Julian Fellowes, Academy Award winning screenwriter for "Gosford Park," created a remarkable series for Masterpiece Theater called, Downton Abbey. To any readers who find themselves out of this loop, please do not despair. Boxed sets are available for purchase and the website will furnish past episodes. This series has created a great stir on both sides of the Atlantic.
The tale begins when the man set to inherit the estate of Downton Abbey, goes down with the Titanic. As his son perishes with him, the next in line is a distant cousin, a man who works for a living and is not 'to the manner born'. He has to be brought in to learn how to manage, not only the enormous house, but the thousand acres that go with it. He arrives with his mother in tow, and meets the three unwed daughters who grace the drawing room. Archly referred to as “the great matter,” the race is on to insure the survival of the estate. In this story, the house itself is a character.
The drama skips along at a tremendous pace encompassing the events of the outside world, the downstairs realm of the servants, and the upstairs affairs of the Grantham family. The Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, is the supreme matriarch of the clan, having much social advantage over her American daughter-in-law, Lady Grantham. The fictitious Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, a very real establishment in Yorkshire. The setting is as magnificent as one could possibly imagine and is described as “a statement of aristocratic confidence.” The audience cannot look upon it without imagining the staggering upkeep. Many great houses in England would have gone to ruin towards the end of the Edwardian age, had it not been for the large infusion of cash coming from Newport and New York. A crush of American brides came over; they were affectionately known as the buccaneers- some three hundred in all. Many were given the deep freeze by the old aristocracy who were glad of the funds, but would not soften. They stiffly insisted on perpetuating the status quo.
“Will you have a change of heart?” This is the question raised time and time again, episode by episode, from characters inhabiting roles both upstairs and down.
Wondering about the enormous popularity of the show, many have asked if there is not a sort of longing for the old days, a nostalgia, if you will, creeping throughout modern day England. Julian Fellowes responded by saying that perhaps there is a fondness for a more courteous time when working society involved respect for others. Even if that may have some appeal, he is quick to say, “the cheese of it is that you don't have to live it; you're not the one lugging the coal.” The quaint picture of the devoted servant has long been the fantasy of the employer and not so much the dream of past employees who longed for a proverbial ladder. Toiling from before dawn until midnight, they sought every way possible to improve their lot in life.
In the story, the Grantham family know their lifestyle is not sustainable. They are well aware that change is coming, and that the labor movement is gaining strength. The Great War sees servant and master side by side in the trenches, both willing to give their lives for England. Many voice the belief that war changes everything. The servants hope that change will come: the upper classes fear it.
Highclere Castle has its own first family, namely, the Carnarvorns. Like all great estates, they made changes in order to survive, opening the house for tours, serving tea, and hosting weddings and private events. The staff fluctuates between sixty and eighty people and they have a ninety year old living under their storied roof.
The Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey states that she is not a Jacobean revolutionary. She is perfectly comfortable with her life and extends her fan to blot out the glaring lights brought by electricity. Yet we sense that when the changes come, she will be able to manage.
Ghandi said, "The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart."
The rules were clear back then and the dress code very exact. Was it a simpler time? That would depend on the lens through which it was perceived. The higher one climbs, the better the view tends to be. As the story continues to move through the twentieth century, we know the lines will be blurred and we wait with joyful hope to see both sides weather the coming storm. Julian Fellowes says the next installment is "done and dusted," but we will have to wait almost a year before it airs. As far as Downton Abbey is concerned, I for one will not have a change of heart. I shall wait with baited breath.