Downton Abbey (Season 1) – Austenian Redux

This weekend, I had a marathon viewing of the first season of Downton Abbey (courtesy of Netflix Instant). I had heard a lot of good things about the show from friends and critics, and it was high time I checked it out. Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of the series, delicately weaves the story of the personal and public dramas of the Grantham family and their servants in the 19-aughts. It is at times painfully British, brimming with lingering looks full of meaning and sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, and at other times witty and modern. But above all, Downton Abbey is Austenian to a T.

It’s 1912 and the RMS Titanic, the unsinkable ship, has sunk. Among her crew were the heirs to the Downton Abbey estate, and now Lord Grantham, the “owner” of Downton (owner in-so-much as he is in legal possession of the estate despite the fact that his finances alone were unable to keep the estate afloat) is left in the lurch. According to the law, the estate must pass into the hands of the next male heir, and having only three daughters, Lord Grantham is forced to accept his third cousin, whom he has never met, as the next recipient of the fortune. But Lord Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess, and his wife, the Lady Grantham, are bent on making sure the fortune passes into the hands of the eldest daughter, Mary. Certainly, this is a plot Austen could get behind, especially considering it’s strikingly similar to the opening premise of Pride and Prejudice.

The similarities between Downton and Pride and Prejudice are numerous (a strong-willed daughter who insists on defying the rules and is only interested in marrying for love, the political and personal game playing of English nobility, and sibling rivalry just to name a few), but unlike P&P, Downton does not exist solely in the vacuum of upper-class living. Much of the focus is on the servants below decks and the blurring of the line between classes and genders as the 20th century rolls on. Here, then, I’m reminded more than a little of Gosford Park. Hmm, wonder why… Oh yeah, Fellowes wrote that too.

And Fellowes’ fingerprints cannot be ignored. Downton is very much an auteur piece, and perhaps what I enjoyed most about it is its sense of humor (which Fellowes is known for). The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is the oldest of the group, and therefore presumably the most traditional, but her wit sparkles and she is surprisingly amenable to modern customs (except for electricity and telephones). She pushes hardest for Mary to become the proper heir and takes the many changes the family undergoes in stride. Fellowes even offers the audiences a few winks, like an aside in a Shakespearean play that tells a joke only the audience gets. On one particularly trying night, Lady Grantham and Mary must cover up the true circumstances of a guest’s death. In the morning, when the dead body is discovered by the rest of the house, Lord Grantham tells his butler that they must not dwell on it around the women because their sensibilities are so much more fragile!

Downton has substance beyond the humor, of course, substance that is strikingly relevant in the current economic times as the lines between the classes have quickly become starker and larger. Indeed, multiple posts could be written on Downton (the Dowager Countess warrants one to herself), and perhaps more will come, but for now I’m looking forward to season 2, which by all reports, is much more controversial (and possibly not as good), leaving the realm of Austen behind and taking on a more Dickensian tone.

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