After a six-season run from 2010 through 2015, BBC’s “Downton Abbey” has made a comeback on the big screen. PBS audiences weren’t ready to see the upstairs-downstairs saga go, and as with many series that that leave the small screen for good, fans were anxious for a film version to continue the lives of their favorite characters.
Set in a Yorkshire manor house in England’s countryside in the teens and twenties of last century, Downton Abbey is the story of an aristocratic, high-gentry family, and how they cope with life’s losses and a changing class landscape.
That times are changing and the characters’ status is in flux are constant topics of conversation, and at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In Downton, both upper- and lower-class characters are concerned with it. But literature from the time written about the British upper crust indicates that perhaps the ultra-elite weren’t so aware of the impending societal reorganization.
Upstairs and Downstairs and In My Lady’s Chamber
“Downton Abbey” brings back the cast of characters from the series, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), her lady’s maid Alice (Joanne Froggatt), Dowager Countess Grantham (Maggie Smith), and Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and all the rest. Although the plot is basically pointless, it does well as a means to tie up the stories of these beloved characters. Much like the characters’ surety that the aristocracy will eventually come to an end, this film is a tidy ending to a complicated, interwoven tale.
The film’s narrative is based on a true event, although the Crawley family, ancestral lords of the manor of Downton House, are fictional. Anchoring the screenplay is a real-life visit King George and Queen Mary made to Yorkshire in 1927.
I’m not giving anything away by saying that the film begins right before the visit, and ends right after. The visit by the rarified royals to the Downton Abbey estate infuses both upstairs and downstairs with delight and excitement, although it does give the thing more the feeling of a Christmas special than part of the saga. There’s not a lot of time for character or story development, because everyone is on his toes, busily prepping for the royal stay.
Is Aristocracy Serious, Silly, or Both?
The show and screenplay was conceived and written by Julian Fellowes, who is in the House of Lords. The only way to get a seat in the House of Lords is to be a member of the peerage and have a whole bunch of inherited land. As a member of the landed gentry, Fellowes’s writing about the fine houses and their opulent wealth breathes dignity, honor, and seriousness. There’s no sense of humor about the characters or their circumstances.
Contrasted with this are stories by P.G. Wodehouse, written about the same segment of society and in the same era, but written in the time period, as opposed to 100 years later. Wodehouse began writing the stories about a butler called Jeeves and his master Bertie Wooster in 1915, not finishing with Jeeves until the 1970s. Wooster is a hapless fop of a man, who, with fortune at his disposal, carries himself about from club to shooting party to weekend in the country and back again to his bachelor flat. He avoids romantic entanglements and his relations as much as possible. Invariably, he gets into dastardly scrapes with his old school chums that only Jeeves can extract him from.
Unlike “Downton Abbey,” these stories are funny, and paint the aristocracy in a foolish light. The elites in Wodehouse are bumbling about without any real understanding of how to take care of themselves, and it’s a hoot. Nothing could be further from Fellowes’ take on the dignity of both servant and master than Wodehouse’s perspective on the vacuous, useless individuals who comprise the smart set in the Jeeves stories, where butler always knows best.
A Bit Too Aware of History While Inside It
With almost 100 years to look back over since “Downton Abbey” takes place, Fellowes can better assess the era’s changes within high society. In retrospect, the system was changing quickly. It’s odd how aware characters in the series are of the changing infrastructure of their lives. In Fellowes’s lustful reimagining of upper-class extravagance there is a wistful quality, as though he wants us to know that they knew they were in for it, but had to hang on as long as they could, for the good of all England.
The film bears out their concerns. The enormous house, the bevy of servants, the land with tenant farms, and the class system that predetermined the worth and status of each individual according to a strict equation of heredity, were bound to be upended. While some characters below stairs were rooting for the upheaval just as the lords and ladies upstairs feared for it, others of the servant class cling even more tightly to the old ways than their masters do.
For us, the old aristocracy of the grand houses is entirely within the realm of fantasy. Our collective imagination barely recalls the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Astors, summering in Newport and taking the season in New York. Wodehouse and Fellowes both reference it, and Bertie Wooster even spends a season or two in New York, as a means of avoiding marriage to an all too suitable girl of his class. But for Americans, the British aristocracy has the same twinge of make-believe as “Lord of the Rings.”
We don’t approve of aristocracy or a class system, but we do adore its appearances. The audience at the advance screening of the “Downton Abbey” movie in Brooklyn Heights loved it, but their laughter had the feel of nostalgia for a series and era gone by. We don’t want it, we wouldn’t know what to do with it if we had it, but we want to imagine that we would be merciful, benevolent lords and ladies, loyal and dedicated servants.
That’s why we were so taken with the upstairs-downstairs story, not because of what it said about early 20th century British aristocracy, but because of what it says about us. The world is changing, and while we cling to the old ways, we must certainly change along with it.