The Trouble with Downton Abbey

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. Masterpiece Classic 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 MC 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–specifically, in how they approach characters. And on this front, not only does Downton not hold up to Austen, it’s an insult to lovers of Austen and other great British stories.[sociallocker]

Austen

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 Downton’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, take a different approach to characters.

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, as portrayed in the miniseries, is about social changes, first and foremost—people are incidental, so personalities exist only insofar as social backgrounds have created them. The Gaskell adaptation 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 herself goes deeper than that–as usual, the book is better than the movie; see Back to the Bookshelf’s review.)

As for Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte hated Austen’s work. She wrote emphatically differently; if Gaskell’s adapters erred too much on the social forces side of things, Bronte erred too much on the emotional side of things (at least in this man’s opinion). 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 hugely important. Bronte still deals very much in moral dimensions, but only a specific kind of person can relate to her books and her characters–which is why Jane Eyre lacks the almost universal approachability of an Austen novel (where nobody keeps mad wives hidden in their attics). Not only do film adaptations of Jane Eyre focus on this emotional intensity, they typically overemphasize it and create ostentatiously Gothic romances.

In each case, the film adaptations of these classic stories aren’t as good as the books. This is true for the Austen stories as well; the Austen films are more chick flicks than the books are chick lit. But all of them manage to capture some of their author’s moral insights–for Austen, personal interactions and social structures reveal character; for Gaskell, social forces do so; for Bronte, deep emotions and incredibly difficult situations do. In all cases, a character’s character, a character’s identity, is tested and developed and drawn out, and the reason we can enjoy them so long later is that human nature doesn’t change.

Downton Abbey

Where does Downton Abbey fall in this scheme of things? At the point where a strikingly different approach to character meets contempt for the audience. Like Gaskell’s work, Downton’s 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.

This post was originally published on March 2, 2012. [/sociallocker]

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

31 Comments

  • March 2, 2012

    Susan Soesbe

    Ah… you hit the nail squarely. Thank you. That moral relativism was dressed so deliciously I had a hard time recognizing it. I think I am so used to handicapping secular media that I take its worldview for granted. I am the proverbial frog in the saucepan.

    The dialogue is also getting more cliche-heavy, I have noticed. “I’ll be the judge of that,” etc.

    Have you noticed how much more quickly the scenes move, compared to shows made even ten years ago?

  • Brian Brown
    March 2, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Susan, thanks for your kind words. Scenes definitely move quickly these days, although I noticed a similar trend more with Downton Abbey–the habit of cutting away whenever somebody’s about to say something important. It’s not just that the SCENES move quickly; it’s that the SHOW moves quickly, even if it means one incomplete scene after another. Again, just like your observation about cliches in the dialogue, this has gotten more common as the show has progressed.

    Of course, Austen liked to leave some of the most important stuff to your imagination too….

  • I hope you’ll give Gaskell another chance. She has great moral and human insight in Cranford

  • Brian Brown
    March 2, 2012

    Brian Brown

    I will! North and South was my first foray into Gaskell, my wife keeps telling me Wives and Daughters should be on my to-do list, and I just realized BBC had done Cranford yesterday. I haven’t given up on Gaskell by a long shot.

  • March 5, 2012

    Emma

    Just a quick correction: Downton Abbey isn’t made by the BBC. The idea that 20th Century subjects should be judged by 18th Century formulas is peculiar, to say the least.

  • Brian Brown
    March 5, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Emma: why? Masterpiece Classic (thanks for the correction) has no problem making shows and miniseries that follow 18th century literary formulas–what is peculiar about judging them on the standard they set up for themselves?

    And is it any more peculiar than making shows about the early 20th century that exemplify values from the 21st century that didn’t exist at the time (which is what Downton does, particularly in season 2)?

    Downton tries to be a domestic fantasy story in the best tradition of British literature (see the post for what I mean by “fantasy”). It intentionally taps into that vein. But it doesn’t deliver. Where domestic fantasy gives us moral perspectives that are a healthy mix of the time period and the timeless, Downton gives us moral ambiguity that ignores both.

  • March 13, 2012

    ladylavinia1932

    [“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.”]

    Are you speaking for yourself? Because as a fan of “NORTH AND SOUTH”, I certainly do not agree with you.

  • March 19, 2012

    lolo in central mo

    My DEAR Mr Brown, I have been an avid fan of soap operas since I was in high school over 40 years ago, and I can spot a soap opera a mile off. Downton Abbey is a soap opera. Yes, it’s set in the early 20th century. Yes, there are yummy costumes and wonderful sets. Yes, the characters speak with a British accent. But at its heart, it’s just a plain old soap opera, and soap operas are not meant to be anybody’s “guiding light” as far as morals go. Quit searching for what’s not there. You’ll drive yourself mad, I tell you.

  • Brian Brown
    March 20, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Thanks for your comment. While I certainly defer to your superior knowledge of soap operas, I’m not sure that’s what the show set out to be. That’s not what the creative team behind it is known for, and that’s not the vibe I got in the first season. I think it set out to be a serious show about people dealing with major changes in the world around them. Once they hit the second season, however, all bets were off–it’s definitely a soap opera at this point.

  • March 26, 2012

    Adrienne

    Like 90% (not a scientific estimate) of television today, Downton Abbey is not aspiring or even claiming to be a show steeped in moral traditions filled with characters worthy of admiration. It is entertainment pure and simple. If one is going to flip on the television (or internet) in the first place, they should not expect to be made a better person by watching a drama series (especially a British one). Perhaps at one point in TV history that would have been the case, but we are decades past those good ol’ days.

  • March 26, 2012

    Christine Miller

    The show did begin to feel like a soap opera in the last season! One development that seemed utterly out of character was the Earl of Grantham entertaining infidelity. The man portrayed up to that moment would never have let himself do such a thing however much he may have been tempted! Your observation about the rampant moral relativism of 2012 being inflicted upon our previous century is spot on and, sadly, makes the show a fantasy rather than a real look at the past that actually existed.

  • March 28, 2012

    Caitlin Barr

    “…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.”

    I don’t think the kind of un-philosophical moral absolutism you’re describing here is a whole lot better than the moral relativism you eschew. I think very few people, even those who believe in a clear moral right and wrong, avoid doing anything “because it’s wrong.” Things are wrong for a reason (or, more likely, a myriad of reasons). It’s those background reasons that usually truly compell people to act rightly.

    An extramarital affair, for example, isn’t simply wrong because it’s wrong, it’s wrong because it harms the dignity of marriage itself, hurts the spouse, does damage to the soul of the cheating spouse on a number of levels, etc. etc. AND objectifies (ie disregards the human dignity of) the fellow cheater. In this case, the most compelling of these reasons to Lord Grantham (or at least the one he chose to share) was the last.

    And to suggest that Elinor restrained her passions simply because it was “the right thing to do” flattens her as a character. She restrained her passions for a whole host of complicated emotional and moral reasons: the social conventions that prevented a woman from “making the first move,” her fear that her feelings weren’t reciprocated, and her care and concern for Lucy and more.

    Acting on specific, personally compelling reasons does not necessarily make somebody a moral relativist; it may mean that their moral framework is grounded in complex reasoning.

    I’m not defending Downton Abbey’s moral authority – it really is just a really lovely soap opera – but questioning the bright line you’ve drawn between those who act on purely moral authority and those who act for more specific reasons.

  • Brian Brown
    March 28, 2012

    Brian Brown

    I didn’t intend to draw a line between decontextualized morality and relativism. I intended to draw a line between morality of any kind and relativism. Put analogously, my “good guy” would be Elizabeth Bennet, and you’re suggesting she’s Mary Bennet.

    It doesn’t bother me that a character can have more than one reason for doing or not doing something. What bothers me is (1) the almost total lack, by the end of season 2, of admirable characters; and (2) the fact that the way the characters approach their decision-making is utterly anachronistic.

    In the first case, good heroes have what the Brits used to call “moral sentiments;” highly developed instincts about right and wrong decisions, good and bad decisions; they can process many reasons for what they do, and context is crucial, but they don’t lose their moral center. By contrast, Downton’s characters have no moral center; even characters like Lord Grantham who are set up as uber-heroes can proceed to the next episode and do something utterly out of character, merely to further the drama.

    In the second case, I’m not about to overly romanticize past eras as if people then were perfect (for one thing, no Austen lover can fail to recognize that 90% of her characters are not admirable in the least). But every time period had its own mindsets, conventions, attitudes, and ways of thinking about things. Downton is set in the 19teens, but often when there’s a moral crisis, the characters use 2012 logic. “It’s not fair to you” is an excuse for breaking up with your boyfriend; it’s not moral thought, it’s ridiculous for a 1920 character, and it certainly isn’t heroism.

  • April 12, 2012

    Trudy Brasure

    Oh you must read the book (North and South) not just watch the adaptation. The main characters are more fully developed and you can see Gaskell’s moral commentaries clearly. No villains? Precisely! There’s no need for a flat ‘evil’ character. It’s more realistic for the ‘villain’ to be the mistakes we or others make, or the events and circumstances that are beyond our control. The characters make choices, and by golly, they valiantly strive to do what is right at every turn.
    Downton Abbey leaves me slightly entertained but not excited. It’s much too melodramatic and predictable. Are there any moral lessons? Guess not. Maybe with Anna and Bates?
    It’s just a soap opera in gussied up costume drama with a slight nod to those ‘quaint’ notions of honor, moral integrity, and duty.
    Oh, and btw, N&S was never marketed to the US. It never aired on Masterpiece Theater nationwide. A pity. Everyone should know the amazing Mr. Thornton. (The Gaskell character, not Mr. Armitage, delightful though he may be.)

  • May 10, 2012

    Michele Harvey

    To be honest, I don’t think Downtown even merits this kind of scrutiny. It is truly a soap opera with Masterpiece Theater quality clothing and lovely actors. As you pointed out in a comment, it also has Maggie Smith. As they say in the comics-winning! You are right, of course, in your reflection on the difference between Austen and Downton, but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s addictive and fun. Often I relish the opportunity to feel elevated by my entertainment, but I don’t need every program or book to be improving. Alas, that makes me shallow. I will admit that I first loved Austen for shallow reasons, but I’ve come to love her for so many deeper ones.

    The adaptation of Cranston is well worth watching, so don’t give up on it. In the world of adaptations, consider it the equivalent of small ball in baseball. “Things are changing” in Cranston’s world as well, but the adaptation at least reveals the impact of these changes with a deft and kindly hand. I think you will enjoy it.

    I must speak up for Jane Eyre. Really? I oughta slap you! Yes, it does indeed appeal to a certain type of reader, someone like me. Of course I’m overly romantic and easily swept away by love stories. Were I not, I would not still be reading juvenile fantasy literature at this late date. I also would not love Jane Austen half so well-let’s be honest. However, where I have loved Jane Eyre since I was a child, reading it first in about 5th grade, I despise Wuthering Heights. The reason for that is simple. Jane Eyre has a moral soundness that Wuthering Heights, written in the same era by a woman who grew up in the same family as Charlotte Bronte, lacks. People love Wuthering Heights because it seems like a swoon worthy eternal love story, to which I can only reply, “Yuck.”

    In contrast to WH, Jane Eyre gives us a romantic love story made more romantic by the repression of it. When it is revealed to Jane that her husband to be lacks moral character and is already committed elseswhere, she sacrifices her passionate desires and romantic love for Rochester to honor her morals. She follows her morals, not her feelings, and she leaves Rochester forever(as far as she knows). She only returns to Rochester when he is free of his marriage and is no longer the sweeping, brusk, passionate man he once was. They can be reunited because they followed the rules.

    The choices Jane made can be read on another level as well. Jane is true to herself, a modern idea indeed(or post-modern, I never really know). She does not allow herself to be mastered by her emotions, despite the desperation she feels to be united with her lover. She also resists the pressure from St. John to submit her entire nature to a loveless marriage and a life of service on the mission field. This seems very realistic to me, considering the options available to women of the era. Bronte draws a sad, vivid picture of the life of a governess that emphasizes how very bold and true Jane’s character is. Remember Jane Fairfax in Emma is horrified by the possibility of life as a governess. Her fear is not simply the fear of losing the man she loves by taking a governess position, but a real aversion to that life. At least, I believe so.

    Perhaps I have not been changed or improved by reading Jane Eyre repeatedly; perhaps my husband has not either. We both love the book and I think we learn more from it with each rereading. That’s my defense of Jane Eyre, for now. Didn’t intend to write so much. Quelle surprise, eh?

  • May 10, 2012

    Michele Harvey

    Here’s what I should have written: I love Downton Abbey. You’re mean. I give you permission to read this comment and skip the longer one. Oh, and don’t hate on Jane Eyre.

  • Brian Brown
    May 10, 2012

    Brian Brown

    🙂 Hi Mrs. Harvey!

    Maybe I overstated my case slightly re: Jane Eyre with this last line: “…[she] doesn’t ask you to take anything back from the fantasy world to the real one.” I didn’t intend to say that Charlotte’s story has no moral underpinnings; I prefer Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights for precisely the reason you outlined. But I stick by the rest of what I said; both Bronte sisters write in a hyper-passionate style in which we can only discern tough choices when they’re extreme to the point of being crazy; for example, passionate but sinful love with the guy who keeps his other wife in the attic vs. passionless but drab coexistence with an unbelievably boring missionary. It’s the English-love-story version of knights, princesses, and dragons–of fairy tales. And you can unquestionably learn very basic virtues from fairy tales (“courage is good,” “be true to yourself”), but they lack the earthy subtleties something like Austen offers, which allow you to grow in very practical paths of maturity, prudence, etc. More importantly, perhaps, Bronte virtues take place within a story type and a writing style that can only meet you where you are if you’re a specific kind of person (as you mentioned, a romantic) or in a specific kind of mood. Comparing Bronte to Austen in this respect is a bit like comparing a David Crowder song to How Great Thou Art–you can only sing the first if you’re in a particular mood; the second is universal.

    That doesn’t make Bronte a bad writer (though I can’t say the same about Crowder!), and I could certainly write a piece on the moral virtues of Bronte…but there’s no point writing such a piece, because Bronte’s moral virtues are hit-you-over-the-head obvious due to the black-and-white, intentionally fairy-tale world she creates, and the fact that she’s writing for a very specific audience that she knows will get what she’s saying. Austen, on the other hand, has inspired book after book, essay after essay, blog post after blog post…and been popular with everybody from modern girls to soldiers in the trenches of World War I…because there are fathomless depths to plumb.

    I should also add that I’ve watched Cranford and Wives and Daughters since I wrote this piece. Still haven’t actually READ any Gaskell, which means I really have no business commenting. But as far as the miniseries go, I enjoyed all of them. Cranford irritated me a bit; I thought it could have been half the length, and the moral of the story until the last 20 minutes seemed to be “nobody ever gets married even if we have to kill of everyone to achieve it,” but the ending was definitely touching, and the social dynamic of the women was absolutely fascinating.

  • October 12, 2013

    Anna M

    Though I’m not on board with you bashing North & South or even Jane Eyre (both of which I like in their own right, if not in same way as Austen), I am very grateful that you haven’t fallen prey to this obsession with Downton Abbey! Its all 21st-century characters walking around pretty buildings in meticulously researched clothing. And instead of locating the show in its historical period by grounding their characters in the social, intellectual, and moral framework of the time (as you point out), the writers instead establish their historicity by centering character and plot developments around “Big Issues of the Day” (along the lines of those identified by the bullet-points in an 8th-grade social studies textbook), things like Women’s Rights, Irish Nationalism, and the Sinking of the Titanic. To me it gave off the same effect as a blue screen image of the Eiffel Tower flickering behind a movie scene supposedly taking place in Paris. Everyone recognizes that you are trying to evoke Paris, but no one would say that you captured the spirit of the city. This morning’s news headlines and your daily outfit never capture your experience of a day, so why would they capture someone’s 100 years ago? So, partly because I’m a historian and partly because I want to see genuine characterizations of real people, I couldn’t put aside these deficiencies and just enjoy Downton as a soap opera playing dress up.

    (Well, maybe I could have done it, but I also hated the way the sisters tore one another apart, so I had no desire to watch past Season One.)

  • Brian Brown
    October 12, 2013

    Brian Brown

    I was definitely unfair to Gaskell and Bronte in this off-the-cuff piece, particularly in my judgment of Gaskell (whom I hadn’t read) based on a movie. (Though I still have my pet peeves about both authors.)

    Great point about Big Issues of the Day–shallow and dumb. And I think part of why Downton bothered me in that context is that I was SUPPOSED to like it. It didn’t initially bill itself as a soap opera playing dress up; all the Austen fans, all the literature lovers, “my sort of people” were supposed to like it. Then instead of meeting me with the kinds of things “my sort of people” appreciate, its “depth” was just thin layers of Big Issues of the Day.

  • October 12, 2013

    Anna M

    Yes, I totally agree with you about the expectations that I was SUPPOSED to like this show because I like Austen and period drama. I have never received so much flak for NOT liking a show, because everybody expected me to love it, and almost everyone else in my life did love it. So many dear friends led so astray… 🙂

    Thanks for writing this piece, Brian, and for giving a space for me to air my own old grievances!

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