|Set in 1910s-1920s England, Downton Abbey is a lovely period drama about an aristocratic family, the Crawleys, slowly adjusting to the changing world about them. To the modern world, the stories of a wealthy household of an earl, traveling in high society and supported by a whole crew of servants, might seem like it would be nothing but pettiness. But instead, the show revolves around several small dramas and wonderfully-lit characters, each of them struggling to adapt, in their own way, to the 20th century and the new traditions and demands that society is adopting.|
The Crawley Family
- Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham
- Robert and Cora Crawley, Earl and Countess of Grantham
- Lady Mary Crawley, eldest daughter
- Lady Edith Crawley, middle daughter
- Lady Sybil Crawley, youngest daughter
- Robert and Cora Crawley, Earl and Countess of Grantham
- Isobel Crawley
- Matthew Crawley, third cousin to Lord Grantham and heir to Downton Abbey
The Servants and Staff
- Heads of Staff
- Mr. Carson, head of household management
- Mrs. Hughes, head of housekeeping
- Lady's Maids
- Sarah O'Brien, maid to Lady Grantham
- Anna Smith Bates, maid to the three daughters
- John Bates, valet to Lord Grantham
- Joseph Molesley, valet to Matthew Crawley
- William Mason
- Thomas Barrow
- Kitchen Staff
- Mrs. Patmore, head cook
- Daisy Mason, kitchen maid
- Household Staff
- Tom Branson, chauffeur and love interest to Sybil
- Gwen Dawson, maid (season 1)
- Ethel Parks, maid (season 2)
- Dr. Clarkson, head of Downton's hospital
- Lady Rosamund Painswick, sister to Lord Grantham
- Sir Anthony Strallan, nobleman and on-again, off-again love interest to Edith
- Sir Richard Carlisle, journalist and love interest to Mary (season 2)
- Lavinia Swire, love interest to Matthew (season 2)
Show Dynamics (Spoilers)
Each episode works through various plot threads going on in the Crawley family's lives as well as stories involving the Downton Abbey servants and staff. The audience gets a clear picture of "everyday life" as well as "aristocratic life," making it a much more balanced show.
Each character's personal dramas are compelling in their own way, though many fans see Mary Crawley's story arc as most important. I, however, find that even the marriage drama surrounding Daisy after William is mortally wounded in WWI is worth watching, purely for the emotional character expansion that takes place. That's one of the things that Downton Abbey does well--making you care about each of its characters, no matter how "lowly" they might be or how little they appear on screen.
Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien are recurring villains throughout the series thus far, but O'Brien is more the type of villain that stirs up trouble and manipulates others; when she sets up the pregnant Lady Grantham to fall in the bathroom, thus causing her to miscarry, O'Brien carries the stain of that guilt for years. By contrast, Thomas is out for himself and does not care who or what he hurts along the way, because he has been hurt so often in his life.
Mary and Edith have social and personal competition going between them, with Edith usually losing out; Sybil, by comparison, seems relatively immune to family politics and jockeying, choosing instead to pave her own path, especially when she takes on the duties of a nurse in Season 2 during WWI. Sybil, then, is also the unofficial "peacemaker" of her family, keeping the family's social priorities straight and encouraging love above all.
The Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, is at once the most traditional and the most outspoken of the Crawleys. In polite society, she's perfectly polished; among family, the social claws can come out. She's keen-eyed when it comes to "how things will look" in society, and yet she's also fiercely loyal to her family, especially when it comes to making sure things turn out right for her granddaughters. All this makes for some hilarious, straight-talk one-liners delivered by the one and only Maggie Smith.
Though the show switches back and forth between the dramas going on with the Crawleys and the dramas going on with their staff, there is much more than an employer/employees relationship between the family and staff. Sybil's interest in getting the serving maid Gwen employed as a secretary, Mary's desire to see Anna wed to Mr. Bates at last, and of course the entire family's concern over Mr. Bates' fate in the courts, shows how much the family cares about the people who work for them, and it seems to be mutual.
Why Mary's Risque Escapade Makes Her a Better Character
Early in season 1, Mary Crawley is wooed by a visiting Turkish diplomat, Kemal Pamuk, who unexpectedly dies in her room after coming to visit her after hours. (The show does not make clear what exactly happens between them, since Pamuk says something about "You will still be a virgin for your husband," but it is apparently enough to ruin her reputation should it get out.)
One would expect the ensuing specter of scandal to haunt Mary's character, tainting her view of the world and making her almost a whiny brat sort of character. Instead, she appears to grow in crisis, becoming in fact a much more sympathetic character, and much more approachable. Pre-Pamuk, Mary is quite frankly a snob, too socially perfect and important to honestly critique (and she knows it). Post-Pamuk, Mary is chastened, brought down a few notches, and becomes quieter and less prideful...making her much more human and relatable along the way.
This in no way means that I condone what happens to Mary, since it is little better than rape; it's not something she wants to happen, at any rate, and yet she finds herself attracted to Pamuk from the beginning. But this crisis, both social and personal, forces her to look outside her perfect little sheltered life at last, and figure out what kind of woman she wants to be in the wake of what seems like her world's destruction. That all-too-human struggle shapes her into a much better character.
Edith: The Overlooked Sister
It seems like Edith always gets the littlest portion of attention. As the middle sister, she's neither socially important like Mary nor indulgently tolerated like Sybil; she's kind of stuck. Mary's the one who's going to marry well and keep the family going, and Sybil's the one who's going to challenge boundaries and innovate, so what's Edith left to do?
Mary and Edith square off quite a bit because of this, subtly sniping at each other as only polite noblewomen can do. There's a great deal of jealousy and jockeying for position between them, though that lessens a bit after Mary's ordeal with Pamuk. Sybil and Edith get along well, but then again, Sybil is the emotional bridge between most of the Crawleys anyway, keeping relations civil and reminding them of what's important. So, again, what does Edith have left to do?
In Season 1, her jockeying for social position alongside Mary doesn't work so well. But during the First World War in Season 2, Edith blossoms as a lady-turned-caregiver alongside her sisters, and ends up being a help and comfort to the soldiers as they stay in Downton Abbey for their convalescence. It remains to be seen (at least for us American viewers) how that newfound confidence in herself will shape her in Season 3 and beyond, but it seems to be working out well for her so far!
Matthew: The No-Longer-Quite-So-Uncomfortable Heir to Downton
Matthew Crawley, as a character, undergoes a slow shift over the 8 years which Seasons 1 and 2 encompass. He begins by being totally uncomfortable with the aristocracy he's been thrust into, but by the end of Season 2, he is almost perfectly at home with the high-class society and has melded and mingled quite well with it. (One can still see how Matthew chafes at some of the seemingly pointless social traditions, but he carries the burden of being the heir a lot better.)
Of course, Mary has a lot to do with how well he acclimatizes, but I think a good part of it also comes from his newfound sense of duty to the family. Downton is still family-run at its core, and Matthew goes from feeling like he's in amongst strangers to feeling like this is a family he can fight for. He feels valued, perhaps, not just as an heir, but as a person.
How the War Changes EVERYTHING (and I mean EVERYTHING)
Where Season 1 shows Downton Abbey in relative normalcy (stories revolving around high society, aristocratic traditions, and family politics), Season 2 takes all that and turns it on its head, with the arrival of World War I. Suddenly, some of Downton's own family and staff must go to war; suddenly, the grand house itself must become an army hospital and convalescent home.
In the midst of all this wartime upheaval, Downton Abbey and its residents have to adapt, and it changes things. Matthew suddenly has a place in the family as a war hero (and a wounded one at that), rather than being just a random, "middle-class" heir from Nowheresville. Carson comes to realize that Downton can still be a "great house" without having a certain number of spoons on the table, footmen to serve, etc. Sybil becomes even more independent as she works for the first time as a nurse, realizing her own goals of usefulness along the way. Mary figures out finally that marrying for social position is not the same and will never be the same as marrying for love. And even Edith has a bloom of confidence, quietly helping the convalescent soldiers with emotional support.
Indeed, the house, its family, and all its servants change for the better in how they see themselves and how they relate to each other and the wider world around them. The war, with its brutal effects streaming in through the doors every day, teaches them that perhaps some old traditions need to be put aside for the needs of the moment, and some things just don't matter as much as family and friends should.
Why Does Everyone Worry So Much about Sybil Marrying an Irishman?
Lady Sybil's decision in Season 2 to marry Tom Branson, the family's Irish chauffeur, sits wrong with many of her family members. Some of the disagreement is about the social class difference between them--an "earl's daughter" shouldn't be marrying a "servant," etc. But there's quite a bit of consternation, especially in Lord Grantham's case, over the fact that Branson is Irish.
I was curious about why there should be this kind of cultural/national clash, and I researched it. Turns out that the 1910s and 1920s are a time of political upheaval in Ireland, and a lot of it's directed at England, putting it mildly. Historically, there's been quite a bit of conflict between Ireland and England, and not just religious conflict, either--it's about England (and a few other countries, but mostly England) treating Ireland more like a colony or satellite nation rather than an independent people of its own.
This kind of treatment and back-and-forth strife had been going on for centuries by the early 1900s, and things finally came to a head during the 1910s and 1920s. The death-ridden Easter Rising (1916), plus the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) are probably only a few of the events that Tom Branson wants to go back to Ireland to help with. So, in a way, it's no wonder that Lord Grantham balks a little (okay, a lot) at the idea of his youngest daughter marrying an Irishman; he probably wonders whether his new son-in-law will bring that Irish/English clash right into the house along with all the war-injured soldiers.
The fact that the marriage goes ahead, and that most of the family works pretty hard to adapt to it, says a lot about how much times have changed in the household during the war. Class barriers have been broken down, and new enemies have arisen outside the old Irish/English conflict, which means that new truces must be forged and old hatchets must be buried if anyone's going to survive.
Admittedly, my explanations of the Irish/English conflict history are heavily simplified for the purposes of this webpage. If you would like to learn more about the particular historical events leading up to the crises of the early 1900s, here are the websites I used to research this short essay:
- A Timeline of Irish History
- A Brief History of Ireland
- History of Ireland @ Wikipedia
- Eight Centuries of England in Ireland: A Synopsis of Irish History
- How did the Irish/English conflict come about? at Answers.com
- Ireland in England's History @ HistoryToday
Downton Abbey Links