Downton Abbey as a Jane Austen style Tragedy

The third season of Julian Fellowes’ BBC hit Downton Abbey has finally arrived in the United States, and it’s getting all the buzz you would expect: most notably, from my perspective, the series has recently received positive coverage in Books & Culture and at Christ & Pop Culture. Both of those pieces draw out the ethical and artistic strengths of the show. I’m willing to concede that Downton has definite strengths–I have taken the time to watch a little over two seasons, after all–but my overall evaluation of the show is getting progressively more negative with each new episode. To explain why, I need to go back to Jane Austen.

As a costume drama, Downton lives in the tradition of social comedy exemplified and initiated by Austen. Any history of costume drama on the screen would have to include, at minimum, the famous Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. And Downton partakes of many other Austenesque qualities, from its emphasis on the leisured classes to its social intrigue to its witty dialogue. In all of these ways, Downton draws positively from Austen’s legacy.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there is one aspect of Austen’s storytelling that I find myself seeking vainly for in Downton, and it speaks to what is ultimately the show’s failure on both moral and artistic levels. A recent piece in Philosophy Now points to Austen’s monumental stature as a moral thinker, a judgment with which I concur.

Austen’s novels are investigations of virtues and vices, with the aim of pointing we readers toward the good. The novels are not didactic, but they are formative–after reading Sense and Sensibility, I want to be like Elinor Dashwood. Austen’s method for accomplishing this ethical project involves specific moral registers assigned to her protagonists and her minor characters. Austen’s heroes and heroines are generally morally serious, if not morally exemplary–even those who have distinct flaws, such as Emma Woodhouse, generally come to see the error of their ways.

In contrast, Austen’s minor characters are often pictures of social if not moral deviance: consider her biting pictures of Mr. Collins, Mrs. Elton, or George and Lydia Wickham. Just as Austen’s protagonists make us desire to be like them, her minor characters serve as cautionary tales. Unethical or socially deviant behavior in Austen always has natural consequences–the flawed minor characters listed above all end up conspicuously miserable to one degree or another. Austen is not melodramatic in these consequences–George Wickham is not, say, hit by a train, but it is clear that he and Lydia will reap the rewards of their foolishness in the misery they will inflict on one another.

Although at its beginning Downton Abbey showed some trace of this moral seriousness, I am afraid I must say that it has altogether neglected the ethics of Austenesque social drama. This can be seen most evidently by looking at its leads. Although the show clearly intends us to see Matthew as a morally exemplary figure, by season three of the show this position has become hollow. His most recent stance on an ethical issue–that he would not take Mr. Swire’s money–showed him in his least attractive light at as an increasingly weak man. Dan Stevens played this recent conflict with such sulky discontent that I began to see Matthew as refusing to capitulate to Mary more out of guilt and marital discord than any real moral sensibility. When Matthew ultimately concedes the money (thanks to an implausible letter which anyone could have seen coming), he has capitulated to Mary’s desires so often that he has become a moral cipher.

But more crucial is Mary’s role in the moral universe of the show. It has become increasingly apparent that the writers of the show are unwilling for Mary to be denied anything that she wants. She sleeps with the ambassador Pamuk, and neither gets pregnant nor is found out in any significant sense (the housemaid Ethel has no such luck); she plays games with Matthew’s heart, but is received by him again and again without complaint; her romantic rival, into whose arms she has flung Matthew, dies conveniently; when she tells Matthew of her liaison with Pamuk, he forgives her instantly; when Matthew refuses to take the inheritance, he is ultimately freed to do so and thus to comply with Mary’s desires. Mary has become by this point either a world-class spoiled brat or some sort of moral monster–this despite the fact that the show clearly expects us to feel the sort of affection for her that we feel for Austen’s leads.

Whatever positive characteristics Mary is supposed to possess to make us like her, they haven’t registered with me. The leads on Downton have grown less and less sympathetic as it has become more clear that they will never suffer nor reform. I could muster no will, at the beginning of the third season, to care about whether Matthew capitulated to Mary over the inheritance or not–not just because I knew (with the soap opera logic the show has fallen to) that he would indeed capitulate, but because I simply saw no hope for Mary to become a likeable protagonist.

In the face of this soapy viewer-wish-fulfillment, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to continue enjoying Downton is to re-read it as an Austenesque tragedy. In this approach, we can interpret Mary as a minor character from an Austen novel whose moral bearings are ever more skewed, to only social and spiritual consequences. After all, the social world of Downton seems to be contracting–we are meeting fewer of the Crawley’s peers than ever before–so perhaps it is reasonable to conclude that Mary’s behavior has led to social consequences which the writers simply won’t show us. Furthermore, the few scenes of marital bliss we have seen between Matthew and Mary have been brief and quickly interrupted by arguing. Maybe the Crawleys are more like George and Lydia Wickham than we have previously realized, and Julian Fellowes is merely giving us a dark and intimate portrait of the characters Austen relegated to the sidelines.

At least, this is one way you might continue to tolerate the show if you feel invested in the narrative and enjoy the show’s undeniably fine production values and acting. Though I suggest this approach, I’m not so sure it will work on me.

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  • http://livinginawhale.wordpress.com/ benlemery

    I am not sure what your baseline argument is for this article. Are you unhappy because this period piece does not follow a philosophical narrative that you better ascribe to? Or are you unhappy that in a true historical sense, Downton Abbey does tend to be a little more honest about some of the issues that did exist but would have definitely not been exposed via a novelist like Jane Austen? Similar to how America was represented in the 1950′s through shows like Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver, those shows certainly were not true to actual issues happening in real life, aka abusive households, alcoholism, sex before marriage. All of those issues had a sort of Victorian mask about them. The same could be said about Austen’s approach to her era.

    Just some thoughts. I really enjoyed your approach to it though, it makes for good discussion.

    • isaaccrabtree

      Ben, the critique is spot on. Should we have stories for “escape” or to learn something about the inner nature of things? Authors should always have a bigger point than fantastic hats. He rightly complains that these people aren’t real characters– they don’t incarnate ideas or virtues or passions with their spiritual and worldly consequences in a way that stories uniquely can. They don’t illuminate reality.

      Maybe it’s too much for the critic to expect of modern television, but he’s right to ask it. If you start from the point of view that life is incredibly serious, that our lives have eternal consequences, that one day we are destined to either be something like a god, or something like a monster, the task of the storyteller is not to amuse, but to enlighten by shining truth upon people and actions whose consequences are beclouded and seemingly ambiguous in real life. Why tell a story for any other reason? Oh right– hats.

      • Rebekah Sheldon

        thanks–this nails it. :)

      • Ed

        You’re of course right, but should we expect that from a (i guess) non Christian writer? Of course Austen sees a trueness in happy endings that Fellowes doesn’t, and of course she was more interested in moral relefections and consequences that Fellowes appaers to be.
        Her pen was dipped into the moral and happy truth of creation. His isn’t.

        • Matthew Anderson

          Fellowes is Catholic, isn’t he? That’s what I remember reading somewhere, anyway.

  • http://twitter.com/BrentMerrill Brent Merrill

    Liked the article tremendously, especially the ” spoiled brat” bit. For me the whole series has been like sitting down to a game of chess and getting up for a glass of water only to return to a game of monopoly. The mechanics and characters seem to have switched to some odd default that is neither honest nor interesting. But the costumes are almost as pretty as the house so who knows maybe some family ghosts will start haunting everybody and Downton will be interesting again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Galadhatan Thomas Rowland

    I appreciate the clarity and consistency with which you approach this topic, but I too disagree with your conclusion. I’m not much for Austen, but I very much enjoy DA. The difference between the moral registers of the two programs is one of chronology: the obvious difference is that Austen’s stories are set in an earlier period, but more significantly, are frozen within a morally consistent period. There is a system of moral action in Austen’s settings through which it is possible to understand a right action and a wrong. DA, however, deliberately avoids this situation, pushing the narrative along through many years and cataclysmic national and world events, the intention being to show the unsettling of an established family. Would Austen’s young heroines do so well in adopting their moral system when that system is being disrupted by an emerging middle class, by a world war, by changing relations with the Irish? Or would they act like the Crawley’s clinging to outdated traditions in the hope of stability?

  • GinaRD

    “Downton” certainly has its weaknesses — I won’t argue with that. But Mary’s hardly a monster because of things that happen outside of her control (it’s not like she killed Lavinia herself, for instance!). I wonder if perhaps Mr. Miller is confusing authorial intent with the actual actions and attitudes of the characters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Wingate/100000091881860 Charles Wingate

    Looking at the last couple of episodes, with their concentration on forgiveness and mercy in so many of the side narratives, I would not look to Mary as the moral center. If there even is such a place, it would be occupied far more by Isobel and by Lady Grantham. Mary is someone we are set up to care about, but at present she isn’t being placed at the center of a lot of decisions. Likewise I don’t see Matthew having to play out in much of this territory. He is placed where the viewer surely must want him to succeed, but of late the various moral crises have been set away from him.

    At present the moral center is on O’Brien, and the forces are very strongly centripetal. One by one the characters (save the dowager countess, who acts conspicuously as a law unto herself) are turning away from O’Brien’s scheming. Even Thomas has shown signs of redemption, if not from his (ahem) unnatural state. Now I say this not having seen the first two seasons, but only the third; the earlier seasons may well (as is said here) fit a different pattern. But the last few episodes have presented a strong picture of the powers of mercy towards redemption.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      I wouldn’t call Mary the moral center–I’m not sure there is one, as you say–but she is the protagonist, and thus has to be evaluated as the center of the show’s moral and aesthetic vision.

      I haven’t seen the most recent episodes–I can’t bring myself, at present, to go on from the pathetically bad episode 3.2–but your analysis of forgiveness and mercy appearing is encouraging.

  • kT

    What is it they say? Compare apples to apples? While lovely, Jane Austen is 1) a BOOK and 2) written as a contemporary piece NOT as a period costume drama. Also, Austen is simply one glimpse into British fiction and dramatization and is not therefore necessarily worthy of being THE precedent to follow. Not that you are unwelcome to dislike Downton Abbey, but if you are going to carry out a comparative critique, at least choose a sensible comparison.

  • Tara

    To me- Downton is more of a Gatsby novel. While Jane Austen writes as one who was born into a Christian home, the writers of Downton never claim to be so.

    I see your point about Mary, and I agree. I keep waiting for “karma” to come around after her poor choice in taking a lover….but so far- nothing.

    I guess I still enjoy the show because there are other characters who are very morally upright. I think the Dowager is wise and discerning. I love how she plays a role of influence and is respected. I also love Bates. He repeatedly gives Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien mercy when they don’t deserve it.

    • Kirk_Antaeus

      I rather love Thomas and find him highly sympathetic (guess you have to be caught up to see this), whereas Master Bates is simply boring.

  • Erin

    I’m a little confused about this post and Christianity Today’s earlier article “Why Is God Still Absent from Downton Abbey” (which should have been titled “Why Isn’t Downton Abbey Brideshead Revisited?”). DA never set out to be one of the great books, and it shouldn’t be evaluated with the same standards. I presume the creators set out to make good television and make some money.

    Also, I’m a little concerned about suggesting we evaluate a work “as if” if were another work, to “re-read it as an Austenesque tragedy.” Of course we often identify and enjoy the influences that act upon later works, but (1) I’m not convinced DA is Austenesque in the first place, and (2) it seems like reading a work as if it were another work is a good way to miss the true nature of the work itself. Let’s let DA be DA and evaluate from there instead of trying to recast it as something it’s not.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      Evaluating DA as DA, it’s growing increasingly unwatchable, as I argue toward the end of the piece. I propose the recasting as a means of salvaging the show for those who want to recoup their investment of attention in it.

      • Ed

        Keep going, season three is a great imporvement on season two.

        • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

          Not so far!

  • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

    I want to address two lines of critique that I see in several of the posts below.
    1. “It’s just a TV show; comparing to Austen’s novels is unfair.” We are in the golden age of TV right now–TV shows have the capacity to offer serious moral fiction, especially high-budget shows like Downton. Friday Night Lights is an example of a highly morally serious show. The first season of Downton had the potential to be such a show, which promise has been wasted in subsequent seasons. So there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be compared to Austen, or that its ambitions shouldn’t be evaluated on that scale.
    2. It is not sufficient to defend the general moral orientation of the show by claiming it is grittier than Austen, examines a time of greater moral complexity, or deals with subjects Austen didn’t. (Oh noes! Sex! By the way, there’s plenty of extramarital sex in Austen.) Any serious reading of Austen has to acknowledge that the moral territory she covers is as complex as anything we confront today: perennial issues of class, charity (in both the economic sense and the broader sense of caritas), sexual ethics, etc. I’ll point readers who don’t think Austen deals in moral complexities to the above-linked Philosophy Now article which articulates her virtue ethics well, although its treatment of her work as literature is weak.

    Thank you all for the engagement, both critical and positive. I’m always happy to be probed on my arguments.

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  • John

    Matthew, thanks for your thoughts on DA. However, having seen all of season 3 through DVD, your thesis on Mary will need to be greatly revised after the finale.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      Interesting. We’ll see if I make it that far.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vcdechagn Michael Dickey

      I was thinking the same thing. To some extent, even after seeing all of season 3 including the Christmas Special, his point still stands to at least some extent. I want to say more, but can’t without feeling like I’ll spoil something

      Matthew, I do hope you make it and come back and tell us what you think after the end of S3

  • Ed

    Having seen almost all of series three, i think, increasinly, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the Crawleys, and hopeful for those ‘downstairs.’ The Crawley’s lives have been lived through the most tumultous times in recent Englsih hisrory. The day before the Titanic sank, where season one begins, life for the landed classes was much as it had been since the Reformation. That world has completly changed in the two and a half seasons we’ve seen, and it’s clear that neither Lord Grantham, nor Mary, nor Matthew are very capable of dealing with it. Nor Carson.
    I don’t think Mary has ever been presented as a sympathetic character, but to say she hasn’t suffered as a result of her decisions isn’t really true. There were clear social and marital inplications of her liason with Parmuk, if nothing else, she was stuck with Carlyle for far longer than she would have been otherwise! And was unhappy for most of season two. Mary’s loyalties lie only with her father, just as they should do for a late Victorian heiress. She’s clearly hurt by her dysfunctional relationship with Edith, and yet sees no way of fixing it. Again, that rings true of a world in which your siblings aren’t your closest friends but your fiercest rivals.
    In a fast changing world, often marked by tragedy, it’s hard to see any hope for the Crawley family, i think that’s what season three is trying to explore.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      This is a much more generous reading than I can muster, Ed–but I commend you for it.

  • Joshua Rogers

    I can’t help but think that you and many other critics are giving Fellowes too much credit for being as thoughtful as you. Perhaps the downward plummet of the show is due to the fact that, after season one took off in the United States, the show got Americanized to please its new audience.
    As a result, we ended up with a better-acted revival of the 1980s soap opera “Dallas,” and we’re stuck with excessive cliffhangers carelessly tossed about each episode, requiring the awkward insertion of unnecessary characters, nonsensical plot twists, and a shamelessly disintegrated storyline. I told my wife yesterday that I’m almost done with it. I can’t keep playing along.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      See, I thought the first season had the potential to grow into a high-caliber, thoughtful show. And Fellowes is an Oscar nominee, for whatever that’s worth, so I think I was justified in having high hopes. The new audience might have been part of the problem. Another might be that Fellowes–who does most of the writing himself–simply ran out of ideas.

  • http://raisinghischild.com/ Romelle

    Do you believe that Matthew’s position on accepting the inheritance was the moral high ground? I watched it a a prime example of guilt, pride and moralism getting in the way of sound judgement. Please tell me your objection is not as simple as a man capitulating to his wife’s judgement. We do offer wise counsel from time to time. I admired Mary’s quiet acceptance in the face of her strong disagreement. Her character is growing up. She is only around 24 years old. Compare that to the ones you know in real life and give her character and the way it is developing some credit.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      I certainly think it was the moral high ground. Until the show rescued him from having to make a tough moral choice by that convenient last-minute letter, he would have been taking money on false pretenses.

  • Amy

    Matthew,

    I don’t disagree with your opinion on DA at all; during a week of illness we all watched the entire third season of DA and if you do eventually condescend to watch it, you’ll see that Mary’s life will not be without a bit of suffering. . . I would say more, but I’m fairly sure you’ll eventually watch it (now that you’ve stirred up this hornet’s nest!) and so I won’t spoil it for you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/griffin.gulledge Griffin Gulledge

    SPOILER ALERT:
    I think what you may be missing in your analysis of Mary is that Matthew Crawley dies in the final episode of Season 3 in a car wreck. Sorry, I get the British version.

    • Matthew Anderson

      A decision foisted upon the writers by the actor’s decision to leave the show…and not one they ever would have chosen otherwise!

      • Stephanie Franklin

        I bet Jane Austen never had to deal with one of her characters deciding to leave in the middle of the story :)

      • rdr

        don’t know how it works in England but in America they just hire another actor and pretend nothing happened

    • Andrea Francine

      I agree with Mr. Miller’s assessment of Mary, and since I am watching the PBS version, this was news to me. Even so, the impact of learning about that event is somewhat dulled by Mary’s attitude toward Matthew so far over the course of Season Three. Mary has behaved (with rare exception) as if Matthew’s existence is an annoyance that she must endure. There have been external factors that have understandably caused tension, but gone is the sense (which used to be there) that these are two people who delight in and with each other. Perhaps that will change in the episodes remaining. Otherwise it will just seem like once again the writers have contrived a way to relieve Mary of another source of displeasure.

  • http://twitter.com/Patered Micah+

    Miller doesn’t need my help defending his thesis here. But he also doesn’t even need Austen for a damning comparison.

    If DnAy hadn’t been overwhelmed with popularity it might have kept a short arc and its narrative integrity. At the start of season 2 it’s evident ITV is hellbent on milking this show for all its worth and the will-they/won’t-they dragging out of plot evidences Fellows only had one great season with only context and no narrative to follow it up. I mean, unless MacGuffins count. I would have stayed awake for the second half of season 3 if the first half wasn’t hackneyed or inevitable. Did anyone not foresee S03 precipitating with a financial crisis for Downton and concluding with ‘surprise’ deaths and more adultery? I mean, what else was left to try? It should be costume drama, not soap-in-costumes. S04 is confirmed, but even Dame Maggie’s one-liners aren’t enough enticement.

    What other show would not jump the shark at the point in the second season when the long-lost, war-victim, Canadian, amnesiac, true-heir appears in the castle-abbey-manor-hospital? All that’s missing is a seance with a dead husband in the Christmas special, and by golly Soapton Abbey delivers. Well, besides all the actors with better prospects taking an Alec Guinness off the high dive when they realize no end is in sight. Remember, those characters arced as they did because the actors refused to Keep Retread and Carry On, not because the plot necessitated such.

    Fair enough, the show has had its fits of brilliance. But if one wants post-Edwardian drama (fraught with more adult content), the Stoppard/Cumberbatch/Hall Parade’s End is everything DAbbey should have tried to be.

    If one likes more Highclere Castle, absurd plot lines, and period fashion sense, Jeeves and Wooster has these in spades.

    • http://twitter.com/matt_j_miller Matthew Miller

      Yeah, the long-lost Canadian almost lost me in season two as well. I’ll have to check out Parade’s End–thanks.

  • Mark B. Hanson

    Two comments:
    One problem my wife and I have with long-form British comedy or drama is that once the characters are defined they rarely change much. This caused us to stop watching Doc Martin, and made the most of Morse a trudge – you could always count on the protagonist to either choose the wrong woman or the wrong words. DA has so far spared us that kind of stuff for the most part (except perhaps Edith and that assistant cook Daisy) – but in another season or two, it has that potential.
    And Downton Abbey is at heart not a serioius cultural piece but a soap opera. All the elements are there: the constant betrayals and misunderstandings, the comings and goings, twists (I almost wrote “twits”). The comparison one earlier commenter made with Dallas is apt.

  • ocracokecurrent

    I love Jane Austen’s books, but I would argue that, from a moral sense, DA has something on Jane. The writers of DA care about, give equal time to, and show the lives of the servant class. Austen almost never even mentions the servants, certainly not the reality of their lives. The fact that the Crawleys are as intimately involved in their servants’ lives as they are (paying for eye surgeries, arranging for deathbed weddings, helping to get Bates out of jail, getting Ethel a new job near her son, and on and on….) may be only a result of our 21st c. fascination with the upstairs/downstairs tension, but in Austen’s world, that tension is non-existant. Austen’s servants exist only to serve the ladies and gentlemen characters, and are not given story lines and real lives of their own.

    Surely there must be something morally repugnant about treating other human beings as mere background, so wholly unimportant to the plot and story that they can be completely ignored.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rusty-South/1422777689 Rusty South

    Matthew
    The Victorian era as it was, splotched by the current of humanism.
    Today we merrily bath in it. As the real Carson remarked, “Important to maintain the standards, if not they shall never return.”