Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Downton Abbey

I wrote a little while ago about my new favorite TV show, Sherlock. Unfortunately there weren't many episodes (only six for seasons one and two) and it didn't take me long to see them all. Luckily, I have a new TV obsession: Downton Abbey! So far I have only watched most of the first season: exciting as there's so much to look forward to.

It's somewhat surprising that I hadn't watched this already, because it's exactly the kind of show I like: historical setting, lots of relationship drama and behind-the-scenes intrigue, relatively high-brow...It reminds me a little bit of Rome, minus all the violence and weird sex (since we are talking about the Edwardian era here, after all).

I love watching historical dramas because I love history and know a fair amount about it. If it's historically accurate, it brings that period to life in a really vivid and interesting way, that reading a book just can't match; if it's not accurate, then I have the pleasure of critiquing all their mistakes and feeling smug about my historical knowledge. It's a win-win!

Downton Abbey is rather mediocre in its historical accuracy. The costumes and settings are superb (if too clean, always a problem in televised/filmed versions of the past). However, the tone of the society it portrays is a little off: everyone is just too modern in their thinking, world view, and conversation. This is also generally a problem in historical dramas, especially when depicting the poor or lower classes: the utter lack of knowledge, resources and general mental furnishing that used to be ubiquitous is just too hard for most modern people to imagine.

Of course, the conditions pictured are also more rosy than they would really have been. But who wants to see widespread sexual abuse of servants, the exploitation of children as workers, disgusting hygiene and lingering, disfiguring health problems? It would have been interesting to see some depictions of rural poverty, though, because since that's the background of most of the servants, it would be illuminating as to their pasts/motivations. One of the hot-button issues of the day was votes for women (the suffragette movement), especially in upper-class circles, which hasn't been mentioned at all so far: its omission is surprising and a pity.

The real problem with Downton Abbey is its portrayal of the class system, which while discussed, is considerably watered down. In actuality it would have shaped every single aspect of everyone's lives, from the way they talked (this is not depicted well) to how they ate and who they talked to. Often the servants are shown to be more-or-less equal to one another: in fact, this was definitely not the case at all, and rigid class distinctions held throughout the house, not only upstairs. And while close relationships between people of different classes certainly existed, the show gets the tone of these relationships completely wrong (as it would never have even approached a friendship of equals; it's better to think of it as having a pet).

None of these inaccuracies bother me though. I love the show, and have thoroughly enjoyed every episode in all their interpersonal drama. I can't wait to watch season two!


  1. I've been hearing so much about this show lately, I might just start watching on Netflix! Now I'm really curious! It's also an interesting point you brought up about how the lack of knowledge and resources is foreign to us today. It's absolutely true that I can barely fathom living in a world where I couldn't immediately have an answer to a question I had...what different people we would be!

    1. I read this really awesome book by Henry Mayhew called London Labour and the London Poor, about the working and lower classes in London in 1850. The ignorance of the average person was really mind-blowing (especially because they lived in London, not out isolated in the country somewhere): like they didn't know what the ocean was, who Jesus was, or how pregnancy happened. Just...wow.