Brian Brown: Why Masterpiece Classic thinks I should have liked it…and why I didn’t.
If you have a Facebook account, you’re probably used to seeing regular status updates about Downton Abbey from your friends, even if you don’t watch it yourself. It’s quite popular in America, and a number of people have written articles trying to explain why. I think I’m safe in saying many of the British TV show’s viewers would describe themselves as obsessed.
The expectation with this kind of show seems to go like this: people wear old clothes, have British accents, and deal with class and romance. Therefore, it’s like Pride and Prejudice and Americans will eat it up. The BBC apparently thinks Americans are a bit stupid this way, as Wives and Daughters, North and South, Jane Eyre (repeatedly), and a variety of other movies and miniseries since Colin Firth hit the screen have followed the same formula, at least in their marketing. It also seems that the BBC is right, as most movies with the formula consistently attract the same viewers.
But granted that the façade is the same, the works are substantively very different, and they don’t always contain the things that have made Jane Austen movies and books so enduringly popular. The question for me is: how does Downton hold up against the Austen formula?
What Makes Austen the Standard?
Austen was popular long before the 1812 gowns had gone out of fashion, and even longer before the problems of class and manners had faded away. The appeal, contrary to what the BBC’s writers might think, goes deeper than that. For a longer look at why I think Austen is popular today, read “Why Men Like Jane Austen” from a year ago. The short version, in my view, is this: Austen writes fantasy stories set in normal life.
Fantasies are moral tales; they show good versus evil in a way that shapes how we think about them in our own world. Austen does that without the flashing swords and heroic rescues; she does it in an environment that is far enough from us to work as a fantasy but everyday enough to hit home. Austen writes intensely intimate stories about people; their personalities and integrity (or lack thereof), their strengths and weaknesses, and so on. There’s a lot of social commentary, but it’s always done in the form of a character who exemplifies a particular trait she wants to highlight. For Austen, characters and character go together.
Austen’s stories show an ordered moral world where the more flawed characters (like Emma and Marianne) are just like us, the downright bad characters are people we can boo and hiss, and the less flawed characters (like Col. Brandon and Anne Eliot) are something we can either aspire to (or aspire to marrying…yes, I know your thoughts, ladies). A girl who wants to be like Princess Jasmine can only dream away; a girl who wants to be like Elizabeth Bennet can start this moment. An Austen story is a bit like a conversion experience; it meets you where you are, and then it asks something of you.
Write Romantic Lines, Add British Accent, and Stir Well
Other British-accent costume dramas, despite the Austen-like packaging, often use characters very differently.
The adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels are especially conspicuous in that respect. North and South, for example, is the antithesis of Austen. After watching the BBC’s recent adaptation a few weeks ago, I observed to my wife that there were really no villains in the story. In a subsequent conversation, a friend pointed out that in a way there were really no characters in the story. N&S is about social changes, first and foremost—people are incidental, so personalities exist only insofar as social backgrounds have created them. Gaskell puts aristocrats and merchants, rich and poor, town and country, English and Irish in the same cage and jostles them against each other to see how they respond. The result is characters with limited depth, a love story with limited appeal, but a fascinating view for policy wonks like me. Gaskell might have social insights, but she does not have moral insights. (Update: for a fairer and more detailed review of Gaskell, see Back to the Bookshelf’s review.)
As for Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte hated Austen’s work. She wrote emphatically differently; if Gaskell erred too much on the social forces side of things, Bronte erred too much on the emotional side of things. Her stories are so personal that every room has to be described in its smallest detail, every feeling a character experiences has to be cross-examined and usually acted on—a feeling’s very existence is its own legitimacy. Bronte is a Gothic author; passion is everything. She only meets you where you are if you’re a particular kind of person, and she stays there. As a result, her work lacks the almost universal approachability of an Austen novel (where nobody keeps mad wives hidden in their attics) and doesn’t ask you to take anything back from the fantasy world to the real one.
Where does Downton Abbey fall in this scheme of things? Somewhere in the middle, I think. Like Gaskell’s work, the story rides on social change; it’s set around World War I when the British aristocracy was more a formality than anything else. But like Bronte’s work, it’s about passion, and few people seem to be able to hold theirs in check. It’s not quite as Gaskell as Gaskell, but neither is it quite as Bronte as Bronte. And because of how it approaches the dual issue of characters and character, it’s never able to provide the kind of timeless value that would make us enjoy it generation after generation.
Julian Fellowes, the writer, likes to use characters to drive plot. In Austen, character is the plot. The difference is that Austen’s characters can provide insights into life, whereas Fellowes has to use them to keep you coming back for the next episode. As a result, characters are inconsistent, and there are few if any that you can admire. They all sacrifice their morals, their principles, and their integrity as characters in order to keep the plot moving. (This is hardly surprising from the writer of the deplorable Gosford Park.) Here’s the ironic part: making characters that unpredictable actually makes them predictable. Once we realized plot twists either came from clichés or from characters doing the opposite of what you’d expect given their moral makeup, my wife and I got rather good at predicting “surprise” twists.
I think there’s a reason Fellowes is so comfortable working with characters that have no consistent moral center (even a bad one), which is simply that he employs a thoroughly anachronistic moral relativism that is normal for 2012 but absurd for 1918.
Fellowes clearly understands the stereotypical elements of the time period, like class warfare and social shifts (if one more person uses the phrase “things are changing” as an excuse for an opinion or action, I might smash the TV). But unlike Austen, he doesn’t see character (good or bad) as definitive of anything, so he has no problem manipulating it to further the story. A 21st-century moral mindset pokes its head into an early 20th-century world whenever there’s a difficult moral decision to be made—people turn away from extramarital sex because it’s “not fair” to the other cheater, they decline to take a mistress because “that’s not the right path for you,” they refuse to pursue a marriage because they feel guilty about a past lover. But nobody shies away from the wrong decision because it’s wrong.
This presents two problems. One is historical: I’m pretty sure somebody believed in right and wrong back then; it wasn’t all about subjective class values. The other is literary: the story provides none of the enduring moral or spiritual insight that is the mark of a classic. It might meet you where you are, but it doesn’t ask you to change. Hardly any character does what, say, a Mr. Knightley or an Elinor Dashwood does: restrain his passions because it’s the right thing to do, stand up for the right decision when it puts his own happiness at risk, and help us see our own world a little more clearly. (The near-exception would be Mr. Bates, but he lets himself get pushed around so easily by everybody that he doesn’t quite have the same moral authority as a Knightley.)
I can read two pages of any Austen novel, or for that matter two chapters of any Harry Potter book, and be a better person for having done so. I spent hours and hours watching Downton Abbey over the course of a week or so. I got invested in character after character, enjoyed the period drama, delighted in Maggie Smith’s delicious performance, appreciated the music and the costumes, and enjoyed almost getting lost in another time and place (Fellowes’ bizarre yet clichéd plot twists kept preventing total immersion). But I’m not a better person for a minute of it.