nightly news so often in recent years has caused real fright about the state of the world, “Downton Abbey” has provided a respite, a sense of stability. More than a longing for a a way of life that was true for a rather small slice of the British population, the stories engaged us because they took us away for an hour or hour plus from some of the grim realities of the 21st century. We needed that.
How fortunate we are that writers such as Julian Fellowes, and actors and actresses such as Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith, continue to be willing to give us stories and performances that take us out of ourselves. I applaud all of them.