It’s hard to explain why I love Downton Abbey so much. Objectively, I see that the show was basically a glorified soap opera and that, by the third season or so, it wasn’t even a good one. I see how ridiculous some of the plot lines were and how blatantly anachronistic some of the attitudes were. But somehow these characters wormed their way into my heart in a way that usually only characters from a book can. I love these people. They’re my friends.
Now, before you have me committed, I’ll clarify that I know that Lady Mary, and Lord Grantham, and Anna and the rest aren’t real. I know that they live only within the confines of each episode and exist not at all beyond that. I know that Lady Mary wears the face of actress Michelle Dockery whose life and inner turmoil mean nothing to me at all. I know that Brendan Coyle (who plays Bates) isn’t actually in love with Joanne Froggatt (who plays Anna). I know all this. And yet, I love them.
Mostly it’s the romance. The beautiful, sweeping, dramatic love between characters like Mary and Matthew, Branson and Sybil, Anna and Bates. Even the quieter love stories of Lord and Lady Grantham or Edith and Bertie Hexham. There’s something about these passionate, gushy, melodramatic romances that is both totally unrealistic and completely and utterly true. No one really behaves like that, but we all — if we’re lucky — feel it.
Downton Abbey captures perfectly the big, beautiful, powerful emotions of falling in love, and traps them in a world in which passion, sexual freedom, and public displays of affection are all taboo. Matthew’s passion for Mary trembles beneath the surface of his dignified good manners. Anna’s growing love for Mr. Bates must be held in check by the dictates of propriety. The deep and time-tested love between Robert and Cora — on display in the privacy of their own room — is felt in every gesture, look, and word but never vulgarly displayed.
Add to that the numerous additional roadblocks which Downton creators throw in the paths of their characters and the romantic tension reaches fever pitch without a single explicit sex scene. Matthew’s unwillingness to be with Mary because of his sense of duty to Lavinia’s memory, Mr. Bates’s refusal to be with Anna because he’s married to someone else, Lady Sybil’s fear of what would happen if she ran off with a servant. All these roadblocks further require that big emotions be kept in check, kisses stolen, resolve tested. And, to my mind, it’s far more romantic than if they all just leapt into bed with each other at the first hint of attraction.
The characters’ indiscretions — like Mary’s disastrous encounter with Mr. Pamuk, or Edith’s affair which resulted in an illegitimate child — are not celebrated as acts of “freedom.” They have consequences, and the characters learn to be more circumspect. Even the instances where characters chafe against unfair societal rules — like Sybil running off with Branson, or Thomas looking for love — have consequences that the characters have to deal with and make decisions about. The drama, and the passion, and the heartfelt conclusions of all these love affairs comes from the fact that the characters live within a society in which sex is an act between husband and wife and love is not always enough of a reason to be together.
The world of Downton Abbey is, of course, not the real world. Though the costumes and the sets may be period accurate, the acceptance with which the characters face each other’s transgressions — assuming the character is good at heart — are much more modern than the early 20th century setting. Nevertheless, it’s a world in which the drama comes from the characters’ adherence to a set of rules that is largely lost to us in the current cultural narrative. And yet — and yet — we all love Downton. That ought to tell you something, oughtn’t it?
Want more Downton Abbey? Check out my conversation with Classically Abby about the Downton Abbey movie!