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Bruce Jespersen


"Downton Abbey" and the Ghost

Its native tongue is the language of love.

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"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.

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