I admit it. I’m madly in love with Downton Abbey. Not much gets in the way of watching when it’s on television, twice a week, every Sunday and repeated on Wednesday evening. I plan my evening activities around it. If someone calls, I cut the conversation short.
The costumes, period details, and love stories don’t capture me as much as the quality of the writing and the overriding theme—class pecking order is fading. Already in the first episode in the first season this theme came through to me. A friend didn’t like the show. She criticized it as all about nobles who think they deserve their privileges. I said, “That’s the point.” I expected their privileges to be challenged.
I don’t know how Julian Fellowes managed to convey so effectively at the beginning that things would change. Maybe it’s character development; the acting rises to the level of the writing. I savor every facial expression, every line. Fortunately I can read their dialogues in captions. I asked a friend more technologically savvy than me to fix that mode on my remote because I have difficulty processing oral speech—the British accent often defeats me.
Julian Fellowes draws characters quite unlike one-dimensional Hollywood stereotypes, the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey as comprehensively as the upstairs family, and all are thoroughly human. Each has something to love as well as hate—villainy mixed with nobility. Thomas, a coward in World War I and a schemer against fellow workers, loves children and frolics with them. I’m glad the series discovered early in its development that Fellowes had to be the sole writer. No one else could stay true to the characters while they change.
All Downton characters tug at our sympathy, and Fellowes does not eschew happy endings. Political activist Tom Branson loses his beloved Lady Sybil but gains the love of her whole upper-class family. Fellowes’ characters gain wisdom, are kind to each other, and good things happen to them. Maybe this is Downton’s greatest appeal.
I have asked myself why I’m so taken by Downton Abbey. How does it fit into my passion for religion and spirituality? Julian Fellowes seems to share my fascination with human beliefs and thoughts, how they are formed, what influences them. Downton Abbey explores the evolution of sensibilities in Britain over only a few decades—the demise of the rigid, class-conscious Edwardian era to the beginning of modern democracy. I examine the evolution of religious and spiritual consciousness happening in my lifetime—the gradual demise of patriarchy sanctioned by religion.
In Britain, nobility and church hierarchy are intertwined; they lose power together. Both secular and religious spheres are moving away from top-down authority toward bottom-up authority, which neatly steps away from vain, sputtering attempts to control and simply does what it thinks best. Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, tells his mama, the imperious dowager played inimitably by Maggie Smith, “They don’t listen to us anymore.”
Downton Abbey has few explicit ties to religion—prejudice against Jews (when Lady Rose falls in love) and Catholics (when Lady Sybil’s baby is to be baptized)—but God the Father hovers over the entire series, as it is premised on the British system of entailment. Because Lady and Lord Crawley produced no sons, modern viewers would expect the estate to be inherited by their daughters, or at least one of them, the oldest (betraying our training in hierarchy).
But no, women are not allowed to inherit property (a vestige of the Old Testament when women were property). Enter Matthew Crawley, but the actor playing him wants to move on to other roles. So Fellowes kills Matthew, shocking me and viewers around the world. Consequent to Matthew’s death, Lady Mary becomes Downton’s fiscal agent.
Fellowes’ genius for tricking positives out of negatives puts women in charge time after time. Lady Sybil defies patriarchal expectation by marrying the chauffeur, and Lady Edith becomes the owner/publisher of a magazine. Their mother, Lady Grantham, sides against Lord Grantham and with younger family members in financial disputes. That the estate even exists yet depends on the money she brought as an American heiress. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, defers to Carson, the butler, when he lords it over the servants, but in their one-on-one conversations she often bests him.
Thus do the women of Downton Abbey play out my religious theme of reducing the grip of Father. With my lens so focused, I see the Father defeated in every episode. It seems obvious to me that Fellowes does it deliberately and enjoys it.
Widening the focus of my lens, I look at the expanding chunk of Americans with no religious affiliation—the nones. They are the ones who don’t listen anymore to the Lord. Most don’t marshal virulent arguments against religion, like some atheists; they calmly accept and relate to spiritual reality in their own way.
In Catholicism it is the womenpriest movement that most effectively flouts traditional authority. I await the day when the Vatican will be defied as decisively as women and servants in Downton Abbey defy tradition and become their own masters. Unfortunately, the religious shift cannot unfold as quickly as events in Downton Abbey.