British period dramas have been the staple fare on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS (now Masterpiece Classic) for decades. It is easy to see why they selected Downton Abbey to open their celebratory 40th anniversary season. A huge hit when it aired in the UK last Fall, this new four-part Edwardian drama is set in an English grand manor house before the opening of WWI. Never one to turn down a superbly-acted, multilayered and opulently produced period drama with bonnets, this series created and written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) was top on my list of must see TV for the season.
Staring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith and a large and impressive ensemble cast, the axis of the plot centers on English inheritance laws and the present Earl of Grantham (Bonneville) and his wife Cora’s (McGovern) efforts to advantageously marry off their three daughters, Austen-style. Even though this drama is set one hundred years after any of Jane Austen’s famous novels, viewers will see similarities in social stricture, culture, and in writer Fellowes’ gentle nod to Austen in plot and dialogue. Along with the drama of the upstairs residents of Downton Abbey, Fellowes gives equal measure to the downstairs servants whose lives, though devoted (or not) to the family they serve, are as complicated and mesmerizing. Here is a synopsis of episode 1 from Masterpiece.
Recap of Episode 1 (spoilers):
It’s 1912, and life in the Edwardian country house of Downton Abbey is idyllic and bustling for the Crawley family, aided by their cadre of servants. Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) along with Robert’s mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) have lived largely uncomplicated lives.
But the sinking of the Titanic hits home in an unexpected and dramatic way — Lord Grantham’s heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick have perished. It’s personally agonizing (momentarily) for daughter Mary who was supposed to marry Patrick. On a grander scale, suddenly all the predictable succession plans have gone terribly awry, and unheard of questions now loom large — Who will be the new heir to the earldom? And what will happen to this distinguished estate, now in jeopardy? Mary’s grief is short lived as she sets her sights on another suitor, the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox).
As the drama unfolds among the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, changes are happening amidst the servants as well. John Bates (Brendan Coyle) has arrived as a new valet for Robert, but he has a pronounced limp, potentially making him unfit to perform his duties. Also, Bates seems to have some previous link to Robert, and a murky past. And, someone else in the servant’s quarters is darkly entangled with the fortunes of the family he serves.
Despite much angling and consternation, the course of action emerges — a new heir presumptive will soon arrive at Downton. As Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the heir presumptive, and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) arrive, the emotions of the onlookers range from anxiety to outright antagonism. But in crisis there may be opportunity, and Matthew is considered as a suitor for Mary. Yet, nothing is quite as it seems in the changing landscape and shifting fortunes of Downton Abbey.”
The opening episode of a series is always a fact finding mission for me. Introduction to characters and motivations are key, and Fellowes gives us a great hook, the entail. Readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will be well aware of this legal term. The Bennet family of five daughters and no son is bound to it also in the early 1800’s. The heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s father has inherited his estate and it can only pass to a male heir, the odious Mr. Collins. This is part of the English primogeniture law, “the right, by law or custom, of the first-born to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of younger siblings.” This of course, even in 1912, still means that only males can inherit property. Since the Earl and Countess of Grantham had three daughters and no son, the estate must pass to the next male in line, which is the Earl’s first cousin James Crawley and then to his son Patrick who is also Mary’s fiancé. When they perished with the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the family is thrown into crisis.
When the Earl married American heiress Cora Levinson in 1889, she brought with her a great dowry that was absorbed into the estate at her father-in-law’s insistence. This cash infusion saved Downton and ensured its future. Now that the estate must pass to a complete stranger, Cora would like the money from her marriage settlement separated from the estate, and sides with her mother-in-law Violet, the Dowager Countess, for the entail to be broken so that her daughter Mary can inherit. Robert, the Earl of Grantham is hesitant and defensive when his mother question his motives and incredulously asks if he cares about Downton?
“What do you think? I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim not career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes. I do care.” – Lord Grantham
Prompted by his wife and mother he does seek legal advice, but is torn between his family’s wishes and the fact that removing the money from the estate would destroy it for the next in line, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), his third cousin once removed. It would mean the end of Downton as he has known it. When his wife Cora also pressures him to pursue legal recourse he again defends his position. “Downton is in my blood and in my bones. And I could no more be the cause of its destruction than I could betray my country.” All of the indecision and speculation puts Mary’s social position and marriageability in limbo. She wants to be an heiress like her mother, and she also wants to inherit the estate. She is enraged that her father will not fight for her and instead invites his legal heir Matthew, a middle-class lawyer, to move to Downton. She thinks that the inheritance laws, and the new heir are a joke. Everyone has their opinion on the matter, especially the Dowager Countess who has joined in a temporary alliance with her daughter-in-law, the American outsider, to fight for her granddaughter’s rights and the future of the estate.
Downton Abbey’s family struggles may seem like a breeding ground for a soap opera slosh in period finery, but Fellowes and the three directors Brian Percival (North and South 2004), Ben Bolt (Ashes to Ashes), and Brian Kelly (Monarch of the Glen) never turn to the melodramatic and the excellent actors take the tone very earnestly. Most intriguing in this first episode was the juxtaposition of the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century culture and technology. The world is changing a pace with the introduction of electricity, automobiles and women’s suffrage. We have older characters like the Dowager Countess and the butler Mr. Carson with a firm foot in the past resisting change and the younger generation like Mary pushing social dictums to break the entail and inherit property. When the new heir Matthew shockingly announces to the family that he will continue working as an attorney (horrors, no proper gentleman works) and devote his weekends to learning his new duties at Downton, it prompts the Dowager Countess to ask what a weekend is? Ha! Not only does this irony offer a hearty laugh, it drives home how differently the privileged life of an aristocrat is from the majority of their countrymen, and the world.
Downton Abbey is comfortably familiar period fare, yet so well written it is innovative and wholly engrossing. The second episode airs on Sunday, January 16th at 9pm ET. (check your local listings) I for one am totally entranced. If any movie producers are in doubt that costume dramas are passé, you can come find me in Seattle wearing my “What is a weekend?” t-shirt!
Images courtesy © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com