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Exploring Downton Abbey

“Downton Abbey,” a crit­i­cally acclaimed British drama in its second season on PBS, depicts the lives of wealthy Edwar­dian aris­to­crats and their ser­vants. Heather Streets-​​Salter, a British his­tory scholar and the director of the grad­uate pro­gram in world his­tory at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, says the program’s high tele­vi­sion rat­ings are due in large part to our fas­ci­na­tion with the British way of life.

Why do British period dramas such as “Downton Abbey” appeal to the American audience?

One simple answer is that Amer­i­cans tend to be Anglophiles; at the most super­fi­cial level, they like British accents and British humor, which is slightly dif­ferent from that of the United States. You also can’t dis­count the fact that most of these shows are very well acted.

On a deeper level, though, Amer­i­cans have a fas­ci­na­tion with the grandeur of aris­toc­racy. The char­ac­ters in Downton Abbey were, by birth, born into par­tic­ular classes and had such dif­ferent lives and expec­ta­tions because of it. I think the tyranny of heredity fas­ci­nates Amer­i­cans. In a way, it’s exotic for us because the United States has prided itself on not having those kinds of hered­i­tary class relations.

What does our fascination with “Downton Abbey” say about American culture?

Fas­ci­na­tion with British dramas is not a new phe­nom­enon, but I think the fact that “Downton Abbey” is so suc­cessful has to do, in part, with the eco­nomic crisis that we’re in.  “Downton Abbey” begins, in 1912, just two years before the start of World War I. The first season ends with the start of the First World War, which, viewers know, will result in cat­a­strophic tragedy. There’s this sense that we know — but they don’t — that an era is coming to an end, and that this family is about to be plunged into the depths of the war.

I think Amer­i­cans — and the British — also like the fact that the pro­gram also focuses on the ser­vants. This kind of speaks to an Amer­ican interest in the working person, and it’s also slightly exotic because it feels very for­eign to us to imagine having an insti­tu­tion that func­tions on the labor of an army of ser­vants. Very, very few people live like that (or have ever lived like that), so seeing how those two worlds play off one another is dif­ferent, fas­ci­nating and intriguing — espe­cially when we see how some of the ser­vants manip­u­lated their employers for their own purposes.

More­over, the program’s wealthy aris­to­crats screw up just as badly as we all do, and in fact some of their screw-​​ups are even more cat­a­strophic as any of ours would be. In one story line, the oldest daughter, Mary, sleeps with a Turkish guest, who sud­denly dies. If her exploits had been dis­cov­ered, not only would her mar­riage prospects have dis­ap­peared, but also her entire family would have been dis­graced. Amer­i­cans are fas­ci­nated by the ways that the rich and suc­cessful can self-​​destruct — espe­cially from sexual scan­dals. We’re riv­eted by that notion of the higher you are the far­ther you’ll fall.

Why does the Edwardian era, depicted in “Downton” and in recent films such as “The King’s Speech,” draw so many viewers?

I think it has to do with that his­tor­ical precipice. Edwar­dians are rec­og­niz­able to us because they are buying auto­mo­biles and tele­phones and talking about socialism, but at the same time, they’re also rooted in 19th cen­tury tra­di­tions and moral­i­ties. We also love the cos­tumes and the mate­rial cul­ture, maybe more because we know that it’s all about to implode.

In terms of British his­tory, some of the com­pli­cated morals from the Vic­to­rian era come under ques­tion: the women’s suf­frage move­ment, for example, which began in the 1860s, was being dis­cussed by the wealthy and the poor alike — each trying to adjust to the meaning of women’s suf­frage for them­selves and their lives. Sexual morality, homo­sex­u­ality and tra­di­tional notions of honor and loy­alty were all being ques­tioned. It’s a period where even the people living at that time real­ized that there was a lot of change hap­pening, and I think that is a feeling we can rec­og­nize in our own time. The fact that the char­ac­ters in Downton Abbey did not know where that change was going is a pow­erful reminder for our­selves — fueling our fas­ci­na­tion for their predica­ments and how they man­aged to work through them.

– by Matt Collette

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