One thing Downton Abbey does, and I think a bit of its appeal, is that it shows conservatives in a silly light. Not always, and perhaps not even expectedly for some, but certainly. Think of what some of them want to cling to, and how people who now think of themselves as conservative can see how silly is some of that clinging–outdated. It makes us think: what are my obstinacies for all that I may have some few things right? It is a humane approach to repentance, though not the only one.
I do not mean that Downton Abbey is a trashing of every sort of conservation–far from it. There is more than clinging; there is holding in a firm metaphysical grasp to certainties. But it is catholic in its ability to ridicule both the liberal (perhaps I should say progressive) and the conservative of another age. And in various ways to affirm both, though not equally. There is a wideness about it, or perhaps a roundness.
Is it a stereotype merely? I wonder. There seems an appetite for longer things, for more time to be given for development and depth. Less impatience about getting to the point. These seasons are taking as long as a novel takes. Not that something can’t be long and shallow, but it is more likely to wear out and bore that way. And what the show does is to go to war with certain accepted stereotypes, it seems to me–though perhaps it has triumphed over me in that I have accepted these alternatives as something more than stereotypes.
It is catholicity that forms the basis of its appeal, anyway, this roundness of view, obvious as it may seem. But like most criticism–it seems to me–the obvious is the best starting point and the worst ending place (notice how we go from point to place, from detail and adornment to dwelling and habitation–so it must be, obviously).
* * *
And there is that matter of a dwelling place; Downton Abbey is nothing if it is not first and most obviously a pretty good place to live. There are many shades and ambiguities to this: there is a certain impermanence among the servants–but if you examine it you find it is mostly brought on by their character (though the story of Bates is certainly an exception–a good one). Still, I think these are resolved in the vagaries that attend the human condition. It is a dwelling in the midst of the world where men have to live and express the need to strive to live well and are portrayed as doing so with a certain success.
What it offers, above all, is an ordered world not sustained by pathologies and repressions and morbid undercurrents, but sustained against such things as a refuge and even a desirable if imperfect abode. That is what it represents, and that is why we are on the side of all who wish to see it preserved, from granny to Carson. It is interesting how sometimes even hostile characters join us in this sentiment: Thomas, for example, eventually (and as a counter-example: O’Brien, with her regret not quite leading to confession or repentance).
We see the silliness that props some things up: Carson’s, Lord Grantham’s, granny’s and even Branson’s. But we see more than silliness. We see the tremendous decency that makes that abode possible in this world, the customs, manners, yea even the order and hierarchy thereof. Yea even that, which is why it plays as it does: like a soap opera (besides, I think, the deliberate irony of affirming the ‘shallow’ view that life is good, decency is good, morality and hierarchy are benefits). It is an insight into that order as a good thing that makes it to me worthwhile and at the same time melancholy. Isn’t it the basic decency of Bates and Anna that make them persevere, endure, struggle on and become heroic? So it goes: from point to place, from detail to dwelling.
Why do we appreciate all that now that it is gone? For one great obvious reason, though there are many others: it is gone and we can safely look at it from a distance. But also with the hope that however fleeting that good may have been (ordered life in an aristocratic English country house–how many humans have enjoyed that?), the chief ingredient, the basic decency that the moral order requires of us with all of its sacrifices small and great is a price worth paying.
And here’s is where it goes up against envy, and why perhaps it has to be like a soap opera: we are not made to envy and resent them, but to desire the triumph of decency at every level. This is comfort, it suggests, and at the heart in this cursed world of what we desire in all that is comfortable, even when we know that good stories are made by bad situations, begin with mistakes, errors and outright evil.
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It is a comfortable place, Downton Abbey, and that is obvious and is why it is beloved of many. It is comfortable for various reasons; not just because there is tangible money spent, but because of the investment of hearts and minds over the centuries and also over the minutes of each day’s hours. That is the great thing: it doesn’t stop at the admiration of the wallpaper, furniture and space. It goes beyond these things to the immaterial realities without which these others would be utterly devoid of significance. What is comfort? Julian Fellowes seems to ask. Then he takes you on a guided tour of one particular (imagined, but plausible–mostly) place where a spectrum of human comfort is on display.
Is it a dream then, or is it fake? I’m still not sure. Those who affirm it will call it a dream or more; but then there is the experience of Pascal who comes out of the theater and having seen good things realizes they are deadly fake. I am not sure, but I am sure that the age of disinheritance passed and now we deal with our homeless present. Is not a dream of the comfort of a good dwelling place attractive to us now? Is it romanticism in the collapse of order again longing for a home it does not have?