Books Magazine

Loving: The Original Downton Abbey?

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

As I mentioned in my preview to Loving, the novel reminds me a lot of Downton Abbey.

The popular TV show was the first thing that came to mind when I read a summary of Loving’s story.

The further I get into the story, I wonder how much Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, was influenced by the Henry Green novel. On a surface level, he might have been.

Both stories feature:

  • A shady head footman with sticky fingers and an eye toward being butler.
  • Rampant romance between the servants.
  • Scandalous romance (sometimes suggested) between the family and the servants.
  • A crotchety cook and a stressed-out head maid.
  • Infidelity within the aristocratic family.
  • A massive country house.
  • Uncertainty over the effects of the war on the house and the servants.

So, at first, it seems the stories are similar.

But once you dive into their execution, they couldn’t be more different—at least according to The Granta blog.

Here’s how Francine Prose compared the two:

So what keeps us home on Sunday night (apparently there are Downton Abbey viewing parties, but I haven’t been invited) are fairly conventional questions of plot: Will our heroes and heroines succeed or fail? Reconcile or break one another’s hearts? Will the rebel daughter marry beneath her? Who will inherit the power and especially the house? We want to know what the characters will do, but once we have met them, we no longer have any questions about who they are, or what they will say. Whenever someone begins to speak, we can turn the sound off and provide the dialogue ourselves.

That divide – predictability and one-dimensionality on one side, surprise and complexity on the other – is partly what defines the gap between entertainment and art, which isn’t to say that art can’t also be entertaining. It’s what sets a show like Downton Abbey apart from the novels of Henry Green, several of which have certain surface similarities to the PBS series, most especially Loving, which takes place in a castle in Ireland during the early 1940s.

But beyond their country-house setting and their periodic swings between the mistress of the house’s plush chamber and the servant’s quarters, the two works could hardly be more dissimilar. One could compare any scene in Downton Abbey (from the most to the least dramatic) to any scene in Loving, a novel in which the drama is so quiet and, we feel, so lifelike that (unlike in the TV series with its nagging violins demanding our attention) a moment of distraction could mean missing some critical turn in the action. And any such comparison would rapidly reveal the vast difference in conception and execution.

Where are the “nagging violins?” The only time I’ve noticed them are in the show’s open and close. That being the case, I’d hardly say they are “demanding our attention.”

Back to the point. In defense of Downton Abbey, the medium of television and the novel couldn’t be more different. Would Downton Abbey work as a TV show if it were exactly like Loving?

Maybe. I honestly don’t know. The Wire was subtle and complex, and it was an incredibly good television show. As the article mentions, the same goes for The Sopranos and Homeland (though I haven’t watched that one).

The plot to Downton Abbey is terribly weak at times (see the ending to season 3), but it’s still a solid series. And, on the surface level, a lot like Loving.

If you’ve watched and read both, how would you compare the two?

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