The Times They are a-Changin’—in Downton Abbey: How a British Historical Drama Speaks to Us Today

This post profiles a television series every writer of fiction should follow. Downton Abbey airs on PBS on Sunday evenings. Check your local listings.

In the 1960s, American folk legend Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They are a-Changin’.” He could easily have been talking about a current British television drama set more than 40 years earlier—Downton Abbey.

I recently tried to describe this outstanding series to two friends who were looking for something to watch on TV. These friends, both older women, prefer to spend their leisure time watching football games. Unfortunately, I barely got to describe one of Downton’s more vivid characters—the upper-crusty Violet, dowager countess of Grantham—before they decided the show wasn’t for them.

The British are Coming . . . Again

On the surface, the show isn’t for everyone. Why should most working and middle-class Americans, for example, care about an imaginary family of British nobility and the servants who wait on them? After all, didn’t we fight a revolution to get away from these people and their rigid social system? Why invite them back into our homes, even if only on our TV screens?

Well, because we can learn a lot from Downton Abbey in terms of how the characters react to the changing world around them. As the central character, Robert, earl of Grantham, said in last week’s episode, such changes can leave one feeling like an animal forced to flee its habitat or face extinction.

Robert should know. He presides over one of England’s great houses (a castle, to us Americans), the fictitious Downton Abbey. Robert is descended from England’s old-line aristocracy. His household includes an American-born wife, three grown daughters, and a small army of servants who look after their every need.

And therein lies Robert’s initial problem: lack of an heir.

British law at the time forbade estates and titles from being passed down through female lines. Thus, none of Robert’s daughters could inherit Downton Abbey. What’s a poor earl to do? Find a distant male relative to one day succeed him.

Enter Matthew Crawley, whose great-great grandfather happened to be the younger brother of one of Robert's forbears. Matthew, a handsome young lawyer, was raised by his widowed mother, Isobel—an outspoken woman devoted to social causes such as helping the poor.

Suddenly these two very middle class people find themselves elevated to life among the aristocracy. (In American terms, this would be the equivalent of winning the lottery.)  But it’s hardly a smooth transition. The inevitable culture clash ensues.

Getting to Know You . . . and Not Like You Very Much

If all of this sounds like a U.K. version of Dallas, the iconic American series about the schemings and dealings of a wealthy Texas oil family, it’s not. While Robert and his kin are used to being on top of the world, they are basically decent folk. 

The series does not need a maliciously evil J.R. Ewing to spice things up (though a couple of servants do fit this bill). Conflict evolves more naturally from characters coming into contact with people who are not like them.

For example, when youngest daughter Sybil elopes with the chauffeur, Tom Branson, scandal ensues.

Then there’s Matthew and eldest daughter Mary. Typical of most TV dramas, these two very pretty people are “made for each other” yet their very different upbringings and worldviews (not to mention World War I) have, until recently, kept them apart. Even their marriage, which kicked off the third series, did not alleviate tensions over inheritance.

Tradition . . . Good and Bad

The story lines give equal time to the “upstairs” Crawley family and the “downstairs” servants.  However a trait shared by most characters and which might unsettle some Americans is that almost no one wishes to upset the social order. For example, Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, have spent their entire lives looking after the Crawley family. They resist change most of all.

Yet change must come. Servants employed at the great house may be better off than some, but not everyone is so fortunate. One maid, Ethel, loses her job and winds up a single mother eking out a living as a prostitute. The genteel British social order made no room for women like her who fell through the cracks.

Downton Abbey is a complex and entertaining series that teaches us a lot about history and also about where we are going. The world of Downton Abbey has experienced enormous changes from the sinking of the Titanic to women's suffrage. So, too, is our world changing. Issues such as gay rights frighten a lot of people. They represent a break with the way things "have always been."  

But while the show does not offer easy solutions, it suggests that embracing change leaves one better off than avoiding it. 


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