Edith to Mary:’ Why must you sound so heartless? … ‘Gregson to Matthew: ‘So the laws of society should be preserved no matter what. Edith gave me the impression you were a freer soul than that.’ Matthew: ‘I find that hard to believe … [but] say a proper goodbye, you owe her that …
Mrs Hughes to Mr Carson: ‘You don’t want to come?’ Mr Carson: ‘I would rather chew broken glass.’ Cora to Robert: ‘Aren’t you enjoying your Victorian idyl any longer?’
Dear friends and readers,
So Downton Abbey came to an end for another season, and it was as fitting an ending as the 2 hour Christmas time Part that ended the second season. We had a parallel plot: Lord and Lady Grantham, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, Violet, the Dowager, the two ladies’ maids, Lord Grantham’s valet (Bates) and Matthew’s (Molesley), all traveled to Duneagle, Scotland, to visit Lord Grantham’s cousin, Marquess of Flintshire (aka Shrimpy), Marchioness (I must register my chagrin to see Cordelia from Brideshead [Phoebe Nicholls] now grown old, wrinkled, tempus fugit), their daughter, Lady Rose and of course their staff was there, including a lady’s maid, May Bird, seeming replica of Miss Obrien. Here they are sewing their ladies’ hats:
To them came the man now in love with Edith, a Rochester-type [wife in aslyum], Mr Gregson who has also provided Edith with her first paying job (which I must say she does not seem to appreciate as she does not seem to value the money or the liberty it could give her — as yet).
Left behind are the rest of the staff of Downton and Tom Bransom and little Sybil (Sibby) who says he was not invited, as well as (of course) Mrs Crawley, Dr Clarkson, and the townspeople, among whom a tradesman, Jos Tufton, will figure in our story. All but Bransom and Mr Carson go to a day-long fair:
As will be seen, very discreetly, Mrs Hughes is in the lead, and the attentive observer will notice that throughout the day Mrs Hughes is glimpsed repeatedly: what distinguishes the story at Downton for this part is our POV is Mrs Hughes: her voice and her perspective prevails repeatedly. Since she is given that passive humanity Keats talked of, i.e., entering into others’ views genuinely (though alas she keeps her reactionary disapproval in view too when any “law” of society is threatened), the mood of this half of the part was to me gratifying. She feels for everyone and she is patient, even with the new maid, Edna, who does not see why there should be artificial hierarchy, and takes advantage of Bransom’s continuing grief: what I liked about Edna’s dismissal (with a decent reference) is that to Mrs Hughes’s expected reiteration: “there are rules to this way of life Edna and if you are not prepared to live by them then it’s not the right life for you,” Edna’s face grows hard, and she turns and walks away.
Hardly a likeable character, Edna (MyAnna Buring) holds her own against Mrs Hughes. There’s no abjection of the kind Ethel was driven to as she has done nothing to be shamed of, which Mrs Hughes acknowledges. OTOH, she’s fired. The man and now upper class person counts, the female and servant not.
Mrs Hughes is given the best line of the hour which I here take as its good keynote. When Mrs Patmore says of her brief romantic delusion over Mr Henshawe (who wanted to marry her to get himself an obedient cook and nurse while he carried on flirting and more with young women), “I don’t know what I could have been thinking of,” “O I don’t know, dreaming of a better life.”
This tone, of reconciliation graced with behaving with dignity and kindness, to what is pervades and shapes the action in the Scottish scenes too. Trollope said if a Christmas story is not meretricious (which he allowed most are)
Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with … Christmas charity.
So the snitcher Jimmy Kent (who Alfred has learnt to distrust and now is careful to tell Mr Barrow there can be no physical love between them) thanks Mr Barrow for saving him from a savage beating by a mob,
and they become friends
There is the usual abrasive insistence on the rightness of status quo at every turn. Mrs Crawley refuses Dr Clarkson’s offer of romance (and marriage) on the grounds she’s got a life that she likes and why she should risk any change. (This is Mr Woodhouse’s reply to Emma when Emma declares she will marry Mr Knightley.) But Tom’s plight, his feeling he belongs to no world now is plangent and the spectacle of Mr Carson’s ability to unbend before a baby touching.
Overall the mood of this year’s Christmas spectacle was that of last’s.
Like last year too it devolves into separates threads of stories more than usual. To me the most pleasurable was that of Anna and Bates: their story thread begins in 3:7 when he comes out of prison, and in brief epitomizing scenes they are glimpsed, he with Lord Grantham, walking (they do a lot of this), fixing their house: Scotland is a holiday for them too: again, the walking, a picnic, her resolution to dance, the practicing with Lady Rose (who seems to be taking a role like that of Lady Sybil with long-gone to secretarial work Gwen):
and then the entry to the ball, the moving to dance … Return to Downton, she is back at work, serving our princess bride, Lady Mary, but she has had her holiday and Bates too.
The back story of Duneagle become the front story for this half of the part is the unhappy marriage of the Flintshires: they dislike one another, and all he does irritates her.
The anti-feminism so often on display in Downton Abbey comes out in the way what’s dramatized is the Marchioness getting back at Lady Rose. Like Lady Mary, she is directly asked “why is she so miserable to everyone?” only since it’s a male who asks her (the husband), and we never see him making anyone unhappy, it’s implied she’s in the wrong. We’re left to surmise she does not respect him (“Shrimpy”) nor like her life. Dreaming of another life in Scotland becomes kicking against the pricks. What Lord Grantham thought a Victorian idyl is a dying world just loaded with writhing helpless angers. (Of course Fellowes does not make the inference, that this pair should divorce.)
Oddly, for once the Dowager is on the side of underdog, her grand-niece Rose, against whom she says she cannot cast a stone. And Rose emerges not as the salacious Barbie doll of 3:8 but the unhappy daughter of an unhappy mother who Cora, Lady Grantham will taken when her parents go to India. (Flintshire has lost his estate, having no coaxing ex-lawyer-son-in-law, Matthew, and steward-farmer son-in-law, Bransom, to guide him.) Cora says she understands the Marchioness’s position — too bad she doesn’t explain more about this understanding.
Who else (beyond the Marchioness at moments) comes off badly in Scotland? well, May Bird, like Lady Rose, twisted by the Marchioness’s tactlessness (in asking May to imitate the hairstyles Miss Obrien concocts for Lady Grantham), spikes a drink that the bumbling Molesley takes in one gulp. Lady Mary with her soul-withering remarks to Edith and yes Matthew Crawley seemingly reinforcing these, ever doing Lady Mary’s bidding with his priggish lecturing of Michael Gregson.
I say seemingly because if you study the stills you see that Matthew is very uncomfortable. He does not like this kind of destructiveness. He preaches to Gregson, he does not insult him. Fellowes and the other film-makers have said they thought one way to write Dan Stevens out was to make him estrange himself from Lady Mary for good (the worm turns? finally he can’t take it anymore?) and go off to America and not return. Such a scene is preparation for what they feared would devastate the more pious of the fans (who don’t seem to observe how naive the presentation of sex is throughout)
To mention this — the problem of Stevens’s wanting to leave the mini-series and what to do about in inside the stories — compels me to speak of what I know so many have complained of this week and I must go outside the fiction to explain it.
Anibundel puts it that the sudden death of Matthew has a strongly tacked-on last minute feel. Structurally it’s a coda, an ironic aftermath of the birth of the baby. Fellowes gives less than 2 minutes at most to it; compare the long preparation, death, and aftermath of the going of Lady Sybil.
See the opening of this essay on the dispatch of Stevens: Sonia Saraiya, The AV Club.
I’ve this hunch: spite. Fellowes has been irritated at the way Dan Stevens has from the first summer after the spectacular success of season one been talking is determination to jump ship to get better and more interesting roles. You can discern their positions from these articles in the Guardian and New York Times.
These are clearly diplomatic presentations of what was probably a simmering resentful: Stevens is guarded throughout. He does not want to be typed into an emasculated male; he wants modern psychologically sexually sophisticated roles. Firth had bad trouble throwing off Darcy, partly because he too gave into money and being a star when he took the Bridget Jones’s Darcy part on. But no one bites the hand that feeds it especially since the show has now made Stevens a star. He is irritated at Cumberbatch for saying the show is “f..king atrocious” because there is a code among actors nowadays not to diss one another’s jobs; actors who turn down a part (as asinine or embarrassing) find they are not asked for good parts too.
Fellowes asked Stevens to come back next year for an episode or two to die then, and he would have worked up the character with a death that was meaningful somehow. Stevens said no. So Fellowes got back, did Steven’s character in short and brutal and abrupt with no meaning. He prefaced it with one of Lady Mary’s more unpleasant references to Edith and herself, showed her complacent-bossy at the last:
Matthew: You are horrid when you want to be
Mary; I know you love me anyway
and just after Matthew dies, we are treated to her telling Anna that Matthew must not come up until after the family as after all he’s had his turn already. So there was little there to allow us to grieve with Lady mary. Fellowes didn’t want us to. He wasn’t … grieving over this loss. Good riddance … I picked up on the ironic close of Matthew’s advice to Gregson to leave forthwith: of course give her a proper goodbye. Well Dan didn’t get to do that with Michelle.
I know I am not admitting to the unreality of the grating re-iterated premises of the mini-series, but then I’ve gone over these and thought I’d end rather on what is the series’s great strength: the characters of Downton Abbey are the driving emotional force of the series, and we love to love at least some of them. They are presented with sufficient ambivalence in complicated stories well-dramatized so that we can endow them with complexities and the intense emotionalisms and clever dialogues hits us in sore areas. Fellowes has a real gift for this. So we get involved with all of them.
Other people with this gift on the BBC who write mini-series include Andrew Davies's (a genuine genius of TV drama), Sandy Welch (another), Gwyneth Hughes. Individual mini-series are powerful — where a writer seems not to carry on with another mini-series: so the 1999 Aristocrats, and whole teams pull this off: Prime Suspect comes to mind.
I love to live with these characters; they keep me company; they are, unlike real people, anything but cool; they care intensely about much more than themselves and yet repeat many of our thoughts and articulate our troubles and dreams.
So I’ll watch on next year and have a candidate to replace Dan Stevens. I’m hoping for Matthew MacFayden because I know he plays these kind generous grave males (Little Dorrit), but he might also bring to the part (if Fellowes would like him) a subversive irony such as he did as Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now or more recently, Oblonsky in Anna Karenina. I know he’s too chubby just now (but Stevens is not thin), and no heart-throb for young teenage girls as he is somewhat older, but if Fellowes does not want to infantilize his central heroine, she ought to have a mature adult male as a partner.