"Downton Abbey" and the Ghost
"What we call the beginning is often the end / and to make an end is to make a beginning / … down the sea's throat / … in the stillness / between two waves of the sea." says T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding, his panegyric to the human predicament, named after a long-dead community in the countryside north of London. It would be an apt prologue to Julian Fellowes' and Masterpiece Theater's acclaimed television series Downton Abbey, named after a great house in Yorkshire, England where the fictional aristocratic Crawley family lives with their three restive, unmarried daughters and retinue of servants. In the opening minutes they awake in 1912 to the impossible news of the Titanic and the cold realization that the north Atlantic has swallowed the family's heirs. Enter an obscure young parvenu from the working middle class, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), as the unwelcome but ineluctable new heir. Thus the story begins, and so too its evocations of Eliot's poem. I don't know that Fellowes was inspired by it to write his saga—in an interview he seemed mystified himself by his characters coming to life at the mere stroke of a pen, describing it as "surreal." And who knows if Eliot would have been impressed by it all. Nonetheless, let me suggest that if television had been around when he conjured the ghost out for a walk before dawn to write Little Gidding, he could have stayed at home in his sitting room with the remote and tuned in a different medium and Downton Abbey for inspiration. For the evocations abound. The quotes that follow are Eliot's or his ghost's unless otherwise ascribed.
"The wonder that I feel is easy, / yet ease is cause of wonder." Eliot's poem is difficult and my read of it is no doubt using "shabby equipment." That said, one of the gifts he reserved for age—"the conscious impotence of rage / at human folly"—brings to mind the relentless exhibition of the seven deadly sins—and some others that just make you sick—that sashay on television for entertainment. So I was blindsided by Downton Abbey, which aired like an antidote to anger in the Autumn of my life. To begin, its stage couldn't be grander—set and filmed in a castle on a vast English country estate, the players speaking their lines against a backdrop of lavish Victorian design, lofty ceilings, a massive oak staircase where one appears almost unavoidably regal just by descending, an intimidating library of 5,000 unread hardcover books, extravagant table settings to feed the important; endless changes of meticulously re-created costumes as if life were one long runway; red-jacketed aristocrats pounding pell-mell on horseback over stream and lush countryside with a pack of yelping dogs in pursuit of a little fox, the upper class accompanied by an orchestra led by the violin section, while beneath them—literally and figuratively—the servants work tirelessly to keep it all going, serenaded by an old tinny piano. And while they're at it they serve a generous helping of the inegalitarianism of a bygone era to our acute sensibilities. Add a modicum of plot and competent acting and it might have made a quite enjoyable two-hour drama. But Downton Abbey has woven 15 hours of magic out of it over two seasons without resorting to irony or tedium—like some reviewers of television period dramas you may have read. This past week's debut of season three on PBS suggests the spell is still in effect, even as its incantations of class and tradition begin to fade with the tense arrival of their erstwhile chauffeur as a guest at the Crawley's dinner table. One could pick the story up here and be in for the thrill of the kill, but to miss the first two seasons is to forfeit an exhilarating hunt.
"I think again, of this place, / And of people, not wholly commendable, / Of no immediate kin or kindness... All touched by a common genius, / United in the strife which divided them …." Of the 18 principal actors who manage to pull it off, almost all were fresh faces to me. Only Maggie Smith was a recognizable star. Hers is hardly a fresh face, but it is a fabulous one, heavily folded from a life on the stage, that delivers each line like a curtain call, many of them in inimitably humorous, highbrow style as the crusty granny to the three Crawley girls or alternately the formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham to everyone else. The characters are all kept in play—like plates spinning on a stick, as Fellowes put it—with fast-paced scene changes. There are no visits over tea with drawn-out readings of some dead poet—not that there's anything wrong with that. The actors are lost in their characters with that legerdemain that draws the viewer into the story too—more than once, I felt a scene viscerally, as if something like it had been written expressly for me. A few sketches of the characters may serve. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the head housekeeper, oversees a houseful of vulnerable young maids, invariably dressed in black like the Mother Superior in a convent—all-knowing, by turns stern and tender, her chain of keys to forbidden doors jangling like rosary beads as she patrols labyrinthine corridors. A spinster, she's called Mrs. out of custom—if not cruelty—as if married to the house for life, like a nun to the Church. John Bates (Brendan Coyle) is referred to formally as Mr. Bates even by ladies' maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) up to their wedding night. His is the first face we see in the story, expressionless in the window of a speeding train, traveling more from than to something. He is the enigmatic valet to the Lord of Downton Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville). At first rejected, he becomes his confidant and savior of sorts—at a crucial moment knocking on Robert's bedroom door as if it were his conscience and saving him from a tragic error. Falsely accused he is silent, the epitome of suffering and forgiveness yet somehow apart and observant—if you're thinking of Someone else, so did I. Then there are the Crawley sisters, Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), their lives in limbo, "stuck in a waiting room until we are married," as Mary laments. At times they are bitterest of enemies and saboteurs of each other's urgent need to find love—Edith, the conspicuously plain sister, mocks beautiful, self-possessed Mary over a catch who got away with "so he slipped the hook"; Mary thrusts back with "at least I'm not fishing with no bait." It is Mary's reckless act in this regard with a beguiling young Turk—who leaves with a very different prize than the conquest of an aristocratic English ingenue that he imagined—that engulfs the house and drives the story, like original sin.