Fiction as a Fad
Analyzing “Downton Abbey”
Joseph Daniel Fiedler Illustration
SPOILER ALERT: Anyone who has not seen “Downton Abbey,” particularly the final episode, but plans to, needs to be aware that this column contains revealing information about the outcome.
“Downton Abbey,” the most popular PBS series in recent memory, ended in March to the dismay of its addicted fans, but it won’t disappear for long. Like most classics, its characters will live in memory and probably as many prequels and sequels as the Star Wars franchise.
The March 6 final episode, after six years of Sunday night drama, initiated farewell parties all over the country. Fans gathered to discover the fate of Lady Edith: Would she become Cinderella or remain in the shadow of the wicked sister?
Cinderella won; a relief, even for those who didn’t like Edith much. After all, in our heart of hearts we wish for a happy ending – probably because real life doesn’t usually end that way.
Before the series’ sappy but satisfying finale, its genre was questionable. It has been called soap opera, historical period drama and melodrama. In a January article about the final season, Atlantic.com writer Sophie Gilbert declared its best moments “genteel sex comedy.”
But by the time the 90-minute final episode ended, its genre was totally clear: It is pure historical romance. From ritzy upstairs personages to service-bound downstairs nobodies, everyone was either happily hitched or heading in that direction.
Only recovering villain Mr. Barrow ended the night without a partner-to-be. Finding romance for him may have been a stretch even for romantic-prone Julian Fellowes, writer and producer, considering Barrow is gay in 1920s England, where homosexuality was a crime. Yet even Barrow, a source of ill will, got a heart’s desire: to topple the superior Mr. Carson and ascend to head butler of Downton Abbey.
Historical romance is marked by the two factors the name suggests: historical setting and a happy ending, usually a marriage.
Spanning more than a decade in the early 20th century, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic, “Downton Abbey” delivers both history and romance in abundance, especially the latter. Not only does victim-prone Lady Edith become a Marchioness, Lady Mary, Edith’s nemesis and sister, steps off her pedestal and marries again. Even aging bachelor Mr. Carson notices that the good-hearted housekeeper is the perfect match for a soon-to-be disabled butler.
It was sweet and tidy. Fellowes wrapped up the series in a bow, an elegant white tie, of course, to go with the shimmering gowns and aristocratic heritage of its upstairs characters.
So historical romance it is, a genre vilified by the literary crowd as sentimental claptrap, beloved only by female lonely hearts. Considering that historical romance is considered lower caliber fiction, why has this series been so loved and celebrated? Even Gilbert, who called some of its plotlines silly, ended her article with these words: “We’re going to miss it when it’s gone.”
Though romantic at the core, thematically the series is about the inevitably of change. It focuses on the gradual breakdown of the class and gender divide in Great Britain, the technological advances of the early 20th century and how education is the key to bettering the lives of the powerless. Fellowes’ genius develops these significant themes punctuated with foxhunts, enviable hats and good humor.
The irrepressible Dowager Countess captures the essence of the time in many witty barbs. On technology she says: “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.”
On women, she says that her granddaughter isn’t “entitled to have opinions until she is married, then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”
“Downton Abbey’s” women push against such restraints. Daisy, a maid, furthers her education. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, starts an overnight lodging business. Edith runs a magazine.
Mary manages the estate. All these developments foreshadow the movements that eventually bring women the right to vote, to get a decent education and to voice their own opinions.
In fact, it could be argued that of all the themes explored, gender inequality dominates.
The romantic fate of Edith didn’t become the big question until the final season. In the beginning, the conflict concerned the fate of Downton Abbey and the title that went with it. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, had daughters and no heir. Only a male Crawley could inherit.
When Robert Crawley died, his wife and daughters could have been evicted and their status much reduced. Mary, the first-born, had no legal rights, so her family’s only hope to retain the estate was for her to marry the closest related Crawley male.
Mary secured the first inheritor, a distant cousin, but he drowned with the Titanic. That event set the stage for everything that happened after. When Mary finally married the next Crawley inheritor and had her own Crawley son, that story line ended. Downton and its status were saved.
This same plotline occurs often in the novels of Jane Austen, an early 19th century English master of romance and manners. The unjust policy of entailment to a male heir causes hardship for two daughters in Sense and Sensibility and the uncertain financial futures of the five Bennet daughters in Pride and Prejudice.
Even the Dowager Countess’ tart comedy in “Downton Abbey” echoes the indomitable Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, who says things such as: “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
Fellowes’ series marries traditional 19th century romance to the early 20th century social and technological changes that led us to the present day. And because he is no fool, he has all but promised that the “Downton Abbey” movie is on its way.