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Downton Delirium

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Every former colony gets the nostalgia it deserves, its own longing for some relic of the departed empire or some compulsion to recreate its more outlandish idiosyncrasies. In Mexico, it’s the baptismal chapels encrusted with gold stolen from the ancestors of the infant whose tiny forehead is being sprinkled with holy water. In North Africa, the boulevards and cafes that signal, This is not the medina! In India, the Dickensian office culture, from the paper-choked bureaucracies of the post-independence years to the present-day call centres staffed by twenty-first-century male and female Bob Cratchits reading aloud from scripts to panicky or impatient voices halfway around the world.

We in the United States were British subjects for such a relatively short time, one might think that less of the mother country would have rubbed off on us and remained. In theory, we should have been comparatively free, to make ourselves up from scratch, to invent a style and fantasy unique to a nation of exiled cultists, grifters, cowboy entrepreneurs, deported convicts, slaveholders and slaves. And in a way, I suppose, we have.

Yet a base-level Anglophilia is constantly thrumming on, or just under, the surface of our culture, a nostalgia fueled by that particularly American strain of a deadly sin: British country-house real-estate envy. How it thrills us to imagine ourselves as the residents of a dwelling plucked out of our childhood fairy-tale books and adolescent fantasies. How elegantly those spires and towers rise above the local mega-mansion that we may have been coveting, and how effortlessly those rolling green lawns shame the vulgar bougainvilleas of a Beverly Hills movie-star hacienda.

Ishiguro’s novel and the Merchant-Ivory film version of The Remains of the Day were so popular here that the lovelorn butler played by Anthony Hopkins is still padding the hushed corridors of the American psyche. Not long ago, I watched Robert Altman’s 2001 Anglophilia is constantly thrumming on, or just under, the surface of our culture, a nostalgia fueled by that particularly American strain of a deadly sin: British country-house real-estate envy. Gosford Park, the British-country-house murder mystery given fresh life by Altman’s gifts and by a stellar ensemble cast. The screenplay for Gosford Park, which is played out against the backdrop of two exquisite country manors, was written by Lord Julian Fellowes, a novelist and screenwriter who has now given us Downton Abbey. Having completed its second season, the PBS television series has sparked another surge of Anglophiliac longing – specifically the desire to return to the manor to which we imagine we were born, and where we would still be living had our founding fathers not made all that fuss about a tax on tea, in what would prove to be a nation of coffee-drinkers.

Our post-colonial nostalgia has taken various forms, though there is often an overlap with Disney princess culture: the glamorous dresses, the enchanted castle, the handsome prince, the pumpkins turned into spectacular vintage cars. Once I read an entire article in Vanity Fair magazine trying to figure out what its subject had done; the answer was he’d been married to Princess Margaret’s best friend.

Like princess culture, Anglophilia is easy to commodify and sell. The royal wedding generated more attention (and presumably more prime-time ad revenue) than the Arab spring; newscasts here routinely featured some young woman and her mom who’d traveled from Sacramento in the hope of catching a glimpse of Will and Kate. It is generally well known, especially by the owners of New England luxury inns, that British Victorian décor is at once comforting and arousing, especially to women, though I have always failed to see the comforting or arousing aspects of a narrow bed so high off the floor you need a ladder to reach it.

In any case, our nostalgia for that imaginary past life spikes when things get rough – socially, economically, environmentally, let’s say the weather turns strange. It’s only natural, only human to want to return to a time when we could just all sit back and relax and let the royals decide. Oh, for the days when everyone knew who they were and accepted their social roles, understood what they were doing and appreciated the tea sandwiches without the tea tax. The seasons were the seasons, Christmas, spring, the weather was nice. And everyone, upstairs and downstairs, got to live in a fabulous house.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Americans who entertain upstairs-downstairs fantasies generally imagine themselves to have been part of the upstairs contingent. In that they’re like the intrepid who undergo past life regressions to find out that they were once pharaohs and queens, never pyramid-building slaves.

In 1970, I was out of the country; I remember clearly that in that year of social upheaval and political uncertainty, many letters I got from home featured news about the latest episode of The Forsythe Saga and the hunt for the Manson family. Now once again in our hour of need – looming elections, struggling economy, continued financial scandals, bail-outs and real estate foreclosures – how fortunate we are to have yet another British dynasty rescue us from our dreary or dread-haunted Sunday nights and install us, however briefly, amid all that luscious square footage. It’s no accident that Downton Abbey is named after the star of the show.

Much has been written about the programme that has attracted millions of viewers (almost five million in the US alone) in a hundred countries worldwide. Variant theories have been floated to explain its popularity, beyond the obvious, which is that everyone likes beautiful people and beaded dresses and fancy cars and not knowing if the headstrong lovers are going to get together or not. The looming question of who will inherit the Abbey resonates with Americans who at this point may prefer the antiquated, sexist, vaguely comprehensible laws of primogeniture to the chaotic, heartless and grabby dispossessions resulting from real estate swindles, subprime lending and so forth.

Perhaps the scariest theory is that one reason for the show’s unprecedented success among younger viewers and other habitual Masterpiece-Theater-avoiders And why are the lawns so verdant for so much of the year? It’s why my husband insists on calling the series Chlorophyll Downs. is that the series has made it all right to like rich people again. After all that confusing Occupy Wall Street stuff about the 99 per cent, it’s a comfort to be reminded that Lord and Lady Cawley are model human beings, benificent, generous, gentle, Gandhi and Mother Theresa with a few human quirks. A few weeks ago I mentioned this idea to a rather conservative Downtown Abbey fan, and his response – amusement, consternation, nervousness about the fact that I’d said the words ‘rich people’ in a rich person’s apartment – made me think that this theory might be partly true.

On the other hand, my own fondness for the show has (I can promise) nothing to do with any attraction to, or fascination with, the British peerage. The truth is, I’ve watched both seasons; a few weeks ago, at a Sunday evening dinner party, I found myself reflecting grumpily that I would have had more fun if I’d stayed home watching Downton Abbey, which I caught up with, the next night, on my computer.

By and large, I’m an easy mark for TV serials. When serials work, they can be great; Dickens would have been the first to note the inherent appeal of a form that ritually denies and then satisfies our curiosity about the outcome of a plot. If only in its ability to string us along from week to week, Downton Abbey is a bit like The Sopranos with a castle substituting for Tony’s New Jersey palazzo. It’s got fancier art direction, less sex, fewer people getting whacked, no humour, and fewer moments (actually, none at all) when the writing is as good as it is when Tony’s consigliere Syl Dante complains that his wife is an albacore around his neck.

For me, and I think for many Americans, much of what we find appealing is the Abbey itself. Highclere Castle, near Newbury, is a Victorian Gothic extravaganza combining Cinderella’s palace, the Mormon Tabernacle, Canterbury Cathedral and the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City. It’s the prize that every character is fighting for, mourning, or resisting. Several books have appeared documenting the history of Highclere, which was built by the third earl of Cararvon, starting in 1838. But nothing on the page can achieve what happens to our pulse when the cameras hurtle us towards the Abbey with all those violins throbbing. It’s like sex, maybe better than sex, many viewers might secretly think.

After a recap of the previous week’s events, the Abbey is the first thing we see, rushing closer. Then suddenly, blam, we’re in the house, like the sperm crashing into the egg, and we watch the rest of the show in a tranked-out post-coital languor in which our televisions, like thoughtful and unobtrusive attendants, are filling our cups with warm milk tea the instant they run out.

We love the house so much we’re willing to overlook a few reservations about details. For example, heating. Residents of inclement climates may wonder how the ladies can wear those diaphanous gowns at Christmastime. Even with the fire in the hearth, isn’t someone else’s nose turning blue? Is this California? And why are the lawns so verdant for so much of the year? It’s why my husband insists on calling the series Chlorophyll Downs.

It’s been remarked that everyone on the show is extremely nice: aristocrats, maids, cooks and butlers and footmen. The only unpleasant ones are the socially ambitious strivers, a few conniving or naive servants who scheme to rise above their station, and the vile newspaper baron Sir Richard, contriving to do the same thing but on a higher and more threatening level. But to complain that the show reinforces conservative and inaccurate stereotypes concerning social class only insults the intelligence of viewers (like myself) who obviously know that. It also misidentifies the problem, which has less to do with conservatism than with subtler and more troubling effects of the stereotypical: the way in which it reduces life to a drama we’ve already seen, a milieu inhabited by people we’ve already met--which means we don’t have to worry much about where we are or who anyone is beyond the social role.

If Downton Abbey is pretty good TV, or even good TV, but certainly not great TV (a category into which I’d put The Sopranos, The Wire, and Homeland) one problem may be that its characters are not only discouraged from crossing class lines but from doing anything that will surprise us. We can count on the precisely calibrated dose of satisfaction delivered by Maggie Smith playing a matriarch who has lived long enough to feel she can fire the censor between her brain and her mouth. We know there’s no chance of anyone uttering anything remotely like the equivalent of Syl Dante mangling Coleridge.

So what keeps us home on Sunday night (apparently there are Downton Abbey viewing parties, but I haven’t been invited) are fairly conventional questions of plot: Will our heroes and heroines succeed or fail? Reconcile or break one another’s hearts? Will the rebel daughter marry beneath her? Who will inherit the power and especially the house? We want to know what the characters will do, but once we have met them, we no longer have any questions about who they are, or what they will say. Whenever someone begins to speak, we can turn the sound off and provide the dialogue ourselves.

That divide – predictability and one-dimensionality on one side, surprise and complexity on the other – is partly what defines the gap between entertainment and art, which isn’t to say that art can’t also be entertaining. It’s what sets a show like Downton Abbey apart from the novels of Henry Green, several of which have certain surface similarities to the PBS series, most especially Loving, which takes place in a castle in Ireland during the early 1940s.

But beyond their country-house setting and their periodic swings between the mistress of the house’s plush chamber and the servant’s quarters, the two works could hardly be more dissimilar. One could compare any scene in Downton Abbey (from the most to the least dramatic) to any scene in Loving, a novel in which the drama is so quiet and, we feel, so lifelike that (unlike in the TV series with its nagging violins demanding our attention) a moment of distraction could mean missing some critical turn in the action. And any such comparison would rapidly reveal the vast difference in conception and execution.

Loving has many extraordinarily complicated and highly nuanced scenes in which the characters seem to unfold, revealing artichoke-like layers of depth, quirks and startling flashes of compassion or meanness.

One of my favourite interludes in the novel is one in which the most abject and frightened houseboy is allowed to accompany the two vital attractive maids to oversee the children playing at the beach; the maids flirt and toy with the young man, as he futilely tries to win their admiration or approval. Another memorable scene takes place in front of the hearth and involves a proposal of marriage that Edith the maid and Raunce the butler alternately drag and cajole each other into, a betrothal so potentially strangulated by the prospective bride and groom’s pride, love, fear and uncertainty that we fear it might not happen – and are deeply moved when it does.

Now that Downton Abbey is on hiatus allow me to suggest that you fill some of those empty Sunday evenings with the novels of Henry Green. Now that Downton Abbey is on hiatus allow me to suggest that you fill some of those empty Sunday evenings with the novels of Henry Green. And let me also suggest that you pause to consider the difference between the high-wire Edith and Raunce are walking without leaving their chairs in front of the fireplace with the melodramatic chain-yankings of attraction and misunderstanding that, through two seasons of Downton Abbey, keep Lady Mary and her true love Matthew apart. Both the TV series and the novel are set during a World War. But while the show confronts its occupants with the moral dilemma about whether to turn the Abbey into a hospital for the war wounded (we can bet they’ll do the right thing) Loving discloses some far more unsettling and provocative truths about the range of responses and reactions large and small, admirable and less so, unleashed by the anxieties generated by war, however distant.

I can close my eyes and visualize the castle in Downton Abbey. But though I have read Loving perhaps half a dozen times, someone could hold a gun to my head and I couldn’t begin to describe the house in which it is set. I could, however, track the nuances of the conversation in which Edith and her Raunce sit in front of the hearth, playing at being the lord and lady of the manor, and in the process discovering the greatest of comforts: that their affection is mutual, that neither is alone in love. Every time I read the book, this moment affects me with an intensity of feeling that all the green lawns, gothic spires and violins in Downton Abbey cannot wrest from the pleasantly narcotized stupor in which I am invited weekly to roam the chilly parlours and steamy kitchens of the high life, and the empire, we left behind. ■

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Comments (27)

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  1. Anshuman Singh

    Thu May 03 07:15:13 BST 2012

    Longing for the days gone by is somehow pregnant with pleasant thoughts, shiny days waving at us, fragrant evenings in the backyard with the warm cup of tea against the heaving chests... and they heave with expanse of belongingness.

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  2. seventydys

    Mon Apr 30 15:15:33 BST 2012

    In addition to Henry Green's sublime Loving, a possible cure for country house Anglophilia is to explore the Irish 'Big House' genre: Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September, a dark masterpiece set during the War of Independence, or John Banville's under-appreciated warped gothic tale Birchwood, perhaps.

    Or - if you require the full English - L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between is both lovely and lastingly bitter.

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