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Feeling at House in Downton Abbey

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Downton Abbey is the How the Other Half Lives of period dramas. But rather than inside/outside, upstairs/downstairs emerges as the central division.
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Downton Abbey

Director: Brian Percival, Ben Bolt, Brian Kelly
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Brendan Coyle, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Frogatt

(Carnival/Masterpiece for ITV; US DVD: 8 Nov 2010)

The house is everywhere. Whether it ‘s one of the stock movies about haunted houses or in literature such as Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, it’s clear that the house has another function that transcends its materiality. The house (or rather, mansion) figures prominently on British television, rather like a never ending royal wedding. As urban theorist Anthony King observed;


“Socially, buildings support relationships, provide shelter, express social divisions, permit hierarchies, house institutions, enable the expression of status and authority, embody property relations; spatially, they establish place, define distance, enclose space, differentiate area;culturally, they store sentiment, symbolize meaning, express identity; politically, they symbolize power, represent authority, become an arena for conflict, or a political resource.” (King, Global Cities. Routledge 1990)


The house is thus never a given, an uncultured or objective setting where the lives of the characters happen to take place. It’s rather a force in itself, at once reflecting and shaping value systems that are inherent to society and that are incarnated in individuals themselves. ITV’s Downton Abbey is a perfect case in point, as even the title of the series indicates the importance that the house will come to assume; Downton Abbey is the estate of the Crawley family, inhabited by them and their small army of servants.
  
The entire first series revolves around the quest for a suitable man to marry the eldest Crawley daughter, as the all-girls family does not have a natural heir to the estate because of the primogeniture law. While his mother, Dowager Countess Violet (an excellent role of Dame Maggie Smith) and his wife Cora urge him to request a change in the laws so that eldest daughter Mary can inherit or Cora can at least rescue the dowry that was used to restore the property, the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, is reluctant. But all differences aside, the house is much more than an imposing heap of bricks to the family. As Crawley sums up, “Downton is in my blood and in my bones.”


Property and the house are at stake, so not any man will do for Mary. The first series starts with the terrible news of the Titanic’s fate reaching the family at the estate,  and ends right before England became involved in the Great War. This period directly preceding the First World War is often remembered as a golden age in England’s history, as the country’s isolated position rendered it secure from external and military conflicts. While these may have been absent, the society itself was characterized by anxiety over issues of class and empire. The aristocracy and gentry were increasingly challenged by the slowly organizing masses, and attempts by the upper classes to reinforce their dominance were met with criticism.


It’s in this setting that Downton Abbey navigates the complex social objectives of the early 20th century Britons, all mapped onto the confined setting of the house itself. The attempts to maintain a clear separation between upper class and servants become increasingly problematic when this separation has to be maintained within one house, and creator Julian Fellowes (who achieved fame for penning Gosford Park, among others) pays considerable attention to this upstairs/downstairs dichotomy. The colors are the most noticeable visual expression of this, as the opulence and vibrant colors of the Crawley rooms stand in stark contrast to the sparse decoration and natural tones of the servant quarters.


The Servants Quarters

The Servants’ Quarters


The series has transcended its distinctively British location; the rights have been bought by over 100 countries, rendering the series a global phenomenon. As PopMatters reviewer Maysa Hattab points out, the period piece is set apart by the microcosm of society it depicts, with servants and the Crawley family sharing habitation. This also means that we as viewers are transported to places we have never been before: the servant’s living areas.


The first episode already makes clear that there are different ideas about the way in which the relationship between masters and servants should be reflected in the house itself. Mary receives a suitor, the Duke of Crowborough. Being somewhat of a bad boy, the Duke urges Mary to show him the servants’ quarters. Mary only consents in her attempts to please the Duke, and is in constant fear of her father finding out about this transgression of the boundary that exists between her and the servants. The Duke is unfazed, as his conception of a house is that it completely belongs to the owner, and the owner can access all spaces in the house at his own convenience.


Mary rather sees a house with multiple homes; on paper, it all belongs to her father, but in reality there are several groups of people that use part of the house as their private little sanctuary. The servants have their own rooms and wing, while the Crawley’s occupy the grand rooms and have their own bedrooms as the true sanctuary.  Earl Grantham shares his daughter’s view, as he not-so-politely asks the Duke to leave when he receives word of the clandestine visit to the servants’ quarters.


The meaning of the house as a domestic space is not only inscribed in the everyday practice within the house itself, but also by the history that is attached to the house. While the servants are mostly occupied with the people in the house—practical matters to keep the family satisfied, such as ironing the newspaper, and improving their chances of promotion—and view it as a workplace and site of self-improvement, the Crawley’s themselves view the house more in terms of history; Downton Abbey is status, the outward reflection of a particular class that is blissfully unaware of the practicalities that occupy the minds of the commoners (in a particularly poignant example, the Dowager Countess asks Matthew Crawley, who proposes to acquaint himself with his future duties at Downton on the days off from his job as a lawyer, “what is a weekend?”). While for (some of the) servants Downton forms a temporary home because their coworkers make it so, the Crawley’s emotional attachment stems from years of tradition, and even more from the fear of losing it.


For the daughters, home can be a curse as well as a blessing, a prison and a sanctuary, but it is constitutive of their identity. Areas such as the drawing room allow them to escape the requirements of being a lady, if only momentarily. Their father expresses the close connection between identity and property as well when he has to defend himself from his mother’s claims that he doesn’t care about the estate: “What do you think? I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim not career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes. I do care.”


The Drawing Room

The Drawing Room


Downton Abbey bears another, real-life link to the house, as well; since the first series aired, television tourists have flooded the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Berkshire. The house has become an exhibition space, inviting the public gaze rather than serving as a shield from it. Furthermore, one in ten Britons has expressed the intention to visit the house within the next year. It seems that the actual Lord, Lord Carnarvon, can count on quite a few visitors for the new tearoom that is currently in development to accommodate all fans. One thing the visitors will not see are the servant quarters: these no longer existed in their original state, and were reconstructed at the Ealing Studios in London. But as Julian Fellowes pointed out, the cost of this was relatively low, certainly compared to what reconstructing the grand rooms would have cost: “The thing about filming in these great houses is that if you were to start from scratch, you simply couldn’t build this, and if you did you would have used up all your budget in one room.”


While the house is part of the appeal, it’s also important not to award too large a role to it. Downton Abbey is an excellent period drama with a phenomenal cast that has brought back high-budget to Sunday night television. It’s not surprising that after last year’s premier on ITV, the series continues to make headlines, even after the first season is long over and the second season still months away. The question of the house and its figuration on the screen is an interesting one, and deserves more attention than I have been able to give it in this blog.


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Elegiac for the last days of a full-blooded aristocracy in England, Downton Abbey is humane and modern in its shades of grey, but decidedly rose-tinted, too.
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