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Downton Abbey

February 16, 2011

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.

The Homophobia

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?

The Misogyny

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.

  1. February 16, 2011 4:02 am

    I laugh every time I see Maggie Smith in that picture. LOL!

  2. northernsea permalink
    February 16, 2011 10:39 pm

    Yeah, thanks for this. I can’t watch it for free because as they said ‘not available in Canada’. However, your ‘ David and Jonathan knitting session’ just made me laugh. I know what you mean by ‘using social anachronisms as a marketing device’. There are so many of them now.

    • February 17, 2011 12:07 am

      That’s too bad. I know the feeling, I still haven’t watched Larkrise to Candleford because each time I tried it said “Not available in your area.” Maybe your local library has a copy. A lot of libraries buy the Masterpiece DVDs. Of course who knows how long that will last, at least here in the U.S. There has been some grumbling about privatizing libraries. Can’t let the public benefit without making some corporate fat cat rich, you know.

      As far as the social anachronisms, I suspect they are being used in fiction similar to how revisionists distort history. Everyone knows how often the young will use film/movies as a substitute for history, so what better way than to convince whoever, —females, that they didn’t have it that bad, or, everything we see now is a product of a woman’s choice in the past. This can only be done because when most people fantasize about the past, they identify with the roles that are most glamorous. It is not that often one imagines themselves as the kitchen maid who has to get up before everyone else to light the fireplaces throughout the cold grand house.

  3. la redactora permalink
    February 17, 2011 2:09 am

    I wouldn’t expect much better from Fellowes. As far as I know he’s a baron, and a Tory–rather invested in wall-papering over certain things.

    But yes, it’s all about throwing meager ‘liberal’ coins out to the audience. I agree that Pamuk business was definitely rape. I laughed when he died (sorry, he dies immediately after raping the daughter of the house? Come on, that’s stretching it), and when he rebuffed Thomas.

    Watching the scenes with Daisy just stressed me out.

    I will watch just about anything with Maggie Smith in it.
    And I will certainly be watching the second series.

    Do you suppose you know who and you know who will get hitched (you should have had a picture up there with someone moaning on about the entail) ? Or will he have to fight in WW1 and come back with PTSD or something.

    • February 17, 2011 2:49 am

      Fellowes has a very small but outrageously smarmy part in the mini-series, Martin Chuzzlewit, and no matter how often I see his current picture I imagine him as that character.
      I just wish they would have clunked Pamuk’s head when they were moving his dead body. Although that is an old and overused joke when moving dead bodies it gets a chuckle out of me every time. Luckily, Lady Mary is not pregnant. That would have been a disappointment.

      Oh, and I just remembered it today, but I wanted to add to the misogyny portion about how O’Brien caused the miscarriage, but, I really didn’t have anything worth saying about it, other than it is hard to believe she is that evil. Actually, she is just cantankerous, not evil at all. So, in that respect I think Fellowes was melding Thomas and O’Brien a bit just so the only evil displayed wouldn’t be from a male.

      You think of the line and I will make the picture of them moaning about the entail. LOL!

    • February 17, 2011 2:53 am

      Oh, and Anna and Bates will so get married.

  4. la redactora permalink
    February 17, 2011 3:55 am

    Fellowes was also in Monarch of the Glen (a show which was as much of an embarrassment to itself as it was to television).

    And I meant would Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew get married, but Anna and Bates, yes them too. I couldn’t possibly think of a line about the entail though.

  5. ardath3 permalink
    March 1, 2011 2:52 am

    I just finished watching Downton Abbey. I enjoyed it very much. I agree with you that Thomas would not be so sexually aggressive: also, he is so malevolent and no hint of a reason is given. It’s almost as if the writers are using his homosexuality as the reason for his nastiness.

    I didn’t really like Lady Mary. She is so cruel to her sister and again, no reason is evident.

    The scene where she lies to Edith’s suitor is awful. Besides hurting her sister,she is hurting the man,who seems just older and dull. Edith hurts Mary,but she seems to have more reasons.

    I think the saddest scene is the one where Thomas shows Mr. Bates to his room-a barren garret and Mr. Bates seems so happy with it.

    I would have liked more character development,so we could know why the characters act as they do.

    • March 1, 2011 5:19 am

      Maybe the characters will develop more in the second series. Did you know they are making a second series?

    • March 1, 2011 8:57 pm

      As far as what Lady Mary does to Lady Edith’s suitor is exactly why I find the script unbelievable. To relegate those two women into a game of malicious [catty] one-upmanship totally undermines the reality of what they have been taught since birth. They know they must marry. They know this. They have no other means of an income other than marrying and remaining in their “sphere.” Something that weighs heavily of both of their minds 24/7. And as much as people like to pretend that privilege people are willing to sacrifice their sphere for some other purpose, including petty rivalries is ludicrous. I suspect pushing Lady Edith into the arms of Sir Anthony Strallan (old guy who seems somewhat tolerable) would give Lady Mary more satisfaction than knowing that without him, she has further burden her parents with a spinste3r daughter. The satisfaction for Lady Mary would come in the form of always throwing in Lady Edith’s face that she had to settle for her rejects. However, to deny her the rejects all the way is just simply asking the viewer to believe too much.

      Thanks for commenting ardath3.

  6. ardath3 permalink
    March 2, 2011 1:35 am

    I did know that a second season is in the works. You are right about Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Their malicious cruelty towards each other makes no sense in the context of their lives. They might hate each other,but they wouldn’t deliberately sabotage each other.

    As I watched the series,I wondered what the women did all day. Lord Grantham supervises the estate,but the women seem to have no occupation. They visit,ride,read,but it seems to be filling time. I guess you have to be born to it.

    I watched the clip about the making of the series. I was astounded at the number of servants. I suppose there weren’t many labor-saving devices. Also,maybe the “lord of the manor” had an obligation to provide work for the local people.

    • March 4, 2011 8:17 pm

      They made things for the chosen poor, —- shawls, blankets, etc. And they dried flowers.

      Whenever I see men spreading the liquid pesticides along the farm roads, I think about how much labor (and profit) the corporation is saving/getting. They could pay unemployed men to weed those areas instead of poisoning our water table.


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