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My Thoughts on Downton Abbey
Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Spending so much time both working and writing in the cave, I’m sometimes hopelessly out of it when it comes to what everyone is watching on television these days. My husband often saves me from complete ignorance by gifting me with an awesome movie or television collection. He struck gold again by bringing home the first season of Downton Abbey, the stunning Masterpiece production from Julian Fellowes (of Gosford Park fame).

In Downton Abbey, Fellowes once again highlights pre-World War II England, an ephemeral, gilded era that managed to hold on, however briefly, to both the ancient hierarchies of the aristocracy and the excitement of the technological age. It was a poignant, elegant period, and Fellowes is right to want to put it on the screen. For some reason, the era of the Titanic and electric lights shining upon people, furniture and houses that were created in the Victorian period is somehow magical—a little like the feeling I get from a steampunk. I’ve always had a love of this age, which is one of the many reasons I wrote Daring Time.

It was an era of confidence and enthusiasm, and yet there was a dark cloud growing on the horizon. (Perhaps that is the reason why the sinking of the Titanic, which is a significant plot element in Downton Abbey, is such a remembered, telling event of this age). The main character of Downtown Abbey is, of course, the austere, awesome estate and home itself. (I learned it’s actually Highclere Castle in Berkshire, England). Two different classes exist within the microcosm of Downton, two complete different social orders—one upstairs, and one downstairs—the ‘family’ and the servants. Fellowes’ genius, in both Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, is to equally highlight the downstairs and the upstairs world. By doing so, we see not only the fascinating workings of a ‘great’ house, but also hints of the social upheaval that was about to occur.

Downton Abbey is sexy, it’s smart and it’s truly a delight to the senses. The score is as gorgeous as some of the ‘upstairs’ lady’s dresses. (They change clothes three times a day, by the way, so the costume designer had her job cut out for her). The upstairs is ruled by the noble, kind Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his delightfully strong and outspoken American-heiress-wife Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). Cora and Robert had three girls, and were unable to provide the legally required male heir. The entailment requires that the entire estate, including the vast fortune Cora brought from America to the marriage, must go to a second and third cousin. However, when the two cousins are both killed upon the sinking of the Titanic, the vast estate legally goes to an unknown, middle-class solicitor whom the family doesn’t even know. It’s a stunning blow to the old family, and seeing how they work through the archaic law is fascinating stuff.

There is a ‘king and queen’ belowstairs as well as above, for the servants’ hierarchy is every bit as strict as the aristocracy’s. The ruler of this world is the butler, Mr. Carson, admirably played by Jim Carter, who I enjoyed in Cranford. Mr. Carson is fussy and strict, but as the story evolves, we see his rich, amusing history and his fair nature, and we come to care for him. The downstairs matriarch is the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan)—”she who carries the keys”. Once again, here is a character representative of the whole story—richly drawn, strong and sympathetic. The servants follow the goings-on upstairs closer than a soap-opera addict follows her favorite stories, but their interest goes beyond entertainment to the core of their very identities. Mr. Carson’s identity and pride is largely tied into the position and status of the family. However, as the tides of social change begin to sweep over the servants, we also see those who are bitter toward those they serve, vindictive and manipulative.

Power is distributed in a shockingly hierarchical fashion,and it’s fascinating to see how the servants subtly influence the family to get a desired result or how they backbite and scheme to move one step up on the servant social ladder. Thomas, for instance, the decidedly nasty and reptilian ‘first’ footman, is envious and bitter that an outsider is brought in to be the Earl’s personal valet, which would have been a step up for him. He plots to get rid of the interloper, both subtly using family influence, but also overtly, by planting stolen goods on the new valet.

I enjoyed every moment of this well-acted, well-written and beautifully filmed saga about a time period infrequently portrayed in books and movies. If you love period pieces, gorgeous costumes and scenery and love a well-told tale, I recommend Downton Abbey wholeheartedly.

The last scene of the season came at an elegant garden party. The Earl of Grantham receives a telegram and announces to the entire assemblage that England is at war with Germany. Change is afoot. I cannot wait for the new season.
My Rating: 5 stars

21 comments to “My Thoughts on Downton Abbey”

  1. Amelia
      · January 30th, 2011 at 12:09 pm · Link

    I enjoy some British tv shows and I’ll have to check Netflix for this one. Have you seen North & South, the British series? I recently watched it and there were the class differences, the roles of women in Victorian England and romance. Part of the show also centered around the rights of factory workers and unions. I really the enjoyed the performances of Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe.

  2. Beth Kery
      · January 30th, 2011 at 12:32 pm · Link

    Hi Amelia! I loved North and South, I actually reviewed it if you are interested. It was a terrific movie series, and the impetus for my Elizabeth Gaskell obsession a year or so ago. lol. I liked Cranford just as much, but I have to say…Downton tops them both in my opinion.

  3. Lea
      · January 30th, 2011 at 2:01 pm · Link


    Your review garners 5 stars in my book. This does indeed sound like an amazing series and one I will look up. Is it a BBC production? It certainly sounds like superior work..

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Beth Kery
        · January 30th, 2011 at 2:12 pm · Link

      My pleasure, Lea, and thank you! I think you’d love it. It’s a true treat. I’m watching it AGAIN already. lol. It’s actually Masterpeice, PBS. It plays weekly, I believe, in the U.K. Hub got me the whole first season at Costco for 14.99, which for this, is quite a steal, in my opinion. 😀

  4. Chelsea B.
      · January 30th, 2011 at 3:30 pm · Link

    I’ve been watching it on Master peice, and I have to say, it is so beyond fabulous I can’t even put it into words! Tonight is the last episode of the season (sob) and I *hope* Mary and Matthew get together or, at least, kiss 🙂
    Mary is hard to hate and hard to truly like; but I adore Matthew, and have been rooting for them as a couple! It’s so obvously he loves her. Sigh. Can’t wait for tonight! I might just have to buy the show myself to get me through until next season!

    • Beth Kery
        · January 30th, 2011 at 3:41 pm · Link

      Chelsea–is it the last tonight? Oh, see, I’m bad, because I know the outcome. Are you in the UK, or is it being played stateside? If so, let us know, to give people a heads up. Even to watch it mid-series is a delight, and they can always catch up on comcast, or a video, hopefully? It’s worth getting hooked on, even mid-story.

      I agree though. It’s magnificent, in the true sense of the word. It’s hard to hate Mary, I agree. I love the line with the Duke when he accuses her of apologizing to a servant. “I apologize when I’m wrong, it’s a habit I have.”

      I pity her and I hate her at times. But the snappy dialogue with her and Matthew at dinner about the princess being tied to the rocks for a sacrifice is just Austen-esque. I love it.

  5. Beth Kery
      · January 30th, 2011 at 4:13 pm · Link

    P.S. Chelsea–I’d love Mary and Matthew, but for some reason, I’m seeing hints of Sybil and Matthew on the horizon. You tell me what you think, after the last episode. There are some longing gazes from Sybil…

    • Chelsea B.
        · January 30th, 2011 at 10:05 pm · Link

      Sorry I saw this too late but yes, tonight was the last night. I’m in the states but wishing I wasn’t because I’m sure the UK will get the new episodes first 😉

      *SPOILERS* I hate that Mary didn’t agree to marry Matthew right away, or, you know, at all. Matthew needed some kind of reassurance, because on his side it’s so UNobviously how she feels. Mary is indeed a complicated character! As for Sybil– she is darling! She is definitely my favorite sister. But I hope she gets with…. shoot, I forget his name, but it’s the guy who drives her around. I think maybe the longing looks were to give Mary’s feelings more concret? To kind of say “Hey now, girl, you don’t OWN him. He could move on.” Maybe? I don’t know! And I hate that I won’t know longer still! 🙄 😛

      • Beth Kery
          · January 30th, 2011 at 10:09 pm · Link

        Ooh, I hear you. We shall see. 🙂

      • Chelsea B.
          · January 30th, 2011 at 10:40 pm · Link

        Oh! And I just have to say that I loved the part when Mary was talking with her mother, and the mother was like “Did you thank Matthew?” and there was a slight, awkward pause before she answered. Love it! I was thinking ‘Oh yeah, I think she thanked him enough….’ :mrgreen:

      • Beth Kery
          · January 30th, 2011 at 10:54 pm · Link

        Yeah, you got your kiss. ❗

  6. Danielle D
      · January 30th, 2011 at 5:56 pm · Link

    I haven’t seen this yet. I’m thinking of buying it.

    • Beth Kery
        · January 31st, 2011 at 2:11 pm · Link

      I think you’d love it, Danielle. Do you like historicals at all? You really don’t have to like historicals to like this. I was just trying to recall if I ever hear you talk about historicals…

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Jane
      · January 31st, 2011 at 12:55 pm · Link

    I loved it. I heard they were doing a special Christmas episode that will air after series 2.

    • Beth Kery
        · January 31st, 2011 at 2:09 pm · Link

      Oh, really? How awesome is that. An Edwardian Christmas Downton style. That ought to be worth seeing.

      • Bridgette
          · September 9th, 2011 at 6:55 am · Link

        I believe they did a similar Christmas episode with the series “Cranford” another wonderful British slice of life series. 🙂

  8. vashti
      · January 31st, 2011 at 9:41 pm · Link

    dear beth, just finished explsive and loved it. now to downton abbey, totally addictive, can’t wait for the next season

    • Beth Kery
        · February 1st, 2011 at 10:11 am · Link

      That’s awesome, Vashti! Thanks so much for letting me know.

      And yes, Downton is addictive. 🙂

  9. hope67
      · February 6th, 2011 at 10:43 pm · Link

    I absolutely cannot stand Mary. She is selfish, a snob, and I agree w/ Edith (“a slut”). Mary doesn’t deserve Matthew b/c clearly he is her superior in politeness, charm, honesty, and intellect. Although I agree Mary and Edith can both act childish over winning men, Mary is the eldest and should act as the role model for her youngest sisters- but instead, she engages in an immature battle w/ silly flirtations w/ Sir Anthony and Matthew. I agree- Sybil is my favorite sister and I hope the other sisters can act more like her when it comes to acting more mature when it comes to behaving like a lady around men (she is very polite around the chauffeur). Mary just bothers me- I don’t like how she thinks she is God’s gift and believes she can get any suitor she wants- b/c in my opinion, she isn’t sensible when she gets jealous (which happens often). Matthew deserves someone better and I think Mary deserved any heartbreak b/c it was self-inflicted.

    • magie
        · March 10th, 2011 at 9:02 pm · Link

      :))))) please cool down. It is just a film. I liked Mary as she is imperfect, but headstrong. I think that perhaps because of her shame of the relationship with Kamal P., she was hesitant toward Matthew. She was ashamed of not being honest with him, and at the same time, fearful of being honest and losing him.

      Have a good evening

    • Bridgette
        · September 9th, 2011 at 6:58 am · Link

      I agree Mary had all these qualities but it made her multidimensional….unlike the series portrayal of homosexuals, which was very flat….they were tossed off as ‘troubled souls’ and their behavior was all reprehensible, let’s hope in the sequel we would get a wider variety…. 😉

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