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Beyond the costume drama: a lesson in morality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - It's no mystery why I am devoted to the PBS television series “Downton Abbey” or why, on Sunday night, after the final installment of the second season of the Masterpiece masterpiece faded, I felt the twinge of melancholy you feel when you know a special experience has ended, if only for a while.

I am an inveterate and unashamed Anglophile. When lucky enough to be in Britain, be it glorious London or, as William Blake called it, in the countryside of England's green and pleasant land, I’ve felt very much at home, almost as if I'd been there before, long, long ago. If there is such a thing as genetic memory, it's activated in me in Great Britain like fireworks on the Fourth of July. My ancestry, after all, spreads all over the British Isles, from the highlands to the bogs, but none of this, neither Anglophilia nor lineage, are the reasons enough for my admiration of this series. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate books, movies, operas, plays and television programs (as well as news websites such as the Beacon) that transcend the desire merely to entertain or transport us from our quotidian existences or to sell copies or tickets or to earn ratings. Rather, what matters to me is clear ambition on the part of the producers to reveal us to ourselves as others see us, and subtly and intelligently to limn character, or the lack of it, and yes, to proclaim the intertwined gospels of civility, character, good judgment and virtue.

“Downton Abbey” is the stage that accommodates those criteria brilliantly, and it is the Jacobean vessel that protects and nourishes them. The stately home posing as Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle, located in Hampshire, west of London. Since the 17th century it has been the property of the earls of Carnarvon. The fifth earl, George E. S. M. Herbert, bankrolled Egyptologist-archaeologist Howard Carter, and together they discovered the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen in 1922 and permanently readjusted the world's mythologies. 

The house is magnificent. As buildings of enduring value often do, Highclere expresses noble values and manifests an intention that goes far beyond simple beauty or a vulgar display of great wealth. That intention is to reflect order and quality, and to shake a muscular fist in the face of chaos. Great buildings bind patron and architect both to the past in the hope of extending values of harmony and substance, and to the future, with messages erected in stone of order, durability and grace. 

Superficially, what operates within the walls of the fictional Downton Abbey is a burdensome class system that relegates those who serve to the cellar and elevates those who are served to the sumptuous and comfortable beauty of the main living spaces – the salons, libraries, the dining rooms and so forth. Similarly the private spaces – bedrooms, sitting rooms, corridors, stairways -- are separated as well, actually, visually and materially.

All of this offends our sense of one version of democracy, a most noble intention itself, a system that theoretically would erase class distinctions and level playing fields, in short, to establish equality. The evident truth, of course, is that no political or philosophical system is able to do that. No matter how vigorously we defend democracy, when great wealth and position are achieved, usually the first thing the wealthy, powerful woman or man does is to assume his or her superiority and to show it off. 

Following close behind is the desire to acquire or to commission edifices meant to signal success and wealth, to demonstrate power, and in the universes of genuinely cultivated and wealthy men and women, to pledge with architecture and with their pocketbooks allegiance to traditional noble values. 

Quite regularly, the building is a disguise for conditions antithetical to nobility -- rapacity and snobbishness for example. In “Downton Abbey,” the sleazy press lord Sir Richard Carlisle portrays those attributes perfectly. And if his character is exaggerated in its vulgarity and boorishness, exaggerated too is the evident hauteur of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley.

Coursing through the moral and ethical arteries of both Sir Richard and Lady Violet, however, are certain characteristics made evident to us through the device of exaggeration, and we learn from them. That's upstairs. Downstairs the same characteristics are examined equally vividly in the characters of the duplicitous lady's maid O'Brien and the generous and noble housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. Class distinctions wither when we bring these various men and women under our microscope. Character, both good and ill, comes into focus as these men and women make their way haltingly through this richly textured tapestry of early 20th century history.

Examined through the prism of fiction, which always gives a better picture of reality than realism ever could, Sir Richard burns glaringly as a bully and a boor. When he is sent away, we cheer his departure. We see O'Brien artifully manipulating both Lady Crawley and the footman, Thomas, to satisfy her own maliciousness, and hope she will get hers. And Lady Violet’s values, which seem at first to be so retarditaire and arbitrary, ultimately obtain, because of their ironic good sense and generosity, however grudging. Mrs. Hughes's Victorian morality could doom her as a scold, but we see her emerge as a paragon of warmth, fairness and magnanimity. 

There is so much to admire in "Downton Abbey" and at Highclere Castle, and Lord Fellowes's series caresses and polishes it for us. But what we learn following its inhabitants through through grand and perfectly proportioned rooms and into the cramped quarters of servants is a most valuable lesson, and that is this: nobility transcends class and is most definitely not for sale.

I often fall back upon E.M. Forster’s glorious definition of aristocracy, taken from an essay of his called "Two Cheers for Democracy" to explain what I mean about aristocracy and human nobility. Quoting it once again here the better to extol the virtues given form in the Crawleys and “Downton Abbey.” 

“I believe in aristocracy, though -- if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it," Forster wrote. "Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. 

"They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.” 

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.