This is NOT a review of the series. NO SPOILERS HERE! I have only watched two of its very many episodes in their entirety, the first one of the first series and the third of the second series. My wife, Nancy, has been smitten. She has finished two seasons in just three days. A number of our close friends have watched the series and recommended it enormously. So why do I dislike it? My initial sense was my rejection of emotional repression parading as reserve, shrapnels of sophistication buried in the body politic of the family, death in the Midlands rather than in Venice, servility served up with a dash of snobbery on stunning dinnerware, permeated, I suspect, with autobiographical insider intimacies from which the viewer is excluded and senses that exclusion.
How can I make such a judgment when I have only seen these two episodes, the first introducing the abbey, the family and the servants as well as the villainous maid and footman, and the third episode of Series II in which the estate is converted into a convalescent hospital during the Great War in which the aristocracy have to suffer the shrinking of their physical space and the intrusions of the real world into their protected enclave, in which the shifts in hierarchies, both in the upstairs and the downstairs, disturb the standing order, romantic intrigues upset both the servants quarters and the daughters of milord, and everyone is faced with the horror of women waiting on the family in the drawing room instead of footmen?
Who really cares about the fortitude of a piece of flotsam from history? Who really cares about the physical and emotional legacy of this deluxe family period melodrama? Obviously a great number of people seduced by the diverting dilemmas and the high production values of the series. Nancy has taken to doling out two white chocolate bob bons in fancy cellophane as periodic treats that are not real chocolate and have soft rather than the hard centres I love.
Downton Abbey is a magnificent gorgeous costume drama. The sets, the dresses, even the chauffeur’s uniform, are absolutely exquisite. The setting is glorious, better than any tour of the great estates of Britain. Further, nothing beats British acting skills. The script is somewhat uneven, sometimes sparkling with sharp wit – especially when delivered with pointed barbs and a knowing look by Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, but at other times with clichéd homilies, and in between, a great deal of asides and whispering to advance the conniving and scheming of both the villainous and the mixed characters. The fuller characters, whether in the minor roles of a scullery maid and a cook, or the major roles of all the members of the Crawley family, are intriguing. They engage in shape shifting sufficiently to maintain our interest and convince us of the fictional reality of their personalities. But the most important character in the plot is Downton Abbey itself, to whom everyone, the nobility and the servants, the pretenders, the envious and the rebellious, are all in thrall. Sometimes the abbey looks exquisite and classical but at other times dowdy and forlorn when seen from a distance. I was never able to reconcile these two very different visuals of the estate and ascertain whether it was intentional.
The worst is the plot with conniving, scheming, plotting, terrible and accidental coincidences drawn from nineteenth century novels as the series transitions from the Edwardian era into the modern world. Plot elements are held back and in reserve like regiments in a battlefield. What happened to the homosexuality to which we are introduced in the first episode? You have to stick with the series to await its re-appearance I assume. Or is it dropped? I suspect not. From a postmodern period, it is a matter of great curiousity to encounter an upstairs/downstairs world as electricity, the motor car, the telephone and, most and worst of all, the Great War intervene to corrode and destroy the illusionary stability of the nineteenth century class system and Downton Abbey as its architectural symbol.
Perhaps tales of treacheries untold and secrets unfolded like the fine sheets the maids use to make the beds, narratives of reverses of fortune and fortunate inversions of those reversals so critical to the success of any soap opera, scandalous scheming and scurrilous actions all topped off with mounds of rich cream to make the medicine go down, have far greater appeal to most than a great smoked beef sandwich. Emotions are announced and pronounced or allowed to seep out under the closed doors and reserve, especially of the servants. It is not how I like to treat my imagination or taste buds.
However, what is most apparent are the absences. There is no glimpse of religion in the two episodes I saw, either of High Anglicanism or even rebellious noble Catholicism, though I overheard a minister say prayers and offer condolences at a funeral in another episode. How could Robert, the Earl of Grantham, the most enslaved milord I have ever witnessed, played brilliantly by Hugh Bonneville, the most devoted servant to the well-being and continuity of Downton Abbey, a man of great tolerance even if ridden with deep Tory values, a man kind and generous with a deep understanding of the foibles of others in spite of his marriage to tradition, a Tevye in formal wear, how could this man who supposedly attended both Eton and Oxford and possesses a supposed great love of reading, though we see him mostly reading the newspaper in the library, demonstrate so little self-consciousness and such a vast ignorance of literature and philosophy even as references to the classics are strewn at random through the two episodes as the petals that fall off dying indoor plants that I saw? How can a man of such ostensible reason and reasonableness be so lacking in knowledge and insight, learning and true understanding of the working of money and power? But I had no sense that this was the question driving Julian Fellowes.
Cora, the Countess of Grantham, is sometimes terribly naive, especially when dealing with her conniving maid, and at others very cunning and a formidable American opponent and sometime ally of the Dowager Duchess. In the third episode of the second series, the maid and Cora plot together to bring back the villainous footman into a position of power in Downton Abbey at the same time as the Dowager Duchess and her daughter-in-law conspire to undermine Lavinia, the fiancé of Crawley who is the true legal heir of the estate.
Events conspire and transpire, and they happen with great rapidity to suit a postmodern sensibility, but it is not their causes or their circumstances that intrigue, but their effects, not historically, but on the personal lives of the characters whether they reside upstairs or downstairs. All humans are born equal because, whether man or woman, whether servant or master, we are all buffeted and tossed about by the unexpected, by the icebergs that drift across the north Atlantic and can even sink the unsinkable Titanic, the symbol for Britain introduced in the very first episode.
There is another value I noted in passing – a worship of evidence, of proof, a commitment to empiricism and confirmation that presumably will ultimately save the Brits as they muddle through these radical changes. Perhaps empiricism did but it is so little in real evidence itself that allusions to such values seem to be a folly in itself.
But the greatest absence is any political depth. There is, of course, the socialist and anti-war chauffeur who is so obviously in love with and protective of one of milord’s and his only modern and worldly daughter, but the references are absolutely superficial lest the politics of the day undermine the centrality of the politics of the family and the central issue of inheritance – inheritance of property and wealth, inheritance of manners and a sense of civility, and inheritance of a propensity to make errors of judgment. What a surprise to read in yesterday’s paper that the rule of primogeniture of aristocratic inheritance restricted to male heirs is now about to have legislation introduced in the British Parliament. So there is a reality behind this obsolete system of privileges and positions, of misplaced rights and rites, of a world that once ruled Brittania but is now left to being ruled by its rules.
There is an absence of the antisemitism that permeated the upper classes of Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but of this we get not even a whiff. Perhaps it is being saved for a later episode when the effects will be shown to dramatic effect in the thirties. And where and when will racism be introduced, racism that was integral to the Boer War and was so central to the exploitation of India that made all that wealth and pomposity possible. Perhaps the producers are waiting until the more contemporary anti-Black racism takes the center stage in world history.
However, the absence that bothered me most was when General Stutts, a stand-in for General Haig, the so-called hero of the Battle of the Somme (???), visits Downton Abbey in the episode that I watched when Downton Abbey was being used as a convalescent hospital for the unwalking wounded and the walking unwound as casualties of the Great War convalesce. Nothing is said. There are allusions to the large number of casualties, but no comment is offered on the 60,000 casualties General Haig sacrificed to “break through”, fight a modern tank war and gain six miles of territory. How can one cry and empathize with a world of class and privilege that brought about its own destruction in its blind drift into the follies of massive deaths with the barest glimpse of what the role of blind loyalty – the highest and noblest value upheld by the whole system and epitomized by Mr. Bates, a British Jean Valjean, milord’s batman from the Boer campaign, his personal valet and “man” in the series?
So what bothers me? I love westerns, even crappy ones, so why does such a brilliant melodrama upset me? Because, like the aristocracy it portrays, the series not only has pretensions but, next to loyalty, reveals pretence and appearance as the central virtue of the class system. And I despise pretence except when it is espoused as the highest virtue by Maggie Smith. Then it is both an expression of true belief and a marvellous send up. As I overheard in another episode in a line of Maggie Smith’s that is ironic rather than full of pithy wit but perhaps summarizes the interpretation of history: “The war may be at an end but the upheaval is only beginning.”
What seemed to permeate the episodes I saw was not description and insight but depiction and painful if fatalistic regret. What is the perspective of Julian Fellowes who created the series? I did not have the sitzfleisch to discover. How could Fellowes write such brilliant lines for an actress playing an acerbic and condescending presence who can deliver them with dripping perfection? Though torn a bit, I had the impression that Fellowe’s overwhelming nostalgia for this period and those values that penetrate the two episodes I saw. were and remain the deep values he upholds. Next to pretence, nostalgia is its repugnant kissing cousin for me. But not, I had the impression, for the series.
I regret I have so little use for both.