My Facebook "friends" are, generally speaking, a pretty placid lot. But that wasn't the case recently when someone posted her immediate reaction to the death of a much-loved Downton Abbey character. The Washington Post faced a similar reaction when they published a "spoiler" without alerting its readers.
What is it about this show that seems to have this nation gripped? Even our husbands are riveted. Could it be remembrances of times past when Lady Cora was the succulent redhead Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime? Or maybe they are fixated on entering a bygone era when once upon a time being Head of the Household was more than a status on a tax form. Women deferred to them, children obeyed them, and there was always a cute little maid on hand to stoke their fire. Or perhaps they are simply undergoing a weekly tutorial on mastering the art of tying a Windsor knot.
And as for us women? Are we, I wonder, living vicariously in a home that is paradoxically bursting with books, yet devoid of clutter; a world where the annual Mother's Day treat of breakfast in bed is a daily ritual, the dresses gorgeous, the footmen even more so, and no matter the calamities that may occur, there is always time for a picnic?
Even in times of war, when one's house is overrun with wounded warriors, one must never forgo the opportunity for a shooting party on the grounds. The fact that the said grounds are probably littered with injured veterans trying to recoup and rifle shots are liable to bring on post-traumatic stress disorder goes as unnoticed as the bar of soap O'Brien placed alongside Lady Cora's bathtub.
Branson & Sybil.
Downton Abbey also appeals to youngsters—unfathomable, really, considering kids usually prefer their programs to feature a preponderance of sassy similarly-aged peers preferably named Snooky, Kim, or Britney. Not until the end of Season Two, however, did a child actually appear in the series. It was as if the Pied Piper had swept into the marketplace and whisked away anyone under the age of 18. Regardless, little girls love the show. Recently I met three youngsters at a "come as your favorite Downton Abbey character" event - yes, the show spins off theme parties and a DowntonWorld pleasure park can't be far off. The girls were there as their own version of the Crawley sisters: Sybil, Mary and...Mary. No one wanted to be Edith.
Poor Edith & Sir Anthony.
Poor Edith. She lost out to Sybil in the looks department, to Mary with just about every man she ever fancied, and even a lowly farmer's wife wielded more fascination to the would-be-wayward hubby than the lovelorn middle child of a Lord.
Yes, poor Edith. Just as you think she's found true bliss and has finally gotten the approval of her captors to her serving as the right hand, literally, to one who genuinely loves her, before they are even under starter's orders, Sir Anthony bolts at the post. His retreat from the Church was faster than Thomas's fingers wandering up the new footman's neck. Thus, "Poor Edith" became the only offspring of Lord and Lady Grantham not to know the pleasure of being served breakfast in bed.
Robert Crawley and Jane the maid.
The good Lord Grantham certainly has a lot to answer for. I sometimes wonder if his picnic basket isn't short of a sandwich. I worry too about his tendency for losing things. Along with his best white shirts and his temper, he's also lost his presumptive heirs, Downton's entail, his wife's fortune, his chauffeur, his favorite valet, his beloved child, his equally beloved Labrador Isis, his stiff upper lip, the only housemaid who could make up a fire, and even a Turkish houseguest. For a while, he also lost the love of his wife.
Fortunately, the Dowager Countess connived to get Dr. Clarkson to admit he was just kidding when he said She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named could have been saved. Highly credible, seeing as the dopey doctor had previously misdiagnosed Matthew's paralysis, wound up Mrs. Hughes and hadn't caught Lavinia's health problems before it was too late.
As a rule though, its credibility factor is not why we watch Downton Abbey. The show allows us to indulge in our fantasies. It's a world where stoic imprisoned crippled valets awaiting the hangman's noose tear up - not at their own misfortune, but at the news that their masters may have to downgrade from a castle to a mere mansion. It's a place where the mean girl gets the good guy and the good guy inherits one vast fortune after another. It's where a lowly Irish chauffeur can become a journalist, a terrorist, a mechanic, and an estate manager.
It's where a kitchen maid can rise in just eight short years to the ranks of an assistant cook before being offered the opportunity of a lifetime of security as companion to an old tenant farmer, a position in which she would, of course, be both a maid and a cook, but would eventually get to own the farm. Thereby being able to add "crop harvesting" and "pig swilling" to her resume.
O'Brien and Thomas.
It's a place where elderly matriarchs are simultaneously entertained and entertaining, unless you happen to be an American billionaire mom, in which case you only get to see your offspring when their offspring walk down the aisle. Or when they need to pick your pocket, whichever comes first.
Now don't get me wrong - I love Downton Abbey. There's no place I'd rather be on a Sunday night at 9 pm than curled up on my couch watching the Granthams. It's got fashion, passion, and feminism. It makes me laugh; it makes me cry. It's like soaking in a warm bath. No matter the catastrophes that happen you know all will be resolved by the end of the next episode. (Although the Bates in Prison storyline did tend to drag on longer than Mary's face when she thought Matthew was poor. I half expected to see Batesy wake up in the shower one morning and find out it was all a dream.)
As Season Three wraps up, it's reassuring to know that there's a Season Four in the works. Of course, it'll take a while for the next series to reach these shores, so if you're wondering how to pass your Sunday night's until then, might I suggest a spot of needlepointing? I hear the new Free Edith needlework sampler is awfully jolly.