Costume Cool.

The world, it seems, has Downton Fever.

And who can blame them? I started watching this series when it debuted last year on Masterpiece on PBS. This is hardly surprising, really, given my love affair with Masterpiece. I had heard of it; I keep myself abreast of what’s going on in British television since it’s generally better than American. But because I knew my beloved Masterpiece was picking up the series I put off watching it until it aired here. Had I known I would become so completely absorbed I wouldn’t have been able to wait. As it was, when series two started airing on ITV in Great Britain I had to watch it early. I couldn’t help it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not watching it again every Sunday with my mother. Essentially, Downton Abbey is about an English manor home and the people who live and work there, both gentiles and servants, in the early part of the twentieth century. Downton Abbey belongs to the Crawley family; Earl of Grantham, his American wife [married when money became tight] and Countess, Cora, and their three daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Edith, and Lady Sybil. The story begins in 1912 with the new of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15th. On board were the heirs of the Earldom so feelers are thrown out to find the next in line, cousin Matthew Crawley, a lawyer. Matthew is brought to Downton, and given a cottage to live in for the time being, where he begins to learn a life of leisure, a jarring experience for a man with a profession.

Matthew Crawley

At the same time Lord Grantham’s new valet arrives at Downton Abbey, John Bates. The Earl and Bates were acquainted from the army, where Bates was wounded and acquired a limp. Bates’ arrival causes some upheaval with some of the staff taking an instant disliking and feeling resentful. But Bates and housemaid Anna soon find themselves falling in love in one of the cutest love stories ever.

Bates and Anna 

My mother is obsessed with Bates. So much so that when I got my US Weekly last week and showed her the article written about the show, specifically the women of the show, she was distressed to discover that, while there were pictures of both Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley, there wasn’t a photo of Bates. Perhaps this is just more representation of class struggles. Maybe they just ran out of room.

I, on the other hand, have more of a soft spot for the gentiles. Always have. It’s likely that I always will. Their lives aren’t as fraught with trials and tribulations that come with being poor or being subserviant, it’s true. In fact, I can understand how viewers might find them slightly annoying given their predilections for lying around in chaise longues and bemoaning that there just isn’t anyone rich enough to marry. [Note to English teachers of my past: That is not literal, nor was it literal in Our Mutual Friend. These chaises are figurative.]But I am not one of these people. I love stories about old aristocracy. Especially in this time period, it’s likely Brideshead rubbing off on me, when the world was changing from antiquated to modern and an entire way of life was disappearing in front of them. That struggle between what always has been versus what is on it’s way.

Lady Mary Crawley 

Matthew and Lady Mary, for example. I love them. At the beginning of season one I found myself thinking Mary was… well, quite a pain the ass. She was entitled and obnoxious, a snob. But as time went on I found myself liking her more and more. She initially balks at the idea that she should marry Matthew. He has a profession, after all. But as time goes on they become friends, and then more than friends. And when a terrible mistake caused them to part I was sort of depressed about it. I couldn’t have even imagined what heartache season two would give me.

Lady Sybil Crawley (and her harem pants)

Lady Sybil is another favorite. Sybil’s the third Crawley daughter who sees their way of life as old fashioned. She’s interested in politics and being useful, even accompanying the chauffeur to a political rally in season one. And who can forget the night she came down to dinner in harem pants? In season two Sybil comes into her own. Wanting to be useful she asks the cook, Mrs. Patmore, to teach her how to cook and then enrolls in a course on nursing. As time goes on she realizes she can never go back to the way things were. And, of course, there’s Branson, said chauffeur, an upstart Irishman who’s modern sensibilities make him see himself equal to Sybil as a human being. He makes no bones about how he feels about her and tells her he’ll stay at Downton until she agrees to run away with him. Epic romance? Probably not. But they’re very, very cute together.

And none of that is even mentioning the costumes. Sigh.

Sybil, Mary, and Edith in their fabulous costumes 

And their ridiculously beautiful house.

The titular Downton Abbey. Highclere Castle in Hampshire is used for filming. 

I recently watched the film War Horse. I hadn’t really intended upon it because I am more than unusually sick of three things; Steven Spielberg, war movies, and animal movies. Considering this was guaranteed to be a trifecta I said I’d pass, even publicly made fun of it on Facebook. But then there I was with the ability to watch it and a spare Sunday afternoon. I am ashamed to admit that I loved it. It’s all too typical but that horse was just so damned personable. Not to mention his role virtually served to show the World War I [far more interesting of the two at this point in my life] experience from many different viewpoints sort of like that twenty dollar bill in 20 Bucks. All this may seem entirely besides the point, but I assure you there is one. Early on it becomes clear that fighting a modern war in antiquated ways is impossible. You know, when the English army charges in on calvary and discover they’re no match for German machine guns. You see? This is a metaphor for that entire time period.

This lesson is not missing from Downton Abbey. In fact, it could be argued to be the point. World War I is not missing from the series. At the end of the first season it’s clear we’re standing on the eve of war and by season two most of the men have already been shipped off to France. But Downton mostly focuses on what goes on back at home. With the hospitals overrun Downton Abbey is turned into a convalescent home for officers [more examples of class struggles here, of course, since officers tended to be from the more well to do sector]. Lady Sybil becomes a nurse and wonders if she can ever return to the way things were. Lady Edith does a lot of person growing when she sets herself in charge of non-medical comfort for the wounded men. The Countess is delighted to see herself in charge of something more important than setting a luncheon menu for the first time probably in her entire life. The scullery maid, Daisy, finds herself torn when a former fellow servant wants a promise of her hand before going off to war. And just to add a little extra something meddling former footman, Thomas, as put in charge of the convalescent home for the army. The point I’m trying to get at here is that the war touches everyone in some way, and not just because they have to get by with a little less due to rationing. It’s a whole new world and some fling themselves into it headfirst and others drag their feet, afraid of what the changes might mean.

There are two more episodes to air on PBS, Sundays at 9:00pm. But, PBS online streams episodes, as does Netflix. I can’t recommend it enough. Especially if you like costume dramas.  

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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