While others may have felt cut off from the rest of the world during the lockdown year, I was using it to catch up the things other Americans were doing in the 2010s. Back then, some of the Americans I know best were studying the lifestyle of early 20th Century British peerage as revealed in Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey.
Having lately been of a mind to ask the Brits come run things again, I thought maybe I should catch up. I have dropped that notion since the successful election of a candidate faithful to democracy and rule of law. Still, we may yet have a need if the skewing of the census has the intended result.
So, I binge-watched Downton Abbey. I had avoided it even as the rest of my family in three different states bathed in it every week for six years. It seemed too much like soap opera. Will Edith attempt to attract another of Lady Mary’s suitors in their lifelong drama of sibling rivalry? Will Cousin Violet succeed in imposing her will on “those other Crawleys” and find a way to keep the fortune under His Lordship’s control? That sort of thing.
Even as members of my family urged it on me, I had resisted until the most wise Amazon Prime algorithm informed me that I should watch it. I have learned to trust the Algorithm. It knows what I buy, what I browse, what I watch and listen to and read. (Thankfully I don’t have one of those speakers that report private conversations to Mr. Bezos.) With all that information to crank through the Algorithm, I felt that Amazon must know, better than I know myself, that Downton Abbey was right for me and I was right for Downton Abbey.
So I spent a few weeks watching one or two episodes a night until, about four or five episodes in, I caught myself talking to the characters on the screen, advising them what to do or, more often, what not to do. To the gentlemen — be careful around Lady Edith. Or to anyone — watch out when Lady Cora dip-tilts her head forward and to the side a notch and peers at you through her eyebrows. And since that is the way way Lady Cora looked at everyone all the time for all six years of the series, I suppose the message was to always be careful around her. She can drag a secret out of anyone and she can’t keep one longer than one episode.
On the subject of secrets, the entire household — from lord to footman — seemed to fuel their lives around secrets. They simply couldn’t be level with one another. It made for a dysfunctional family upstairs and a toxic workplace downstairs, but they all loved their king. There you have all the makings of a good soap opera and a stable society where people can live together in peace and happy servitude.
After watching the assault on the Capitol by Trump’s brown shirts, the soap opera life of the Earl’s household seems an attractive alternative to rule by the Bad Boys. Maybe the Queen would have us back as members in good standing of the empire. At any place in the social strata, peer to pig farmer, life would surely be better than under rule of the American insurrectionists.
And maybe this is the simple wisdom revealed in Downton Abbey: pig farmers and peers had something in common that bonded them into happy little towns that made British society work. Wrestling sows in the mud was a livelihood for one and, for the other, a duty involved in preserving the ancestral line and estate.
Well, I’m being unkind to Lady Mary. Strike that last sentence.