Why I’m Watching Downton Abbey


Because I’m working on a Big Thing, a work in progress that’s partially set in the Gilded Age and the Edwardian Era.

Because I need to time travel. I’ve been reading lots of biographies, histories, and fiction of and about the period. Sometimes I feel like Christopher Reeve’s character in Somewhere in Time, trying to will myself into the past. When I was writing The Circus in Winter, I practiced this same technique, immersing myself in movies and books and old-timey objects. (You wonder why the background of my blog looks like upholstery? Now you know…) In a period drama like Downton Abbey, the past is recreated with painterly precision, and I can study the brushstrokes.

Because Laura Linney introduces each episode. For episode 2, she reminds us of the limited options available to unmarried girls of modest means and how the typewriter changed lives. For episode 3, Linney discusses fashions in the context of social change, reminding us that “sometimes the engine of change doesn’t roar. It just quietly sits down to dinner.” The best historical fiction (on the screen or on the page) dramatizes individual lives taking place amid abstract “eras” and “movements.”

Because it stars Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the Countess of Grantham. If, like me, you’ve spent the last few years reading biographies of Gilded Age women, then watching McGovern is like seeing two women at once: Consuelo Vanderbilt, the real person Cora is based on, and Evelyn Nesbit, the real person turned into a fictional character by E.L. Doctorow and played by McGovern in the movie Ragtime. Cora Crawley is no Evelyn Nesbitt, that’s for sure, but Cora, the heiress-auctioned-to-an-Earl, gets the happy ending Consuelo, the heiress-auctioned-to-a-Duke, never got. For further reading, I highly recommend Paula Uruburu’s American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, (here’s a trailer for the book) and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.

Because of Maggie Smith. Period.

Because I love downstairs, too. The lives of the servants are just as interesting as the lives of those they serve. I hope the Bates and Anna story ends more happily than the end of Remains of the Day.

Because it’s a participatory event. On Sunday nights, I follow the live tweets of @edwardian_era, also known as Evangeline Holland, “Historian, Foodie, Novelist, Vintage Fashionista, and Edwardian enthusiast,” who blogs at Edwardian Promenade, a site that’s been an indispensible resource to me. Watching the show + following her twitter stream of info nuggets provides an intertextual, “Pop-Up Video” experience. When the Earl teases his mother about consulting the “stud book,” @edwardian_era tweets “stud book = Debrett’s” and includes a link to the Wikipedia entry, where I learn that it was the British equivalent of The Social Register. Bingo! How lucky is this? This show airs just as I’m writing about the period, and experts on the period are sharing their expertise as they watch the show. Wow.

Because relationships are inherently suspenseful. As Katie Roiphe says in her book, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939, “Marriage is perpetually interesting; it is the novel most of us are living in.”

Because-I don’t know. I don’t know why I love period dramas. I asked my Facebook friends about this, and a friend suggested: “Women had much less power yet many women (myself included) can’t get enough of costume dramas. Is it that we relate, primarily, to the upper classes and imagine a life in which we had leisure, servants, beautiful clothes and went to balls, as a way to indulge our romantic selves, and then we can pull back, turn off the TV, and regain our authority?”

I don’t know. Maybe.

But I think it’s because of something like this: Downton and Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes was asked, “What’s our fascination with turn-of-the-20th-century life about?” and he said:

“It’s almost our world. When you look at something going on in 1640, you don’t see a connection. But when you look at 1900, you see our world but apparently a simpler form of it where somehow everyone knows the rules, whereas we increasingly have a sense that none of us know the rules. And we’re in a slight state of social chaos. And it seems beguiling to watch an ordered world where everyone knew what they were doing.”

Or as Richard Drew at The Atlantic says: “For me, Downton Abbey is as complex and fascinating a study of the early 20th century as, Mad Men is of the 1960’s.”

And the last (and best) reason why I’m watching Downton Abbey: Because it’s helping me “get inside” my character, a young woman of that time and cultural milieu. In other words, I get to watch great public television and call it “research.”