‘Downton Abbey’ and the Weight of History
On Sunday, American audiences commemorated the bittersweet moment that millions in the UK experienced last Christmas—the last goodbye to the beloved British drama Downton Abbey. Since the show’s first arrival in 2010-2011, viewers in the United States have been consistently fascinated with the depiction of the Crawley family and their large-than-life existence in the twilight of English aristocracy, to say nothing of the equally adored array of servants populating Downton’s “downstairs.” We here at Christ and Pop Culture have commented on the series more than once over the years. Yet now, alas, it is gone.
What exactly is history but the accounts, reminiscences, and stories of human beings?But why exactly was Downton Abbey so popular in the first place? What allowed it to break PBS viewership records and become an international phenomenon? The possible answers are myriad. Audiences love lavish costume period pieces of any kind, and the never-ending string of melodramatic plot twists brought to life by a talented cast reciting often witty dialogue helped elevate the show above more run-of-the-mill historical fiction. Make no mistake about it, though—Downton Abbey was always self-consciously historical fiction. And here, I think, lies some of its enduring fascination.
From the beginning, the series was not just historical in its setting—it was a series that analyzed and interrogated its own historicity. The timing was certainly important: in six seasons of our time, Downton Abbey cut across almost fourteen years of English history. It began in April 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, and that convergence of the twain not only had practical repercussions worldwide but has come to carry symbolic import, the emblematic marker of the end of the Edwardian period, the last gasp of post-Victorian aristocratic opulence and optimism. From that event, it was only two short years until the beginning of World War I, the epochal conflict that accelerated and exacerbated those changes, chronicled in Downton Abbey’s second season. The series finale ends on New Year’s Day 1926, and a more apt holiday could scarcely be imagined for a show so obsessively interested with the passage of time.
Indeed, Downton Abbey at times was almost historiographical to the degree that its characters overtly remarked on the processes of history. How many of its running jokes (and more serious plot developments) centered around the difficulty of Victorian-generation folk like the Dowager Countess, Lord Grantham, or Mr. Carson in adapting to the modern world? How frequently did its younger generations—each sister, in her own way, or Matthew, or Rose, or Tom Branson—push the boundaries of the nobility? Writer Julian Fellowes telescoped time in a highly distinctive way to achieve this effect: with six seasons, but each of them only seven to nine episodes in length, he created an environment that gave more depth to its characters than a movie or even a miniseries could but covered a greater swath of history than an ordinary television series might attempt. And in his dialogue, Fellowes often ensured that the weight of these changes would be reiterated to the audience.
True to form, the series finale is replete with references to time and history. Carson scoffs at some nebulous “future” and Violet laments to Isobel that time can’t move backwards, even as everyone around them acknowledge (and often embrace) the changes—whether those changes come in the form of female magazine editors and hospital board officials, electric hair dryers, or maids giving birth in their ladies’ chambers. It is unsurprising that Cora’s mother is invoked at Edith’s wedding (even if Shirley MacLaine never appears on camera), for Martha Levinson was ever the most unabashed advocate of relentless progress. And it is appropriate (and less than coincidental) that among the episode’s final lines is the repeated refrain, “Happy New Year.”
Yet Downton Abbey did not captivate our interest by being monolithically progressivist in its outlook. Indeed, it was precisely the show’s nuance about historical complexity that has helped it endure. Of course, we could all watch happily, even smugly, as it condemned the race, class, and gender privileges of the 1910s and ’20s. We knew that Tom Branson and Lady Sybil belonged with each other, that Lady Edith and Lady Mary could be as competent as any son Lord Grantham might wish for, or that cousin Rose should have every right to be in a relationship with Jack or Atticus regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Goodness knows, we can celebrate cars and telephones (and maybe hair dryers?).
But one could not evenhandedly watch the series without feeling a sense of loss than cuts deeper than shallow nostalgia. Carson may have been a pompous stick-in-the-mud at times, but who could fail to be impressed by his work ethic and single-minded devotion to the Crawley family? We can acknowledge the very just advantages of increased upward mobility while still lamenting the damage that this new period of employee free agency could cause to certain types of relationships. Lord Grantham could be abominable at times (especially in the middle seasons), but at his best, he was not just some self-centered aristocrat but a man who felt deeply that his position called him to wisdom and responsibility. And the agitators for progress could be unpleasant, abrasive, and even inhuman. Nothing highlighted this tendency so well as season five’s Sarah Bunting, who rejects any charitable consideration of the upper classes and, in romancing Tom Branson, attempts to drive a wedge between him and the Crawleys.
It is Tom more than anyone who illustrates how facile it is to make a blanket condemnation of conservative of progressive historical processes in Downtown Abbey. His love of Sybil was genuine and radical, yet so too was his early sociopolitical rejection of all the Crawley family stood for. His later repudiation of Miss Bunting’s opinions demonstrates the degree to which time has allowed him to see gleams to spiritual nobility in the nobles. While I found his abrupt reintroduction into season six a bit contrived in the moment, it actually makes sense in the broader arc of the show—for all his admitted forward-thinking, he can now think of Downton as home.
Because history is, ultimately, story. What exactly is history but the accounts, reminiscences, and stories of human beings? Any sweeping historiography that reads historical processes in a way that diminishes the men and women who lived them—who, indeed, caused them—must be rejected as inadequate. Downton Abbey succeeds by reminding us of the human face of the past.
Perhaps no work is more heavily invested in making sense of history than the Bible itself. We understand our own sacred Scripture as historiographical in nature—the biblical writers do indeed give us inspired accounts of historical events, often including an interpretive matrix through which to read them. The Bible tells one grand, cosmic, redemptive Story. It also tells countless individual strands of narrative, the “Bible stories” so many of us may have learned as kids in Sunday school. But even for the Christian reader, who acknowledges that Scripture is historical in nature, we can be tempted to remove the human element from our reading. We can see God’s providential work as simply a grand powerful force, his truth as a set of doctrinal regulations, his people as characters with no more dimension than Hamlet or Harry Potter. But these were real events that happened to real people, who spoke and ate and breathed and did all the things we do. God might have chosen to view history, in a sense, abstractly, supervening all events and processes from his throne in heaven. Yet, in the person of the Son, he chose to enter it and, in so doing, to consecrate it.
One of my favorite little biblical passage is Exodus 1:6-7: “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” By the time Moses is born, the Hebrew people have lived in Egypt for centuries, in all that time faithfully passing down what they know about God, as it had been handed down to them from Jacob, Joseph, and the patriarchs. I like to imagine what the lives must have been for those millions of Israelites across time whose names have now been effaced from any written record, yet whose stories, whatever they were, made possible the Passover and, centuries further on, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Downton Abbey, though fictional, has always been valuable to me as a way of putting faces to the past, of reminding me that we do a disservice to the Christian understanding of history when we dehumanize it. This dehumanization can occur through a sociological reduction of people to mere statistics or through a doctrinal absolutism that reads God’s providential work as little more than a series of intricately dictated chess moves. History is bizarre, confusing, and complex, for one very simple reason—it is performed by complex people. I am history; you are history. We ought never forget that fact—for God himself certainly doesn’t.
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