Books featured in this essay:

The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellows;

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by the Countess of Carnarvon;

The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon: 5th Countess of Carnarvon of Tutankhamun Fame, by William Cross;

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downtown Abbey", by Margaret Powell.


Asoap opera with a British accent. That's the critical rap on Downton Abbey, the cross-Atlantic hit series which in January returned to PBS for its third season. "[E]scapist kitsch," sneered the Nation. A "cynical and desperate piece of plot-weaving, all too redolent of the lowest of the low soap operas," pronounced the New York Review of Books. "[A] servile soap opera" and "silvered tureen of snobbery," asserted historian Simon Schama.

You can understand the disappointment. Created by British writer and conservative peer Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey would seem to have every possible signifier of prestige television: the "Masterpiece Classic" imprimatur, the excellent cast (with a star turn by Dame Maggie Smith), the lavish production values, and, yes, the British accents. The series is undeniably gorgeous to look at—even more so than AMC's "Mad Men," a show celebrated for its visual style. It verges on the fetishistic in its attention to period detail; as the series' companion volume, The World of Downton Abbey, proudly notes: all the actresses, including rotund cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), have to squeeze into corsets for the sake of verisimilitude, while the men's starched shirtfronts are sent to the same drycleaner patronized by the queen. The exquisitely choreographed dining scenes can take up to ten hours to film.

Yet Downton Abbey wears its dinner dress lightly. Amid the unremitting grimness of contemporary television drama (The SopranosThe WireBreaking Bad), Downton has a roguish charm and a sense of humor about itself. Has any femme proved more fatale than the series' leading lady whose unlucky first seducer actually dies in her arms? How else to explain the misplaced bar of soap—soap!—on which the first season's final episode pivots? Though soap operas typically rely on the tawdrier emotions—envy, spite, lust, and revenge—to propel their plots along, in Downton it's the characters' finer feelings that get things going. The series revolves around twin plot lines of renunciation: upstairs, the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), learns that Downton's two male heirs have perished in the sinking of the Titanic, and thus his family's home—and his wife's personal fortune—will go to a distant cousin, bypassing his three daughters. Such is his devotion to the estate and tradition that he feels himself obliged to hand Downton over and be polite in the process. Downstairs, the Earl's luckless valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), is so moved by his deep sense of honor (and shame about his hard-living past) that he repeatedly takes the fall for others' misdeeds—from rivalrous servants to his estranged wife—while pretty housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) waits patiently in the wings.

A Marriage Plot

Much of the series' first season centers on the crisis of inheritance, particularly as it affects the Crawleys' eldest daughter, the spoiled Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Previously engaged to her cousin Patrick, the younger heir to Downton and a man she never loved, she knows she is expected to make a match with the new heir and is in half-revolt against her fate. No sooner does her usurper, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a handsome young lawyer, arrive than she overhears him complaining to his mother, "They're clearly going to push one of their daughters at me." Pride and prejudice thus meet, and a marriage plot is born.

The echo of Jane Austen is not accidental. As in Austen's most celebrated novel, the inheritance crisis (an entail also separates the Bennet daughters from their family home) brings to the fore the marriage question. Should Mary follow in the tradition of her ancestors and marry for wealth, family, and social status, or should she embrace the values of the modern world and marry for personal happiness and love?

Lord Grantham and his mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), as the two representatives of the British aristocracy, provide one answer—Mary must marry Matthew—although they arrive at it by different paths. Lord Grantham is the magnanimous English gentleman; the Dowager Countess, the snobbish embodiment of class privilege. His reasons for desiring the marriage are characteristically high-minded. He recognizes decent Matthew as a kind of natural aristocrat—a fitting steward to what he calls his "life's work"—and thus a suitable match for Mary. Moreover, the marriage accords with his larger sense of duty to Downton, although he is too honorable to attempt to persuade his daughter to marry against her inclination—a stance so disinterested as to seem almost indifferent.

The Dowager Countess likewise sees the marriage as Mary's duty, but her motives are decidedly less exalted than Lord Grantham's. Having married off both her son and daughter to shore up the family's dwindling fortunes, she takes a purely practical view of matrimony. Matthew's good character counts for little with her, but his middle-class upbringing is a serious impediment, one that will harm Mary's (and the family's) social standing. Nonetheless, when the entail proves unbreakable and no other eligible bachelors appear due to a past impropriety in Mary's conduct, the countess proves a realist and counsels her granddaughter to accept Matthew as the least bad option.

Neither the earl's noble disinterest nor the Dowager Countess's calculating class interest can secure Mary's future happiness. Mary is too much her father to act in the mercenary manner the countess prescribes, and too much her grandmother to act according to her father's notions of family and duty. It is left to Mary's mother, Cora, an American heiress (Elizabeth McGovern), to navigate between the two. The fate of Downton Abbey (and Mary's place within it) depends once again upon a union much like the Crawleys' own: a marriage of convenience turned love match.

But before Mary can decide on Matthew's proposal, the Great War intervenes, and by the second season, an estranged Mary and Matthew have formed dueling engagements: she with a socially ambitious newspaper tycoon, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), and he with the shy daughter of a middle-class solicitor, Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle). Critics have dismissed this plot twist as mere device—yet another obstacle to forestall the inevitable (which it is)—but it also serves to build upon the series's treatment of marriage. Mary and Sir Richard both see their partnership in terms of mutual advantage: he wants her class and beauty; she wants his money and power. By contrast, Matthew's engagement to Lavinia is predicated on mutual self-sacrifice: she nurses him when he returns from the front, promising herself to him even though he's gravely injured, and he, in return, feels pledged to her, despite his growing feelings for Mary.

Mary and Matthew ultimately receive an education in marriage and love. Idealism and practicality must temper one another. Mary, who has heretofore suspected the worst of herself, realizes that her desire for financial security and social position in marriage do not require her to sell herself to the highest bidder, while Matthew comes to moderate his more selfless views about marriage and forgives Mary for her earlier hesitancy at the prospect.

A Larger Stage

But the Austenian marriage plot of Mary and Matthew is not intended as the main subject of Downton Abbey. The show has grander ambitions to chronicle the demise of a class and the end of an empire. In some ways it is loosely based on the history of Highclere Castle, the majestic, thousand-acre estate that serves as the series' filming location. Like Downton, Highclere was saved by an influx of cash when the earl—in this case, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon—married a beautiful heiress, with the unbeatable name of Almina Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of Jewish financier Alfred de Rothschild. The eighth Countess of Carnarvon shares this family story in her Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, a work the countess admits upfront is "not a history," a biography, or a work of fiction. This leaves tactfully unsaid what the book actually is: a somewhat abashed product tie-in. The countess (a friend of Julian Fellowes) dutifully mines her subject's life for every possible link to Downton Abbey, while judiciously omitting some of the dodgier bits of family history. (For the dirt, you'll have to turn to William Cross's very entertaining and very unauthorized account, The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon.) Like the Crawleys in Downton's second season, Almina and her husband ran a convalescent hospital for wounded British soldiers out of her house during World War I. And like the Crawley daughters, Almina gave up dinner parties for nursing, albeit while wearing a chic uniform of her own design (a dress of "fine wool in a cheerful crushed-strawberry-pink").

For all its purported historical accuracy, however, Downton Abbey doesn't have much to say about World War I. The war simply provides a larger stage for its play-acting—not unlike Lady Almina queening about in her nursing costume. As with much historical fiction, world events are allowed to intrude only as they affect the lives of the characters, but the result is that the war gets reduced to the same plane as the series' other plotlines: it's another impediment to the Mary/Matthew romance; an opportunity for self-actualization for the younger Crawley daughters, Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay); a source of marital friction between Lord and Lady Grantham.

This diminution of the Great War is reinforced by the series' multi-story structure, in which time is violently compressed to accommodate all the various plots and subplots of the 20-person cast. It's with a start that one realizes that the events of the first season—Matthew's arrival at Downton, his wooing of Mary—span two entire years: from the Titanic disaster in April 1912 to Britain's entry into the war in August 1914. The second season is even more telescoped, opening with 1916's Battle of the Somme and ending with the Spanish flu pandemic. (By episode six, the war is over.)

At the start of season two, Lord Grantham (with the advantage of the screenwriters' hindsight), gloomily predicts that the coming conflict will change everything, yet Downton stays remarkably the same amid all the historical upheaval. Even the actors don't age. When Matthew and Mary toast the coming year of 1920 in the series' 2011 "Christmas Special," they are still young and beautiful, seemingly untouched by the hardships of the past six years—most of which took place off-stage, in any case.

Hidden Beneath

Just as the horrors of war are absent from Downton, so too is the relentless physical drudgery of downstairs life. The series' opening montage shows the servants in constant, unobtrusive motion, straightening the silver, lighting a lamp, and dusting a chandelier, yet the workday at Downton seems downright leisurely compared to the morning routine described by Margaret Powell in her sharply observed domestic service memoir, Below Stairs, first published in 1968 and recently re-released:

rise at five-thirty…, come downstairs, clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate…, clean the steel fender and the fire-irons…, clean the brass on the front door, scrub the steps, clean the boots and shoes, and lay the servants' breakfast. And this all had to be done before eight o'clock.

Apart from the long and grueling hours of labor, Powell is treated with appalling cruelty by her various employers throughout the years. One lady of the house excoriates her for passing the day's mail by hand rather than from a silver salver: "Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone could think you were so low that you couldn't even hand them anything out of your hands." Another makes Powell change her name because "Margaret" is too grand for a kitchen maid—an act of imperviousness one can easily imagine from Downton's Dowager Countess, although we are never allowed, probably by design, downstairs at her house.

To say that the show's cozy relations between servants and toffs are unrealistic is an understatement. Yet the show is not as sympathetic to the crumbling class order as its critics contend; indeed, its ambition is to show how and why that class structure fell apart, to reveal the rot hidden beneath the handsome façade. The trouble is that all its gestures in that direction verge on cliché: the servant desperate to rise out of service, the firebrand chauffeur whose radical politics are intended to remind the audience of the era's political unrest (at one point, he explains Ireland's Easter Rising to one of the more progressive Crawley daughters), the defiant maid whose dalliance with a British officer leads to pregnancy and dismissal from Downton. The Crawleys may not tyrannize over their servants, but it is clear that their old "life of changing clothes and killing things and eating them," in the words of Matthew's do-gooder mother, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), is well over. Certainly, no one in the series declares, as Powell does at the end of her memoir, that

I don't particularly envy rich people but I don't blame them…. Those people who say the rich should share what they've got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin; it's only because they haven't got it they think that way. I wouldn't reckon to share mine around."

Return to Form

Can Downton Abbey, like the Crawleys, recover its lost fortunes? Downton's second season disappointed with its overly broad historical and social commentary, but season three promises a return to form—and old themes. The season premiere is practically a reboot of season one: poor financial planning will cost the Crawleys their estate…but for an unexpected inheritance headed toward Matthew, which puts him and Mary at odds over the competing values of family and tradition, personal integrity and happiness. New characters arrive to shake things up, including Lady Grantham's brash American mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), who provides a breath of fresh transatlantic air as well as yet another target for the Dowager Countess's hand-crafted barbs. Even the tragic romance of Anna and Bates gets a dash of intrigue as Anna turns detective to clear her husband's name.

What's most promising, though, is the third season's recalibration of tone. Downton Abbey remains a story of adjusting to changing times, but it has returned to being a comedy of manners rather than a sweeping historical saga. Storylines are found in small moments rather than big events, as the family continues to confront its central dilemma: should they stick to old ways and hope for the best, or should they embrace change? As a theme, it's admittedly less grand than the decline of the British class system and empire, but as another chronicler of country life, Jane Austen, once said, sometimes "[t]hree or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on."