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The enchanted glass of Downton Abbey

September 30, 2012

It looks like Downton Abbey is to get a prequel about how the Earl and Countess of Grantham met. It’s writer, Julian Fellowes has said:

“I do actually have an idea of doing a prequel of the courtship of Robert and Cora, when all those American heiresses were arriving in London.

“They had a slightly troubled courtship, because she was in love with him before they married, as we know, and he married her entirely for her money,

“I sort of feel there’s something quite nice in there because he’s a decent cove, and so he feels rather guilty about this which has affected their marriage beyond that.”

Yawn….

I hate Downton Abbey and it’s BBC competitor, the reprised Upstairs, Downstairs. Both dramas offer that section of the public that cares for such shite, the ideological comfort of ‘the enchanted mirror’

As Tom Nairn argues:

“Like anyone else, the British look into a mirror to try and get a sense of themselves. In so doing they are luckier but ultimately less fortunate than other peoples: a gilded image is reflected back, made up of sonorous past achievements, enviable stability, and the painted folklore of their Parliament and Monarch. Though aware that this enchanted glass reflects only a decreasingly useful lie they have found it naturally difficult to give up”

Nairn is referring to the enchanted mirror of monarchy but the same might be said of the period drama’s Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. Their’s is a hierarchical world in which all social conflicts and tensions can be resolved without any serious restructuring of class relations. Its stratification appears natural and only the deviant are incapable of finding accommodation within it.

A prequel would be interesting if it gave us a glimpse into how the Earl of Grantham’s illustrious ancestors acquired the family’s wealth. How did they benefit from the acts of enclosure, for instance?

For all the period dramas, bodice busters and literary adaptations on British television – and the world of strict hierachies they depict – class is little more than a template upon which their dramas play out. Since class appears as natural and insurmountable, all stories are satisfactorily resolved only once everyone is in their place.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2012 5:14 pm

    A prequel would be interesting if it gave us a glimpse into how the Earl of Grantham’s illustrious ancestors acquired the family’s wealth. How did they benefit from the acts of enclosure, for instance?

    Part of me would settle for a graphic depiction of how their lawyer ancestors liberally privatised, er, ‘re-distributed to enterprising folk’ those, ahem, dead community assets tied up in the hands of the Church prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Or how the family later gambolled in the Caribbean surf whilst the sugarcane that made they rich was miraculously harvested without the help of any slaves. Sadly, the diktats of prime time television might prevent a full visual exploration of quite how Charles II came to award the Earldom to the husband of a very special friend of his.

    It really can’t be said often enough: as a default starting point you’ll always be on safe ground if you assume the British aristocracy originally got rich through stealing stuff or sleeping with powerful people.

    • Rab permalink*
      October 3, 2012 9:54 am

      Have you seen the 1999 film version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, directed by Patricia Rozema? Does a wonderful job of exposing the slavery upon which the Bertram’s family wealth was built.

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