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On Why Downton Abbey is Bona Fide, and Julian Fellows is a...

By Shannawilson @shanna_wilson

On why Downton Abbey is bona fide, and Julian Fellows is a master

It is my third parent, and my fourth child. – Lord Grantham

The success and mayhem over Downton Abbey is strong into its fourth season launch, with cruel nannies, visiting suitors and quarrels over land. Those of us looking ahead (or backward) toward history anticipate that the somewhat innocuous period of the 1920’s between the wars can only build a firmer sense of time and place for what will surely hurl the upstairs and downstairs residents closer to the 1930’s and the uncertainty of the second World War. What makes Downton Abbey so fantastical, yet plausible is that Julian Fellows has imagined both a fictional and non-fictional world and made it whole. Deft at developing clever characters (Gosford Park, anyone?) and stories, he weaves an unparallel thread of experiences during a period of history most of us never lived through.

The essence of Downton Abbey boils down to a concentration of socio-economics, wars, ownership, devotion, and sense of place in the world, by birthright and circumstance, as realized through a small cross section of villagers and land owners. The Grantham’s are today, what economists would describe as “lacking in human capital.” If you take away the wealthy trappings, the china, the silver, and the wait staff, the family is left with no personal ability to generate income or sustenance. There is little that they contribute to the greater good of English society, minus employing a group of lower class to filet the fish and unbutton the shirts on their backs. Or as the Dowager Countess says, “If you want logic, don’t look to the English upper class.” In a contest of employability based on merit and skill alone, the downstairs crew would likely win over Lady Mary. But under the same roof, they’ve all got balanced problems, personal and professional. The unequal elements of society shape shift throughout our history, teaching us little morsels of wisdom, grace and deceit along the way. Therefore, Fellow’s oeuvre reads more like a master class in the characterization of our lives vs. “period drama,” “historical fiction” or “soap opera for the high minded.”

In season 4, we watch Edith’s newspaperman lover boldly willing to lose his citizenship and his country pride in order to win not just Edith, but her father and legacy. We see outsiders enter the fray, eager to stake their weight, not just to gain entry to royalty, but access to something they’ve come to admire and love. Over several seasons, Fellows has positioned Anna to be the bedrock of kind and stable hard work and diplomacy. This season she becomes the victim of a horrid crime—an example of civil society’s improprieties. We’re only just embarking on how much she will hide in order to protect her husband’s past. In every attempt to depict a cause and effect of our actions—Mary’s affair with the Turk, Sybil’s illicit relationship with Branson, disputes over the estate—we unfold the same sordid messes the high and low class collectively bargain for. Its in the complexity of this - the stakes always being set higher and lower, more or less important, depending on our place at the table, where Fellows excels at conveying the overlapping layers of class and culture through the decades.

Fellows once said in an interview in response to the death of certain characters, “there’s nothing more difficult to write than happiness.” On the contrary, even in the depths of Downton’s despair, he has conceived a world both as it was once lived, and as it stands today. He has made privilege relatable, excess irresistible, and friends of ladies and their maids. The beauty of which lies in the notion that history changes everything and nothing, all of the time. He doesn’t have to write happiness. It gets delivered to us through all the rest of it.

Video courtesy of CandiceIsSuperSwell

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