DOWNTON ABBEY: NOTES FROM TWO FANS
We began watching the globally popular series DOWNTON ABBEY six months ago. To Larry it can be argued that the pivotal character in this compelling PBS show is undoubtedly the head butler, Carson, who, with his long face, is recognized the world over. It is he, in the great manor house of Downton, who must deal with the aristocrats upstairs and the servants downstairs.
Though the exceedingly forceful Carson is not unflappable, now and then things get away from him. At one point near the end of the third season he comes upon a squalling baby; though in white tie at the time, he soothes the infant. The child’s mother is Lady…well, we mustn’t tell whose mother it is, for there are those who haven’t yet seen the third season and might want to retain their capacity for surprise.
What we have not seen amid the immense wordage Downton has attracted is much about the genre’ to which it belongs, and who the ancestors of this genre’ may have been–many of them scarcely read today–except by learned folk like Julian Fellowes, the impeccable creator of DOWNTON ABBEY.
There is, among the literate, things to look out for, first things in particular: for example, the first four-minute mile; or the first trip to the moon; or the first English novel. Samuel Richardson’s PAMELA (1742) is often thought to be the first English novel, from which there is a continuous tradition running straight to DOWNTON ABBEY–a soap opera, strictly speaking–but a soap which embodies many elements of the English novel of manners.
What defines a soap opera? One of the first in America was the 1930’s radio show, OUR GAL SUNDAY. To link DOWNTON to American soaps means mainly to link it to melodrama, or drama that exaggerates normal emotional ranges. Much of life is melodrama, though, particularly family life. We can both attest to that.
DOWNTON is a long series, and Fellowes is not loath to employ traits that may be clues to character or situation: for example, in the first few seasons, all the bad people furiously smoke. Some are later redeemed despite their smoking, or for that matter, their sexuality. Even Lady Mary, Diana’s favorite and the aristocrat who is central in that she needs to marry the prince (Matthew) has a sexual ghost in her past, a development that Samuel Richardson would have happily worked into PAMELA; or Fielding in his great comic masterpiece TOM JONES; or Smollett in HUMPHRY CLINKER, which recounts the trials of a family traveling through Britain, two more ancestors of the Granthams at Downton. These broad forms survive. Larry’s own tetralogy, THE BERRYBENDER NARRATIVES, four parts (now contained in a single large volume) that follow the adventures and misadventures of Lord Berrybender and his family as they abandon their British roots and journey through the American West, is yet another example of this varied tradition.
Fellowes’ narrative–easily confirmed by a quick look at the OED–takes the occasional misstep in terms of word usage and phrases which jar our ears: “boyfriend”; “just sayin,”; and “mitral valve prolapse”, all phrases not in common use until much later in the twentieth century. These anachronisms irritate us because we’re writers, though not enough to keep us from moving on to the next episode.
But English country house life, as engaged by this splendid series, has an increasingly faltering existence. The time when a ducal family might have forty servants inside the home is gone, but the dramas that such lifestyles produced is fodder for the muses still, and will go on entertaining us in works like DOWNTON ABBEY.