I am no longer able to call friends on Sunday nights. I will not have long lunches over crab bisque and chardonnay. My Twitter feed is not safe. Why? I refuse to give into the mindless banter that will come — yet another conversation, meal, or tweet about “poor Mary” and her baby.
“Poor Mary,” as portrayed monotonously by Michelle Dockery, is Lady Mary Crawley, the finicky, morose older daughter of the Earl of Grantham, who spent two of the previous three seasons (from the two episodes I saw) trying to find a suitor and ignoring her distant cousin, Matthew, who stood to inherit her father’s ghoulish pile, Downton Abbey, located somewhere not in London. Finally, after Matthew’s fiancée dies of the flu, he is free to marry the woman who had snubbed him. She succumbs to his witless charm and has a baby boy; Matthew, having sired the heir to the family’s estate, promptly dies in a car crash. Presumably, Mary, in season four, will get to wear the color which suits her personality and charm most — black.
Downton Abbey is a very big house, suitable nowadays as an isolated rehab for movies stars about to lose contracts and politicians facing recalls, but to Robert, the Earl of Grantham, it is his only reason to live. Unable (before Mary, his oldest daughter, cooperated) to produce a male heir, it seemed the pleasure of paying the high heating bills would be all Matthew’s — and his socialist mother’s.
The Earl’s two other daughters appeared more of a burden than the feeding the staff. One ran off with the Irish chauffeur, had a daughter, and promptly died in childbirth. The other, left at the altar by her octogenarian groom, is cavorting with a married man in the newspaper trade, which apparently at Downton Abbey is enough to scare the horses.
Then there are the servants, whom, British custom declares, should never be seen, but who at Downton Abbey never seem to shut up.
Upstairs, Downstairs Revisited
Every decade or so, the jolly folks over on the royal isles bring us a long-winded tale about people who live in houses with too much glass. First there was Upstairs, Downstairs, about the daughter of a lordships’s London household and its (by Downton Abbey standards) more liberated and literate servants. Then we were gifted with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which gave us more rooms to ponder as it critiqued civility and drunkenness. We never learned about the servants because Waugh was oblivious to their existence.
What is the allure of these tales so wildly beyond the bounds of American experience? If I can offer a simple explanation for my educated friends’ obsession over this current saga about lives so completely foreign to ours, here it goes: Downton Abbey is an adult fairy tale without a dragon. Instead of a castle with a moat, we have a drafty hotel with the 20th century down the road. The appeal of this soap opera is in its fantasies about people in a far off place isolated from everything we know about reality. The Earl, Lady Mary, Daisy the scullery maid, the grim-faced butler Carson, and the plump cook are characters from nursery rhymes that never stop.
However, Downton Abbey has resurrected one charming English custom of yore — whenever an actor wants out of his contract, in true regal fashion it’s “off with his head.” I can’t wait to hear about the next execution — oh, excuse me, “tragic death.”
For another take on Downton Abbey, click here.