A Late Arrival at Downton Abbey

I confess. I arrived late to the Downton Abbey party. When season one began I was intrigued, but Sunday nights didn’t work for me. Then everyone was watching it and my contrarian instincts kicked in: Who wants to watch what everybody’s watching? When season two began I told myself I didn’t want to jump in to the thing midstream.

And then a friend emailed a nudge and a link, I got over the fact that I couldn’t pick up season one online and I settled in to watch Downton Abbey, Season Two, episode one. Within minutes, a huge cast of characters paraded across the screen: two people in a train station, another fighting in World War I, a host of titled Brits and lowly servants living on a fabulous estate… As I struggled to sort them all out, I felt as if I were drinking from a fire hose. Two questions needed to be answered: First, who are all of these people? And second, do I care what happens to them?

By the end of that first Season Two episode, I knew every one of the characters and I cared very much where the story took them. Which is to say that Downton Abbey has passed my writer’s test and I’m hooked.

Edith Wharton, whose novels were set in the Downton Abbey era, complained bitterly about the “modern” novelists who didn’t seem to know how to tell a proper story. She was particularly dismissive of James Joyce and his blockbuster novel Ulysses (see The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, pp. 136-37). More recently, Julian Bell has observed that, in the modern era, it is “impossible either to tell a proper story or to abandon the impulse to do so.” I think the Downton Abbey series has been so warmly received because it answers that need in all of us for a truly right and proper story. Perhaps we are all hoping that if a proper story can be told as brilliantly as the Downton Abbey story, the rather more messy and confusing narratives of our own lives might come out properly as well.