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Downton Abbey as a Jane Austen style Tragedy

February 12th, 2013 | 6 min read

By Matthew Miller

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.

Matthew Miller

Matt Miller, a native Nebraskan, teaches English at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri. His first book, titled Leaves of Healing, will appear from Belle Point Press in 2024.