How Watching Downton Abbey Can Help You Live a Better Life
Despite its popularity among viewers and critics alike, Downton Abbey has a few critical detractors. Some critics have accused it of being inferior to the similar epic family saga Brideshead Revisited, likening it to an English soap opera that is high in entertainment but low in artistic value.
It’s been accused of having superficial characters that are either purely bad or purely noble, lacking in the multi-edged shadings that real folks possess. Well, I say — balderdash!
It’s my intention to prove the fallacy behind these unfair criticisms, and to show that Downton Abbey is far, far more than just a run-of-the-mill costume drama — it is a truly dynamic series of with the power to change our lives! And if art can be defined as a representation of reality with the power to stimulate the viewer’s mind and bring about self-growth and improvement, then Downton Abbey surely fits the bill as true art.
The sweeping theme “Did I Make the Most of Loving You?” that begins each episode begs the Downton Abbey fanatic to ponder the question, “Did I really make the most of watching you?” Because in the end, it’s up to the viewer to assimilate the rich life lessons Downton Abbey is brimming over with.
The quality of the performances are so real that it makes these lessons all the more easy to learn and apply to our lives, even though we’re miles and years and societies apart from the characters onscreen.
By taking a close look at the relationships between some of the show’s most memorable characters and seeing just how three-dimensional they really are, we can use the wisdom we gain from observing them to make our own lives more peaceful and fulfilling.
Robert and Matthew
Let’s face it, the obligations Lord Robert Crawley feels toward his family makes most of our fears and worries about failing to be esteemed by our own seem much less severe by comparison.
It’s hard enough for us to worry about carving the turkey wrong during a family Thanksgiving dinner and getting goofy looks from all our relatives at the table. Imagine the pressure from carrying the burden of responsibility that Robert feels, his solemn duty being to protect and preserve Downton Abbey the way he believes it has served him.
But the fact is that in spite of his preoccupation with upholding his family name and keeping the estate financially secure, Lord Grantham has not succumbed to the extreme snobbery and duplicity that many people in such a position find themselves tempted by.
He treats his servants with respect and shows no disdain or superiority over their mental or physical infirmities — unlike most of the rest of the staff and family — and is watchful and genuinely concerned over their welfare, particularly his valets John Bates and Mr. Lang, the former who is partially crippled and the latter a shell-shocked WWI veteran.
Although there’s little doubt that he is privileged and probably not too excited about having his young third cousin Matthew inherit Downton Abbey after the expected heir goes down with the Titanic, he doesn’t resist the changes nature brings down upon him — and that’s why in the end he always survives.
Although Matthew is resented by most of the rest of the family for being “middle-class” — and Matthew in response is not too fond of their extravagant lifestyle — Robert is kind to and protective of the reluctant young heir, essentially becoming a surrogate father figure for the young man.
But what really makes Robert’s relationship with Matthew so morally educational to the viewer is that, in spite of his nobility, he is very recognizably human and has flaws which are revealed in due course and threaten to harm his relationship with his cousin.
In particular, he is upset when Matthew writes a will leaving his share of the estate to his pregnant wife Mary (who just happens to be Robert’s daughter), which challenges Robert’s own sense of power and leads him to fight to keep it from being upheld by keeping his daughter “in the shadows”, but in the end he loses the battle — and the viewer is left with the excitement of predicting how Robert will adjust to his daughter’s power over Downton Abbey rivaling his own.
Anna and Lady Mary
Anna is the caring housemand who is always willing to help and lend a sympathetic ear to her employer Lady Mary. While their difference in class enters Lady Mary’s thoughts from time to time, it is of absolutely no concern to Anna.
In those dark times when we feel cheated, ignored or patronized by our own pals, we think there’s no such thing as a true friend. Anna is a beacon of light that shines to remind us all that that’s not always the case, and she is indeed one of the beating hearts of Downtown Abbey who counterbalances the self-gratifying behavior that many of the upper-class characters become swept up in. In short, she’s what so many of us long to be — kind, helpful, resourceful and patient.
Observing Anna in her friendship with Lady Mary is a tool that can help us to realize how to cut through the cobwebs that keep us prisoner to the passing whims and insecurities of the people in our lives, and learn to appreciate their good traits that are sometimes obscured by vanity.
The next time you feel like knocking your best friend’s teeth out for not seeing your point of view, just say to yourself: Would Anna really care?
Isobel and Violet
Ever seen the deadly clash that can ensue between two mother-in-laws with oil-and-vinegar personalities? Well, Downton Abbey matriarchs Isobel and Violet couldn’t be more different on their exteriors.
The change-embracing, humanitarian Isobel who couldn’t give a hoot about upper class mores contrasts sharply with the conservative and sometimes snobbish Isobel, who clings to her ideals and resists anything that threatens to upset her comfortable lifestyle.
Watching the close friendship that slowly develops over the course of years between these two women reaffirms the need for all of us to stick to our own ideals even in the face of adversity, and by doing so patiently and consistently — while not making more of things than is necessary every time that idealistic little demon called “Ego” begs us to — people will come to appreciate us for our individuality.
Today petty differences in ideals seem to be so blown out of proportion, and it’s so easy to despise someone simply because they have different values.
Although Isobel gets a little perverse bit of thrill from riling up Violet, she stays true to her humanitarian ideals and nurses Violet during a lengthy illness, and in the end wins over her.
When we find ourselves caught up in petty disagreements with people over political semantics, we can escape to the pre-Facebook, pre-politically correct world of Downtown Abbey and watch the relationship between Isobel and Violet unfold, and find confirmation that these differences can be overcome. We just have to be ourselves … and not worry so much about whether other people “get” us right then and there.
Sarah and Thomas
It’s not only from the “noble” characters that we can learn important lessons — the relationship between bitter housemaid Sarah O’Brien and opportunistic schemer and footman Thomas Barrow is a pairing that seems to poison everything and everyone that comes in contact with them.
In spite of their vices, specks of humanity buried within them underneath self-preservation come out from time to time, and helps us to remember that there’s always some bad in the best of us, and some good in the worst. Nothing and no one is as black and white as they may seem on the surface.
Sarah and Thomas’s friendship ends soon enough, as all friendships forged from mutual hatred do.
The reason they became friends in the first place was because of the disdain they had for the rest of the household, mocking the ideals of those who they felt looked down on them.
And when their relationship ends because Thomas refuses to help Sarah’s nephew Alfred get a job with the Crawleys as a footman — because Thomas doesn’t think Alfred has the seniority or experience to “deserve” such a position as he himself holds — we realize that both of these characters suffer from an even more extreme form of egoism than that which they claim to despise in their employers.
The lesson we can learn from Sarah and Thomas’s relationship? We hate what we don’t really understand, because it doesn’t seem to “fair” to us … and ironically, over time, this growing resentment causes us to become what we didn’t understand in the first place, but by then we’ll be too bitterly blind to see it.
Sarah and Robert are two characters to keep in mind when we find ourselves disturbed by the manipulative behavior of other people in our lives, as we remember that the suffering they cause actually pales in comparison to the suffering they cause themselves.
Perhaps the fact that its luxurious interior set decoration, opulent costumes and depiction of aristocratic life has inspired so many viewers to copy it has something to do with some critics finding Downton Abbey superficial.
I propose that it’s just some of the viewers that are superficial — not the show, and that watching and pondering its themes closely is the secret to its artistic and transformative value.
True, the demand for professional butlers has been on the rise since its debut, but any popular show will have that type of “superficial” influence on the general public.
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing of true substance in its story, things that the viewer can apply to his or her own life and character to improve it in ways that really count. And not that there’s anything wrong with drooling over the beauty of Downton Abbey’s sets — I myself find my jaw dropping from time to time at them, and even secretly thinking how nice it would be to have my own butler to clean up after my sloppiness.
It has been revealed that Downton abbey’s sixth season, which is to begin airing in November of 2015, is to be its last … a sad announcement for all of us devout followers of the show, but also an exciting opportunity to see how the fates of our favorite characters — our “teachers” of these lessons we’ve learned so far — will turn out, and to remind us all once again that all things — even good ones — must change.
Will Isobel and Violet remain close friends now that Isobel is being wooed away by Lord Merton, much to Violet’s dismay? Will Robert Crawley, always much revered for his nobility and respect for others, come to terms with his daughter Mary managing Downton Abbey?
Whatever happens, nothing is more emotionally satisfying than seeing other people come face to face with their worst fears. If they beat them, we feel a subconscious urge to do the same … if they don’t, we feel better about ourselves by comparison.
And that’s why, no matter how things turn out, we can count on Downton Abbey to keep us pondering the mysteries of human life, and hopefully to use any revelations we did for our own benefit.