This past Sunday, Julian Fellowes did not disappoint his viewers: Downton Abbey’s ending could not have been sweeter. The birth of Anna’s baby, the possibility of friendships and weddings particularly that of bad luck Edith, especially as amother of an out of wedlock child, to Bertie, one of the richest men in the country was in deed satisfying. Even Barrow the sinister and deceitful butler reborn – shown cuddling with Master George and little Sibyl- emphasized that happiness can triumph.
And how we wish it could be so.
Our hearts yearn for redemption and fairytale endings. Having been made privy to the desires, foibles, losses and confusions of the Abbey’s inhabitants, both up and down stairs, we wish them well: glad that Mary has finally found her love mate ; that Robert’s ulcer is on the mend; that Cora has found herself a new woman, yet supported by her husband; and Dickie’s anemia is not pernicious( could the Harley street doctors been wrong?)
Amidst the disgraceful infighting in the Republican Party, the hateful slurs and the incompetence of a conservative thinking group that refuses to move forward on planned parenthood and religious values, we need a salve. The beauty of the lustrous flowers at Downton’s New Year’s wedding, the finely embroidered fabrics of the guests, the feeling of elation and good cheer extend beyond the television screen into our homes and fill them with promise that life can be as glorious as the surfaces that gleam out towards the viewer: constructed to envelop and overwhelm our senses.
We observe that Daisy is finally moving forward and Lady Mary is revealing kindness not just sarcasm as she murmurs that after all she and Edith are sisters. Poignantly after Mary had acted spitefully prior to this denouement, Edith had also reflected that she had set her pain and anger aside because – long after their parents and friends are dead, they as siblings will share similar memories, that no one else will possess. Edith’s ability to grudgingly forgive, continue her professional pursuits as owner of her magazine and house her ward/ child – along with being totally honest with Bertie’s mother speak to her strength of character- and set her up for the rewards of love, marriage and happiness.
Yet even earlier, the acceptance of now dead Sibyl’s husband Tom demonstrated how the family rebounds from tragedy as well as accepts that they must make space in their lives for change. I believe it was Cora, the American, who overcomes Robert’s reticience of the mixing of classes. Interestingly his own marriage ( for presumably wealth) has been with a Jewish woman. This intermarriage is repeated between Rose andAtticus, also from a wealthy Jewish family. They set out forAmerica to continue their life. And it is Rose, newly Americanized , who dispels Robert’s aversion to Cora’s new found independence.
Downton while chronicling the times, the wars, the changes of wealth to middle class, the rise of the motor car amongst many other rises and downturns in society dramatized the variety of responses to those economic and sociological shifts.Dear Carson whose identity has been totally linked to Lord Grantham is sweetly taught by his Mrs. Hughes or Elsie, the sensible and kind overseer of the household. She represents the voice of reason who moves with and into the future, even teaching him the difficulty of preparing a meal can be exacting. Her gentle trick serves its purpose. She never minces words, but her skills in working with the Downton staff has garnered her respect and affection.
Ironically at the conclusion of the series, Carson is the only person who is shown to have to endure a negative future: with his palsy passed genetically down, he is removed from his position- perhaps willing to just instruct not just command as his life’s work has been re-ordered. We can only hope with the kindly Elsie at his side, she will suggest new ways to maintain his dignity and not go gentle into that good night, recalling for me Howard’s End, the film by Merchant Ivory: in which the wheels of progress must disrupt the rural life for its English inhabitants.
One could not discuss Downton without mention of the ineluctable Violet, a role inhabited by Maggie Smith, the terse and extremely literate granny who works behind the scenes, pulling threads to surmount and overcome the family’s obstacles. (How Victor Newman might have benefitted from a lesson that actually improves the state of one’s family instead of destroying what he persists in proclaiming he loves!) Her one liners are zingers that hit their targets, and better yet, end the prattle of debate. Wise, also remarkably coiffed and dressed, the dowager is an old lady to be emulated not scorned, ridiculed or ignored. Her granddaughters rely on her wisdom, sharing their secrets and accepting her remedies. Although her manipulation and attempts to maintain control of the village hospital do not turn out to be fortuitous, she goes off to Europe to sulk, but quickly returns when she is needed.
So Fellowes has intertwined the major themes of any good novel to create his intriguing work: resilient protagonists, class clashes, love trysts, betrayals within diverse populations set against the tumultuous rumbles and rifts of a changing world . In the final analyses, whether gowns are shorten or house staff downsize , it is the interactions, honesty of reflections, relationships and striving that underpin the stories- no matter the times.
As we watch House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, we long for the soothing touches of fabulous clothes, the remnants of society’s fading decorum and structure,the feisty respected grandmother and leisurely strolls in the pastures or on cobblestoned pavements between longing sweethearts to sooth the harsh pitfalls and everyday traumas that arise. We applaud the family’s now bygone morality that endures to patch triumph in a shifting and shiftless world, and choose to forget that the do – gooders as in Show Me a Hero can wind up dead, their efforts perhaps forgotten.
As my friend Anne has often said, we need beauty in our lives. In that way, the bad, the ugliness of behaviour and intentions is balanced and we can comprehend the yin and yang of our world. But for the moment, Downton’s doors are shut and we are no longer privy to the respite where we have savoured on Sunday nights.
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