On the phenomenon of Downton Abbey

The TV series and Film

Promotional Poster from the Feature Film Release in September 2019

One cannot help but notice the way Downton Abbey the TV series, and now recently released feature film as a sequel, took the world by storm. Critiques such as one published in the Atlanta in 2013 at the height of the TV series’ popularity, which labeled it “preposterous as history, preposterous as drama” only added more fuel to its sweeping influence on popular culture. One cannot deny there is just something that tugs at people’s heartstring about this show, much in the same fashion that Chopin’s piano music lulls, comforts and caresses the fraying minds of this modern life.

Some have called it sentimental. It is perhaps so. In my reading of the reviews, the common adjectives seem to coalesce around the following, poignant, melodramatic, reserved, comfortable, pleasurable, sumptuous, sympathetic, unrealistic, artfully crafted and their various synonyms and sometimes antonyms.

I am most curious about the fact that most adjectives seem to reflect an underlying emotional response to Downton Abbey. It is of course difficult to describe any cinematic experience without invoking emotions. But Downton Abbey in particular seems to draw more descriptors in the realm of the emotional experience of seeing it, in both written reviews and in the way everyday people discuss it.

In Rhetoric, Aristotle pondered the 3 modes of persuasion, in ethos, logos and pathos, corresponding roughly to ethics or principles, logic and emotions in modern parlance. He argued a convincing argument can be constructed by using these 3 modes effectively. Downton Abbey in my opinion, appeals to pathos unabashedly and without restraint, often leaving less room for ethos and sometimes no room at all for logos. This is not a value judgment on the show creator Julian Fellowes’s creative direction or his effectiveness to convey his message.

Downton is not an expository work that aims to teach us something practical. In fact, it is quite far from it, unless we count the various anecdotal period details, such as one curiously strange contraption for decanting wine in the butler’s office as used by the “royal butler” in a dazzling condescension in front of Mr. Carson in the recently released film. Downton, therefore at least superficially seems to squarely belong to the category of imaginative works.

But the line does not seem so clear here, does it? Downton quietly observes a way of life in a bygone era, when class, social roles and places in life were more deterministic. It was also a time of great flux that ushered in an end for the old way of life for much of the aristocracy and an era of relative ascendency of the lower and middle class. The namesake estate, Downton Abbey is both a symbolic and literal representation of its time. The exorbitant cost of upkeep that could only be temporarily kept in check by the enormous wealth of an American heiress, the symbolic power and prestige of the Earl of Grantham, whose predecessors simply “told the village what it wanted” as far as affairs of the village were concerned clashed violently against the tides of history when the traditional sources of income for landed gentry gradually but irreversibly and steadily dissipated, when the Great War began to break down the strict social barriers and codes of conduct and when the servants downstairs began to dream of a future where they could finally master their own fates. It is also worth noting, though left unsaid in the TV series, the House of Lords effectively lost the power to reject legislations passed by the House of Commons through the Parliament Act 1911, not even a year before the series began in the April of 1912. A great cast of characters were written and portrayed with care spanning all 5 seasons of the show to illuminate on the great social flux taking shape in the world premier power of the time, the British Empire. Such as it is, then is Downton a purely imaginative work that seeks nothing more than to show the world as it was without any expository overtone at all?

I think not.

Far more could be said of what exactly Downton Abbey tries to persuade us to believe. Or the lack thereof, some seem to argue, decrying the “superficial” nature they perceived in published critical reviews. But I would like to return to the question of, by what, exactly, Downton took the world by storm and by what it evokes the emotional experiences – the fervent devotion by fans and unrelenting derision by critics.

It seems to me that Downton’s unabashed appeal to pathos must be at least partially accountable for such a polarized reaction in its viewers. In its reserved, attentive yet understated narrative, Downton polishes the dusty tarnished silver chalice of the old aristocratic way of life until it shines once again. But it is all the more remarkable for attempting to humanize the servants into who they really were – humans, in flesh and blood, who had thoughts, aspirations, feelings and experienced life as fully as they were allowed or allowed themselves to. It would be of course, preposterous to assume otherwise about servants in any time period. But the equity of Downton and its magic are precisely in the fact that perhaps more of this kind humanization happens downstairs than upstairs. As the vast majority of the viewers tend to be non-aristocratic, it stands to reason that viewers find the lives of the servants, their trials and tribulations, more relatable. If Downton conveys such a relatable experience, why would there seem to be as many vehement detractors as there are fans? I would intuit that relatability and likeability are quite different matters. In fact, relatability potentiates the degree to which we like or dislike far more than its ability to influence the direction we take with the binary dispositions themselves. Imagine, for example, as most reasonable people may, venture a guess as to whether or not they might like or dislike an apple based on secondhand information only, if they have never had an apple before. But after having had a relatable firsthand experience of eating apples, people will likely feel less or even no uncertainty regarding their disposition toward apples in terms of liking or disliking this fruit. In fact, they may be prone to issue even stronger opinions as to whether they “love” or “hate” apples based on their concrete relatable firsthand experience. The “apples”, in the case of Downton, are of course, the experience of the common folk downstairs, palpably more relatable to the average modern viewer than what it might feel like to be a Lord or a Lady. In turn, the higher degree to which people find Downton relatable potentiates for a higher degree to which people may or may not find Downton agreeable or likeable.

There are, I believe, at least two more reasons Downton elicits as strongly an emotional response as it does.

First, I must confess that at one point, I found Downton as a show trivial and patronizing. After all, what kind of modern man am I, if I were to put up with 50 minutes of an episode where a houseful of grown adults, scouring around with nothing but sheer panic and distress for a missing snuffbox of the lord? I found the premise for the whole episode, and most of the other episodes for that matter, simply beneath the dignity of a modern man. There, please remember the word, “dignity”. We shall come back to it.

In the earlier episodes of the TV series, Matthew Crawley, the new heir apparent of Downton was plucked out of his middle-class lawyer life and transplanted to the grand estate, where he found the lifestyle of its inhabitants excessive. In one instance, he repeatedly dismissed his valet, Mr. Moseley’s attempts to help dress him or mend his clothes. In fact, he had meant to dispatch Mr. Moseley’s service altogether. Robert Crawley, the Earl, was the first to point out to Matthew, that for Mr. Moseley, his personal dignity was inextricably linked to his position as Matthew’s valet. To deprive him of his responsibilities is to deprive his personal worth and his dignity. Through a lens of the 21st century, it may not be unreasonable to raise the question whether or not the position of “valet”, typically filled by an adult man with responsibilities including dressing and grooming another grown man on a daily basis and attending to his personal needs is entirely dignified. But a more relevant question, as it pertains to the personal dignity of Mr. Moseley is perhaps whether it is unjust or even cruel to, as his employer Matthew did, trivialize his position, within which Mr. Moseley operates with utmost care and takes much personal pride.

If Matthew had taken a different tone and attempted to inspire Mr. Moseley to be more than a valet instead, would that have been more palatable and noble in the eye of a modern viewer? If, say, Matthew had encouraged Mr. Moseley to become a lawyer like himself or to open a shop in the village, who is to say these positions are more dignified than being a valet? And what if Mr. Moseley did not desire to be a lawyer or to open his own shop in the village? Is Mr. Moseley’s social standing simply the result of his personal choice and own doing? The land of moral relativism offers no easy answer unless we pin down the time-specific moral framework upon which we make value judgments.

I am of the opinion that there is indeed dignity in every position, not in the least for its necessity to allow civilization to function. We all have our roles to play and fill. The direction civilization has taken in most cultures results in preferentially assigning more value and heaping earned and unearned credit onto positions of power and positions higher on a hierarchy in any organization. A successful military operation requires more than a brilliant tactic devised by a general. The blood and sweat of the soldiers are what realizes such a tactic and actualizes the victory. A successful surgery requires a skilled surgeon while a whole team of logistical staff serving to the janitorial, antiseptic, device and instrument needs is required to ensure such an operation is even feasible. Such military generals have been welcomed and worshiped as heroes of the state since the ancient time. A modern maverick surgeon who performs complicated surgery is often the subject of unbridled gratitude from families and admiration from colleagues and staff. What is even more confounding is the US Presidential approval rating and its positive correlation with the well-being of the economy. A destructive president may well have some of the power to impede an economy. But the opposite hypothesis that a president may be, to a large and accountable extent, responsible for propelling forward an economy as enormous, layered, multi-faceted, globally intertwined as the US economy seems unproven or at least rather poorly substantiated. Perhaps we, the citizens reward presidents for doing anything but harm to the economy. The few – generals, skilled professionals and chief executive persons are all elevated and rewarded handsomely for the fruits of labor by the many – all the unsung everyday heroes.

Paradoxically, Downton, a show ostensibly to showcase the aristocracy in their final heydays gave voice to the historically voiceless. This voice, an affirmation for the dignity and humanity of the servants in its historical context. In this aspect, I find some similarity in Downton with the 19th century French art movement of Realism. The choice of seeing Downton through a historical lens or a 21th century lens may have a significant influence on a viewer’s emotional response to it.

So far, I have put forth 2 elements that may explain the responses to Downton, namely, its relatability and its period-informed affirmation of the servants’ dignity. Downton’s final and perhaps strongest appeal to pathos is its poignancy.

Chopin’s nocturne in C# minor

Poignancy is what I hear in Chopin’s music – the sighs, the resignation contrasted with the bursts of desperate attempts to regain or prolong what could have been and should have been before a final acquiescence, sometimes with a catastrophic cacophony of “crash and burn” ending. But more often than not, Chopin closes his pieces with his unmistakably personal and singular voice of a quiet resignation. Even the physical dimensions of his music, as far as time is concerned, exemplify an ephemeral beauty that is literally fleeting within the confines of no more than a few minutes in his typical compositions of nocturnes, preludes and waltzes. Who, among musicians and music lovers, hasn’t heard of the criticism levied at Chopin for being excessively sentimental? Downton, perhaps not so surprisingly, has been similarly charged.

The line between excessive sentimentalism and poignancy is a fine one if not mostly subjective. Instead of digressing into the aesthetic difference between them, I hope you’ll humor me in allowing me to proceed to comment on what exactly I mean by poignancy in Downton and why it may be the strongest contender in the show’s appeal to pathos.

In Downton (and Chopin), poignancy is the state of being blessed with the sentience of knowing but without being bestowed with the power to change or resist.

In the recently released Downton film, this particular brand of poignancy was thoroughly explored. In one scene near the end of the film, the Dowager Countess, wonderfully played by Maggie Smith intimates to Mary, her granddaughter that she has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and does not have much time left while Mary goes on to assure her beloved granny that her presence will continue to be felt in every picture and every book in Downton. To this, the Dowager smiles and quips, that it all sounds quite exhausting and she would rather rest in peace. The dowager countess has been a favorite among fans. Her quick wit can be acerbic and at times, frankly lacerating. Her physical frailness notwithstanding, Downton laid down 5 seasons worth of history to construct her image with a willfulness that can only be matched by her equally formidable tact and wit. The Dowager still commands a presence wherever and whenever she appears in the film. Yet it is undeniable that the curtains are drawing close on one of Downton’s most memorable and beloved characters. I, as an audience seem to feel more of the sting than the Dowager herself on screen, who graciously tells Mary that she has lived a long and wonderful life. Does one of the most bitingly sharp minds in Downton really feel as steady and stoic as she appears in the face of certain impending death? But of course we will never know, for if she let on what really goes on in her head, would she still be the Dowager Countess that we know?

In another scene at the very end of the film, Mr. Carson, the butler who came out of retirement temporarily is about to lock the front door of Downton and leave for the night with his wife, who was better and previously known as Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper of Downton before she married Mr. Carson. As Mr. Carson steps out of the warmth filled great hall of Downton into the night and swings the door closed behind him, we are shown an extreme long aerial shot of Downton, a magnificent Jacobethan English country house shimmering with a faint halo, accentuated by incandescent light outpouring from its windows against a vast and silent chilliness of the air and a stilled darkness of the night. In this moment, the usually imposing mansion appears ever more delicate, like a flickering candle in the wind that is only one quick puff away from being snuffed out. Mr. Carson, who is arguably the most loyal among Downton’s servants, reflects on the future of the grand house, as he notes to his wife, that Downton shall continue to stand tall for years to come and its way of life will continue as it has in the past.

Well, we all know what happened next. The English country houses continued to decline. More than 1200 in England became targets of demolition in the 20th century alone.

The scene in the film continues. Mrs. Carson, formerly Mrs. Hughes raises a concern that it wasn’t proper (for servants) to leave through the front door as her husband finishes closing the front door from outside the manor. To my surprise and delight, Mr. Carson dismisses her protest and in essence tells her, who cares at this hour and perhaps, implicitly in this day and age.

To understand the significance of this scene and why I am surprised, it may be helpful to know that Mr. Carson has been perhaps the most traditionalist, or in modern parlance, pain-in-the-ass stickler among the servants, as up until Mr. and Mrs. Bates planned a “revolt” earlier in the film, he had never so much as bent a rule in his whole career serving Downton. For Mr. Carson to nonchalantly dismiss “properness”, even if only in front of his wife in the dead of the night, one can be more than assured that change is already underway.

Mr. Carson does not see the coming of the end of this way of life and walks away with his wife in the comfort of the belief in Downton’s preordained destiny to survive and persist. But the irony on the fate of the great English country houses is not lost on the audience.

A final example I give is a snippet of poignancy, cleverly slipped in for Thomas Barrow, a closeted gay man, who became butler of the house, as a result of Mr. Carson’s retirement. I have no idea what it would be like to be a gay man in early 20th century England. But if gay people’s struggle within themselves and against the larger currents of society today serves as any indication, I will have to go with an educated guess of “far more difficult” back then. His romance with the royal valet, Richard Ellis is the only time hope nods her beneficent head at Thomas, stretching back to the beginning of the series, though Thomas is not entirely blameless for some of the misfortunes that befall him. Thomas and Ellis share a quick kiss before being interrupted by a footman who calls them upstairs. There, a flicker of hope is given to Thomas as quickly as it is taken away since Ellis must return with the king as part of his entourage. Left unsaid of course, is what chance two gay men in the post-Edwardian England had to have a happy ending.

Thomas Barrow and Richard Ellis visit York together in the movie Downton Abbey

Downton, the TV series and the film adeptly appeal to the softer spots of our hearts. In the absence of aristocratic tyranny and cruelty or any herculean tasks to save the world from complete destruction, its narrative recounts the lives of the people upstairs with sympathy, while validating and affirming the existence and the humanity of the servants downstairs with a quiet, sensitive and dignified voice.

Even if Aristotle may not approve Downton’s mode of persuasion by mostly appealing to pathos, it seems to me that the lives of Downton’s characters are not entirely inconsistent with Aristotle’s moral philosophy.

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