I loved Downton Abbey, but . . . not blindly. Somewhere, perhaps in season three, I realized that very little was actually said in each episode. Despite being set in the early 20th C., many of the scenes echoed contemporary audience expectations, with characters talking while walking. The big difference between DA and programs set in the second half of the 20th C., or later, is that rather than walking from one desk to another, the characters were strolling the grounds. Taking the air, if you will.
What did I love? As my daughter said, “It’s the house porn.” And, yes, the exterior shots were wonderful, although I did wonder about all those bedrooms. But, although the sumptuous Abbey will continue to haunt our memories, I liked some of the smaller houses better, particularly the more modest home of the Dowager Countess of Grantham. I would love the wing chair and the settee in her drawing room. I picture them in my home office . . . if my 31 year old son ever moves out so that I can have the room back.
I also loved the clothes. Even one of the male actors, Tom Cullen, who played Lady Mary’s oversexed suitor Tony Gillingham, loved the bespoke suit. Imagine, clothes that fit! Frankly, while I am glad to have lived through the death of the girdle, I miss wearing nice clothes that suit the situation. Even a theatre matinee deserves something better than jeans. And no one should wear a mesh wifebeater to a wedding.
And, I wanted Lady Edith to be happily wed, despite that she — as her mother and sister did as well — established herself as a career woman and despite my own romantic history, which was something I would rather forget.
But, now that I have arrived at Lady Edith, this is a good point to begin discussing what I did not like about DA.
During the 13 years the series covers, Edith grows from a middle child just out of her teens, whose adulthood seems a long way off, to an almost confident woman making her way in the male world of publishing. We see Edith mercilessly chase a weak-willed man who is far too old for her and who leaves her at the altar. Throughout, she is picked upon by her more confident older sister, a cold young woman who must make a marriage that will save the family estate from a ridiculous entailment.
She grows restless, as an intelligent woman would, and begins to freelance. This leads to another involvement with an older man, this one eager for affection and sex with lonely Edith but with his own skeletons freely walking in and out of his closets. They make love once and then he mysteriously disappears. Or, is it conveniently?
He does leave her his London apartment and his magazine, which means that she will not be a spinster in the manor house.
It is just a little too deus ex machina.
She is also pregnant but, lo and behold, she has two advantages that a kitchen maid like Daisy would never have: sufficient money to hide the pregnancy and a sympathetic aunt to help keep her secret.
Let’s just shorten the phrase deus ex machina to DEM.
What really bothers me about Edith’s saga is the ending. Of course, she became the glowing and glamourous (please, spell check, this word deserves the extra letter used in British English!) bride . . . but.
As much as she was attracted to the quick thinking and seemingly generous spirited and humble estate manager Bertie Pelham, she found it difficult to tell him that Marigold was her daughter and not her ward. Of course she did. She had had bad luck with men, particularly because she was too eager with Mr. Wrong. And, it was early in the 1920s.
When her vicious sister feigns ignorance of what may have transpired in private between Edith and her now fiance Bertie (who has since — more DEM — come into an estate and a title) and reveals to Bertie in public that Marigold is Edith’s little girl, the engagement is broken off.
His reason is that he can not trust Edith. She has concealed the truth from him. He never says it is because she bore a child out of wedlock, which, would have been sufficient reason for the time. But he is no longer the clever and easy going young man he was. He is older, stiffer and far less engaging.
Soon, Mary, now happily wed herself, along with the sisters’ ever obliging aunt, brings the couple together. They too easily forgive each other. First, however, she must meet his Mater, who sounds more like the wife of an American evangelical pastor than a newly minted member of the nobility.
Lo and behold, the formerly offended Bertie now openly tells his soon-to-be in-laws that he and Edith will not tell MaMa just who little Marigold is. Mater will not be able to handle the situation and little Marigold may suffer.
Really? Am I the only one bothered by the contradiction? Am I the only one who thinks the independent and strong Edith, who has made her way in publishing, and who is discovering new talent in the form of her grandmother’s butler, will not be long happy with the stiff and conforming Bertie? What a surprise when MaMa, who seems to never look people in the eye, praises Edith’s honesty! DEM, again. Some of the older woman’s interior monologue would have been nice.
I have spent more time on Edith than I intended, but, I would like to point out some more DEM.
Remember that butler? Septimus Spratt has been secretly writing for Lady Edith’s magazine. He is just one of many servants with hidden talents who will make the leap to the expanding middle class. Mr. Mosely, after his comic attempt to dye his hair in order to appear an age more appropriate to his station as footman, emerges as a closet intellectual who becomes a teacher after taking what seems like the equivalent of an American GED test.
And, the middle class rises in other ways. The former nurse, the sensible and salty Isobel Crawley, is courted by a man with a title, the dull and sleep-walking Lord Merton. Opposites attract in the world of DA because there is no way this woman could love such a dullard. And, more DEM, although Lord Merton has been diagnosed with pernicious anemia, he has garden variety anemia and some broccoli and steak will fix him!
And so the merging of classes and class distinction will continue as the curtain drops on the Abbey for the last time.
I have nothing against Julian Fellowes. I think the story of how his first filmscript, Gosford Park, won the Academy Award for best screenplay is a bit over done as Fellowes had a long acting career. I envy his success but am not jealous of it. I admire the organization it took to deal with a cast as large as the DA cast and to carry threads of stories over more than a decade. I just find the melding of classes too easy. I think that that many nice people — and most of them are nice and the ones who weren’t, like Barrow and Lady Mary did grow and mellow — living together with that amount of harmony is a bit of a fairy tale.
Still, I look forward to his next project, which I hope will rely less on deus ex machina and more on causality.