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Downton Abbey's Lessons in Life


I am a huge fan of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece Theater series on PBS. 

Downton Abbey is a fictional countryside estate populated by the very privileged Crawley family and their servants set in the early 1900s.

The writing is so good and the cast of characters so engaging that I sometimes forget the time period.  Even though they are all living a hundred years ago in England, the family conflicts, the infighting among the servants, the class prejudices, and the human struggles and tragedies they face are relevant for all times.  Everything the Crawley family and their staff are wrestling with reflects our own daily battles in life and our joys and triumphs as well.

In the last episode an amazing series of events unfolded.  If you don’t watch the program these names won’t mean anything to you but you might still get something out of their experiences.

Isobel fights to defend Ethel’s damaged character.  Ethel is a young single mother who had to give up her baby, whom she adores and loves, in order to give the child a real chance in life.  That alone marked her for harsh criticism within the Downton Abbey community.  But before that while trying to survive and provide for the two of them, she turned to prostitution.  And that became an intolerable and isolating disgrace to most.  Except Isobel, who hired Ethel to be her cook and housekeeper and to show the young woman that we do not have to be forever crippled by difficult or shaming choices we have made.  If given love and support and another chance we can grow into our better potential, as Ethel is proving.

Brothers-in-law Matthew and Tom struggle to reform the massive Downton Abbey estate against the protests of Robert Crawley, whose title is Lord Grantham, and who is the estate’s original owner and now because of disastrous financial losses is only a partner with the other two.   Lord Grantham, just Robert, as he is known to his family, is a conventional man steeped in old traditions, fiercely proud and often irritatingly stubborn.  But there is a large supply of humanity in him that is so natural in his personhood that it transcends all of his bluster and often makes him a man of immense compassion.  After Tom speaks respectfully to Robert at breakfast about him and Matthew and Tom working together to make DA all it can be for the family, Robert relents and agrees and it’s a moment of rare vulnerability that so many times can completely turn around a difficult situation and make it work for everyone.

When Robert’s valet, Thomas, makes advances on Jimmy, one of the footmen, thinking that Jimmy is interested in him, all hell breaks loose.  Thomas has been set up by O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s maid.  O’Brien is a gloomy, cynical woman with dark secrets and capable of very sinister kinds of deceptions against others.   When Carson the butler finds out and confronts Thomas about his behavior, and Thomas admits he made an advance on Jimmy thinking he was interested in him, Carson explodes into current day right-wing fundamentalist meanness.  He can barely talk about Thomas being gay and after a string of insulting and degrading comments calls Thomas “a foul person,” and tells him he will have to leave DA.  Thomas tries to explain but Carson won’t hear of it.  As he leaves the room Thomas turns and says, “Mr. Carson, I am different from you, but I am not a foul person.”  There is so much pain in those words and though I have always thought of Thomas as sort of a creep and a jerk, I felt so much sorrow for him in that moment.  I haven’t disliked him because he is gay but because he’s often just so annoying.  But this scene reminded me how easy it is to just dismiss people who bother us without ever considering what possible hurts and wounds they may be carrying inside themselves that influence how they live.  Later, after a series of threats to have Thomas turned into the police and arrested since being gay was a crime then, and his advances on Jimmy they all considered a homosexual assault, it was up to Robert to show again his humanity and to model before the family and servants what forgiveness and generosity and mercy looks like.  He asks Thomas to stay on and later he defends him to the police by saying it was all a misunderstanding.

The episode ends with a great cricket match between the Downton Abbey team of family men and servant men and a team of local aristocrats.  I have no idea how cricket works, it looks like some kind of alien form of baseball, but the DA men won and the whole match was a metaphor of the drama of the lives of these very flawed and interesting people.

Downton Abbey is basically about relationships and how they never stay static, that they are often forced to evolve as the individuals in them change, under the unrelenting and unpredictable influences of life itself.

© 2013 Timothy Moody

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