Full disclosure: I have never read a Jane Austen novel, my forebears were murderous mountain Scots, not British dandies in ascots, and my Old Vic was an uncle who drank.
Nevertheless, I’m hooked on the BBC period drama “Downton Abbey” and I think I know why: “Downton” mirrors the financial and cultural turmoil of our times. Just with better hats.
For the uninitiated, “Downton Abbey” (carried on the PBS network in the United States) begins in 1912 on the selfsame fictional Yorkshire estate of the Earl of Grantham, a position currently held by Robert Crawley. Like many strapped British aristocrats of the day, Robert kept the place afloat by marrying a wealthy American heiress, Countess Cora, with whom he fathered three daughters.
|“Downton Abbey” cast. Image courtesy ITV.
Since women cannot inherit under British law, family pressure quickly falls on eldest daughter Mary to find a suitable husband. The likely candidate is distant cousin Matthew, a solicitor from Manchester who has mixed feelings, both about Mary’s motives and ascending to the aristocracy in general. Alas, all of their best-laid plans go awry with the outbreak of World War I.
What makes “Downton Abbey” so addictive is how series creator Julian Fellowes subtly weaves our current money miasma into his story lines to create a cheeky resonance rare on the small screen.
Robert and Cora? They could easily be today’s baby boomer parents, stunned by the financial impact of the housing bust and trying to make their wealth stretch to the next generation. Be glad you don’t own a manse.
Cousin Matthew’s turmoil over leaving his life as a lowly 99%er to join the 1% throws a shout-out to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Younger sisters Edith and Sybil take jobs for the first time in much the same way many U.S. families have had to adapt to hard times. An Irish chauffeur’s pursuit of Lady Sybil straddles the crumbling wall between the classes.
There’s even an arch poke at our fascination with electronic gadgets in the Crawley household’s tentativeness toward that baffling new invention, the telephone. Sadly, soldiers returning from foreign fronts disabled, disfigured and disoriented from shell shock are all too real today as well.
You don’t have to look far to find the secret behind “Downton Abbey’s” success.
It’s all around us.