Currently, you can watch Downton Abbey online (free) until February 22, 2011. Please don’t confuse my surly commentary to mean I regret watching Downton Abbey. I did not, and I have watched it more than once, however………..
Downton Abbey is not a rewrite of a work penned during its time, but a story created from a living author, Julian Fellowes. It seems to be becoming a trend for contemporary authors (screenwriters) to write period dramas with an overwhelmingly contemporary spin. Using social anachronisms is a marketing device to seduce the young (pomo crowd) into being interested in period dramas. To catch the fancy of the celebrity following culturist, art must replace reality with real imagined reality. It is the real imagined reality in which we all are judged in real time. Therefore, today’s art is defined as the beautiful people and what delightfully delicious imbroglio they construct. Downton Abbey is the art our vacuous culture demands, and Julian Fellowes happily delivers just that.
There are two gay male characters in Downton Abbey and both are villainous, quite. The lesser of the two is the Duke of Crowborough who we learn had a sexual fling in London with the Dowtown’s First Footman Thomas. Thomas is the second evil gay man whose every waking hour is dedicated to making Othello’s Iago look like milquetoast. Apparently, there has been some letter writing between Thomas and the Duke. Letter writing is always the über-evidence of debauchery in period dramas. So much so, that when Jane Austen died, her sister Cassandra burned most of Jane’s correspondence out of a knee-jerk reaction to duty.
Footman Thomas is audaciously ambitious and seeks to use the letters to obtain his goals. The Duke was not born yesterday. As he is welcomed to Downton Abbey for the sake of courting the oldest daughter, Lady Mary Crawley who is no longer in line to a fortune, the two flirt their way up to the attic where the servants are housed, and the Duke steals the letters out of Thomas’ highboy right under Lady Mary’s naive eyes.
Later that night when Thomas attempts to blackmail the Duke by dangling the letters over his head, the Duke produces the stolen letters, throws them into fire and invites Thomas for one last David and Jonathan knitting session. Thomas declines, and exits in a huff. Of course, once the Duke finds out that Lady Mary will not be getting any money or land, he suddenly has business in America and does not have a foreseeable return date.
Meanwhile, Thomas is on the prowl. Any man with a reputation as a dandy is potential prey for the footman, hence, one of the two biggest social anachronisms written in the Downton series. No homosexual man in 1912-1914 would dare be so flagrant about his homosexuality, enough so that elision tells us that even the Cook somehow knows Thomas is not the right man for Daisy. Thomas takes a great risk when he is acting valet for the visiting Turk, Kemal Pamuk. He physically makes a sexual move. Pamuk, in perfected Dame Edna pantomime responds with “’YOU FORGET YOURSELF!,’…. however, I can pretend like none of this happened if you show me the way to Lady Mary’s bedroom, tonight.” Thomas being of the nature of always looking out for numero uno, lights a lantern and shows the rapist the way.
Yes, yes, I say rapist, pipe down. Here is why. Regardless of how much Lady Mary mopes around the next day or will never forget Kemal, he raped her. Moreover, he knew what he was doing too. All she does is comply enough in order to live with her lack of choice. When he enters her room, she threatens to scream. Kemal reminds her of the imminent scandal her scream would trigger. He refuses to leave. Her “choices” boil down to convincing herself that she is consenting to sex or suffering a scandal, a scandal that would make her un-marry-able. Is that really a choice?
Of course, it is all misogyny. It is always misogyny. However, there are two big glaring examples of misogyny that are hard to ignore. Yes, yes, Fellows, typical to good pseudo-liberal-male-“feminists” throws a few bones to satisfy the “fun-feminists,” such as Gwen’s desire to leave service and become a secretary, pounding away on her hard earned typewriter, and Lady Sybil’s insistence on wearing pants and going into town and hanging out with the rabble-rousers. Oh, and an occasional comment from Lady Mary about how times are changing, such as her naïve belief that a blueblood will consider marrying her even though rumors claim she is less than “virtuous.” Rape is the fault of the woman, of course.
The biggest display of misogyny comes in the form of who starts the rumor about Lady Mary. Lady Edith, Lady Mary’s younger sister overhears Mary and her mother talking about what happened the night Kemal goes into Mary’s room. We are expected to believe that Lady Edith takes this information and writes a letter to the Ambassador of Turkey telling him all about Kemal and Lady Mary’s indiscretion. Yes, sisters can be enemies and some sisters do terrible things to each other, however, Lady Edith knows the value of reputation and desperately understands how she must marry. She bends over backwards to make herself appealing to cousin Matthew (how droll can a day of church touring be?) and is readily available to humor Sir Anthony Strallan.
Thus, what Fellowes expects us to believe reveals the second humongous social anachronism of the Downton series. The whole thing absolutely lacks verisimilitude. Fellowes relegates two sisters to nothing more than petty and jealous individuals who will sacrifice everything and anything to reap havoc on the other, although both understand completely that reputation is everything. Without a good reputation neither can expect to marry well, —the only acceptable vocation available to them. Maybe today, in 2011 when one member of a family breaches social decorum, the family can successfully cut that person out and continue unscathed, but that is not how it functioned in 1912-1914 aristocratic circles. First, there is no way the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley would not have heard all the rumors being sung through London about his daughter. There would be men dying to stick it to him by telling him in the name of, “Just thought I would let you know.” Remember there was no television and/or internet; people had nothing to discuss but what they talked about last night or what they read in a letter that morning. And second, how pathetic to promote the moral character of Napier at the expense of Lady Edith. Do you honestly think if a man came to you (the way Napier approaches Lady Mary) and said, “Oh by the way, those nasty rumors about you being a whore was not from me, but from your sister,” you would thank him for being such an upstanding gentleman when a true (stereotypical) gentleman of the time would have acted as if he had never heard about the rumors much less confront the subject of the rumors and humiliate her in her face?
Nevertheless, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton are truly satisfying to watch.