The weekend approaches and I’m feeling a bit bummed that never again will there be a new episode of Downton Abbey. For six seasons I anxiously tuned in each January to find out the fate of Lord and Lady Grantham and that of their children and servants. It was a lovely adventure in which I was a fly on the wall learning the secrets of each of the characters. Over time they became like old friends who regularly came into my home for a Sunday evening visit. How I loved every single one of them!
I was fascinated by history and its ultimate effects on people who once lived on grand estates either by way of inheritance or for want of a job. I loved learning about the customs and the manners and realizing that ultimately the only real difference between the people upstairs and those downstairs was economic circumstance. It was quite remarkable to watch the twentieth century unfold in the eyes of people whose very existence was changing rapidly. Both the Grantham family and those who ran their household were in many ways watching a way of life become extinct.
In temperament I am perhaps the most like Cora Grantham, the devoted wife and mother who brought her American ways into the home along with a dowry that temporarily saved the estate. In reality I would most likely have been one of the members of the downstairs crew. Both of my grandmothers did the work of servants. Grandma Little worked as a cook in a boarding house in Oklahoma and her daughter, Opal, served the food. My Grandma Ulrich cooked for field hands on a farm and later cleaned office buildings in downtown Houston. I come from a line of mighty women who kept themselves and their family members from being hungry by waiting on those with bigger purses than they would ever have.
I always thought it a bit odd that my mother often insisted that my brothers and I did not have to say “Ma’am and Sir.” At school it was considered unmannerly to address adults without those titles and so many of my friends showed respect for their parents with such salutations. Over and over again my mom emphasized the fact that her parents did come all the way to America so that we would have to bow and scrape to anyone, not even her. I never told my mama that I deferred to those superiors who insisted on my using the phrases that she held in such distain. I saw little reason to rock the boat and didn’t actually understand at the time why it was so important to her that I always hold my head high.
Years later my mother-in-law would tell me of a time when some of her relatives got into trouble at school because they would not use the titles “Ma’am or Sir” when addressing their elders. They had been instructed much like I had that to do so would be a reminder of a servant life style that they left behind in the old country. I was rather surprised to hear the pride with which she boasted that they had not been willing to return to the way of life that had been their lot before coming to America. Her comments helped me to understand why it had been so important to my mother that we always remember that we are equal to any other human being who walks on this earth.
It is quite difficult for most of us to understand the fact that one’s status at birth was so often a life sentence, particularly in countries where royalty and titles were so revered. What I loved most about Downton Abbey was the slow transition that began to take place as modern society evolved. Daisy took advantage of opportunities to get an education and found out that she was as bright as anyone. Mr. Mosely became a teacher. Tom Branson ultimately gained the love and respect of the Grantham family as not just an equal but someone whose wisdom, intelligence and compassion was a valued commodity. Edith learned to drive an ambulance much as Princess Elizabeth would later do during World War II. She took over the reigns at a magazine and employed yet another servant whose hidden talent was writing an advice column. Even Cora demonstrated that she was far more than just an elegant lady when she became head of the local hospital board. The times were definitely changing, a fact that my own grandparents seemed to understand. The gap between the upstairs and the downstairs was slowly narrowing.
It’s difficult for me to decide who were my favorite characters. I totally adored Sybil’s rebellious spirit and her love story with Tom. I was devastated by the tragedy that marked her young life. I suspect that the person most like me in every way would be Mrs. Hughes. She was like a mother hen hovering over all of her chickens both upstairs and down. She possessed a kind of folksy wisdom that allowed her to see into the future and adapt to changes. She was young at heart while still being a kind of role model. I so enjoyed Anna and Mr. Bates. They were such a lovely couple that all too often had to endure unbearable challenges. They reminded me a great deal of my Grandma and Grandpa Little. Theirs was a love story for the ages but it was rarely without tragedy. Of course Violet was my very favorite person. I so wish that I might have her way with words and the courage to express my opinions with no qualms.
Sunday night will come and I will have to find another diversion. It’s still a bit of a wait for Game of Thrones and I’m actually a bit nervous about how the writers will choose to conclude that saga given that the author has not yet finished the series. There are only a handful of television programs that I so enjoyed as much as Downton Abbey. Breaking Bad may be one of the few that is its equal in my mind. What both had in common was a great story with relatable characters and an outstanding cast. When the line between fiction and truth begins to blur it is certain that the program is exceptional.
I’ve heard rumors that Sir Julian Fellows may write the screenplay for a movie or create a spinoff with some of the characters. I can’t really decide whose life I would most like to continue to follow. It might be fun to advance in time a decade or so to see how the children of Mary, Edith and Sybil are doing and how the Great Depression and World War II impacted their lives and those of their parents. Whether that happens or not Downton Abbey has earned its place in the annals of great entertainment and perhaps I will eventually revisit those wonderful times with a set of CDs.
Mike and I once attended a class about Downton Abbey at Rice University about midway in the lifetime of the program. We learned about Highclere Castle where the show was filmed. Our instructor explained the customs and the mores of the times. It was fascinating and makes me want to travel to Great Britain so that I might see things firsthand. It would be so great to return to Europe not as a servant like my grandmothers had been but as a guest and an equal. I suspect that it would make all of them smile to see just how far their descendants have risen. With each generation we have moved farther and farther away from subservience and closer and closer to the upstairs.