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Bruce Jespersen


"Downton Abbey" and the Ghost

Its native tongue is the language of love.

"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.

"Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us." Baudelaire judged the greatness of a painting by the number of ideas and reveries it brought to mind—a rough measure of a film my wife Catherine and I use on the drive home. Downton Abbey is a miniature of mankind's machinations and emotions. It does not release all of its treasure on the first pass and rewards repeat watching—readily available on DVD. It's laced with envy and conflict, but the language it mainly speaks, its native tongue if you will, is the language of love—even the sardonic Dowager Countess concedes "that the heart does not exist solely for the purpose of pumping blood." It speaks it in a virtual orgy of dialects—romantic love that thickens like custard over heat and time although, to change the metaphor, it "carries more baggage than the porters at King's Cross" Mary demurred; parental love that can never, never give up; self-love, ironically the most elusive of all; love of country, both glorious and gory; love of home that is almost sacred; love of God with its self-conscious, half-doubting prayer; love of truth that risks the fury of untruth; love of work that is nearly self-defining; daring love that tries to climb a social ladder with no rungs; love of dog only a dog-lover knows; bullied, loveless love; lust, love's saccharine substitute that soon turns bitter; brotherly love that demands to die for another; married love, still a tricky business after all those years; conciliatory love, renewed at the grave like a pact between the living and the dead, Czeslaw Milosz observed. And although this language of love is not always and not even most powerfully spoken with words—a scene at the train station between Mary and Matthew as he goes off to war is a classic example, perhaps the most memorable scene of the series—Downton Abbey also evinces an astonishing love of language. Englishman Fellowes' dialogue is smart, real, elegant, spare, comic, emotive, and allusive, drawing from Literature, History, and the Bible with an aplomb that fits it to both the countess and the cook. Perhaps it's only proper coming from one whose country conceived and nursed the language for a thousand years. It makes you proud to speak it, if not like Daisy (Sophie McShera), the tiny, tortured kitchen maid who renders it almost unintelligible, like an old form from which the consonants have worn off but not the charm.

"And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all." One kind of love, however, is not spoken in Downton Abbey, that none of us speak and yet desire urgently. Its absence makes for a great story. It is our undying love of certainty. The servants and their betters alike falter at their personal struggles and see their dreams fade in a changing world from which they cannot escape and which they cannot alter—it makes little difference that the news is delivered to some on a silver plate. Both are at the mercy of a merciless war, an iceberg, a threatening revelation that comes in the mail, a revolution posing as a new dawn that betrays the innocent into a long murderous night, a deadly, capricious flu epidemic for which Dr. Clarkson's (David Robb) folksy advice of cinnamon and milk has not been much improved upon in a hundred years, the march of modernity through their door with its insolent attitudes, dress, cocktails, electricity, and telephones, "scattering our chicks" Robert laments and disrupting familiar ways. It is not different for us. No wonder the wily old Dowager declares life to be like charades, "a game in which the player must appear ridiculous." But then in a moment of sympathy she reminds cousin Matthew of this: "Marriage is a long business. There's no getting out of it for our kind of people," as if the courage of a promise were a response. Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), mother to the girls and the Dowager's frequent antagonist, echoes her, summing up the uncertain times and consoling Robert: "It isn't what I wanted," she says, "none of it is, but this is what's happened and we must accept it"—resignation perhaps, but words that breathe courage and sympathy. As the series is set to continue their—and in a way our—"ridiculous" game, Eliot offers one other response: "You are not here to verify" he says, "You are here to kneel." At times Downton Abbey seems to hear his ghost and prays.

Bruce Jespersen is a still enchanted husband of 38 years and father of four. He practices family medicine on the Canadian prairies, where he writes to discover what science can't.

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