Surely there is romanticization of the servants’ lives in Downton Abbey, though Dowd fails to cite the many episodes in which their lives are portrayed with pretty rough historical accuracy: such as the plotline involving the pretty maid, Edna, who has a fling with a soldier staying in the house and, after being sacked for being discovered with him, finds herself pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and without the means of providing for herself and her baby.
But Dowd’s chief error is not that she overplays her point about the romanticism of the show. Her chief error is that she fails to appreciate the deep spiritual hunger that Downton Abbey addresses. The show does not “pander,” for instance, to our needs for democracy and equality. It simply argues that they are indispensable. In showing us an aristocratic family sharing its hopes and its foibles with the servants downstairs, we are given a picture of a shared humanity that transcends class distinctions.
Aristotle, moreover, said about tragedy that it should concern itself with “great houses.” Why? Because the aristocracy stands for, or should stand for, what is “best” (aristos) in human achievement and character. Downton Abbey is also about a great house, and in being so it satisfies our perennial desire to contemplate what the world takes to be the best, and to laugh or at least recognize the irony when those claimed to be the best inevitably fail to live up to the mark.
Finally, Downton Abbey is about love. We cannot live without stories, and among the stories we crave most is the one that confirms the perennial truth that love is what makes the world go round, and no matter what happens, love in some sense conquers all. Not that all the love affairs in Downton Abbey live up to the highest moral standards. Romanticism seeps in here, too. But in the marriage of Matthew and Lady Mary, especially, we have a union of lovers in which, as in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the moral limitations of each are overcome in a way that clears the ground for a lasting marriage lived in true friendship.
That is a happy ending that will always keep them coming back on Sunday nights.
Daniel McInerny is the editor of Aleteia’s English edition. He is also the author of the comic novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, as well as two books in the Kingdom of Patria children’s series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits and Stoop of Mastodon Meadow. You are invited to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter: @danielmcinerny, He blogs on the renovation of the Catholic literary tradition at thecomicmuse.com.