Whatever your views on the British class system, Downton Abbey is superbly written. I had avoided it for weeks until a box set found its way into our living room. More a fan of thriller, it was the craft of the thing which drew me in.
On the day I sat down to write about it, I came across this lovely piece:
Suzanne Kelman lists the importance of ‘characters we care about’. The plot twists are many but the inner world of the family and staff is the reason to keep watching: ‘people who are always growing, yet staying the same.’
Downton Abbey is like a great old novel; it contains the same workmanship and is endlessly entertaining. Here is my list of five traits which link it to the craft of the Novel (and why I think they make the series a classic.)
Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, is no stranger to the world he writes about. A member of the House of Lords, he knows his people, their concerns and responses. Whether it’s through life experience, research, fascination or all three, as writers we have a duty to find out and be real. Downton’s writer is unafraid of the complexity of his territory.
2. The Gothic
Not a nod to the Smiths and black lipstick but to the Gothic in literature. A big old house, shady dealings, subconscious elements threatening to destroy the balance, characters with Byronic passions and complex inner lives (Thomas Barrow, Lady Mary…) all add to a sense of darkness to offset the gleaming chandeliers and rolling lawns.
Beyond the frocks and hair-dos lie details about daily life in each unfolding age; new-fangled cake mixers, the telephone, London’s jazz scene. Sprinkle these through a novel and the reader is transported. In Downton Abbey they provide context and so nostalgia.
In every episode stands a timeless arc, the tying and untying of a plot knot. And, as in Hamlet, there is action within the action. Grave problems occur: a character has gone to prison, someone has died, or (horror of horrors) married into another class but there is also the grit of every day: souffles which don’t rise, unrequited affections, a stained apron. What they have in common is that the difficulty is presented and worked through. Downton Abbey is satisfying to watch because almost everything is solved. The same is true of a good novel (particularly in crime/thrillers) and the characters’ true natures are revealed in the process.
5. Nothing is simple or simplified
If you’ve read anything Victorian from Dickens to Jane Eyre you’ll be familiar with twists of plot intricate enough to fox the most steel-trapped mind. Downton is no different. Life sprawls. People create complication for themselves, for others. Things happen – it seems – for no good reason though mercies abound and importantly, characters are 3-dimensional. Fans of Maggie Smith may enjoy her one-liners but Violet Crawley has more than an acid tongue. It is her and her household’s motivations which are kept in centre-frame. And it is this – in my view – which takes Downton Abbey from standard series to classic. It doesn’t give the audience the luxury of sitting on our laurels and passing judgement. As in every good novel, we are let into the heart of the characters’ journey and asked to care.
With thanks to Kevin Oliver for the photo of ‘Highclere Castle’, Esparta Palma for ‘telephone’ and Lawrence OP for ‘Woodwoses at Avila Cathedral’: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/