Lately, I’ve come across a TV gem. I know, it doesn’t happen that often because…well…it’s TV and designed to rot your brain. But once in a while there’s something educational AND fun. I know! It’s like a party in your head. Or at least it is in mine.
Downton Abbey. I don’t know how I came across it. I started hearing about it sporadically in entertainment news and then saw a season on Netflix. Next thing I know I’m scouring the Internet and TV for all three seasons. It’s awesome.
I’m a fan of historical fiction. Usually this comes in the forms of books—see current book club pick, A Morning Gift—but the occasional movie or TV show is welcome. Downton Abbey is a TV series that takes place in early 20th century England, right around World War I. If you know anything about the British aristocracy—thank you Jane Austen—then you know that its power is really starting to wind down by this time. After all, the 1920s were less than 100 years ago. The middle class is getting richer and the aristocracy, once thriving on land, are running out of money.
Downton Abbey is about an aristocratic family, the Earl of Grantham, his wife, and his three daughters. The estate is going to be entailed away from his children because there is no male heir (and how old-fashioned is that law anyway?) and now it’s a struggle for Lord Grantham to provide for the family sufficiently in the event of his death. And with girls, this means marriage. Again, thank you Jane Austen. It bears a striking resemblance to Pride and Prejudice, except that the distant cousin and heir in Downton Abbey, Matthew Crawley, is far superior to Elizabeth Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins. In fact, Matthew Crawley might be my favorite character.
The series doesn’t bypass the peons, either. The servants and their lives make up a good part of the storyline and provides more excitement than the problems of the aristocrats. In many cases the Downstairs and Upstairs combine and clash in interesting ways. Because that pesky serving class has really taken a step up by the 1900s. Soon they won’t settle for half-day offs anymore and complete subservience.
Furthermore, this all plays out against a scenic backdrop and a period of time where the past and present seem to crash into each other with the enthusiasm of freight trains.
An added bonus? The earl’s distinguished mama and the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, is played by none other than Maggie Smith, known by most of the young generation as Professor McGonagall of the Harry Potter series. In Downton Abbey she’s a spunky spitfire with an interest personality mix of traditionalist tendencies and modern ideals. She’s quick, witty, acerbic, and an absolute pleasure. If you want to picture those big English manors that you only read about, check out this series.