“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Day 64: Hooked on Downton Abbey, In Love with Love

Last winter when I taught in France, and I got homesick for my husband, who has a slight but charming English accent, and for our dog, I found a distraction in TV form, Downton Abbey.  I had no inkling how much this show would take over my life.

The show is a great outlet for the Anglophile in all of us.  Last winter, in addition to missing my husband, I had family in England I wanted to visit, but our group had visa problems and were not able to leave France.  The year before, when my husband and I were in France together with our dog, we'd each gone on our own separate getaways to London while the other stayed behind with Zoe.  I went over in May, just in time to see the flowers in full bloom in Green Park with my friend, Jennifer.
Green Park, London
I can't even say why I bought Downton Abbey, on I-Tunes.  I hadn't seen it, and I had never bought any show on I-Tunes before.  All I can say is that it was love at first sight, and from the very first episode, when we saw the wire come into the grand estate that the Titanic had sunk, I was hooked.  From then on, all I had to do was hear that rhapsodic opening music and watch the cute yellow lab scamper across the property and I was transported.

My internet connection was unreliable in my apartment, and when I look back on that time I can track my moods on those nights alone as to whether or not I got to see a whole episode.  I had a big TV in the living room, but I never turned it on (I wish I had--my French would have improved much more quickly) so my only couch potato activity was to watch this show on my laptop, and one other.  (Madmen might be a subject for another post.)  I saw each episode three times, and then, when my sister, Mira, came to visit in May, I got her hooked on the show too.  We could not believe we would have to wait until the winter of 2012 to pick up the storyline again.  How could the writers and producers do this to us?  How would we wait?

The show has everything: history, class struggle, war, scandal, schemers, love, thwarted love, wealth, new inventions, beautiful clothes, architecture, and manners.  Perhaps most exciting is the wild ride of witnessing the Western world at the cusp of dramatic change that will affect everyone's lives, both private and public.  An old world order is breaking down, and as some fortunes rise and others fall, it's impossible not to hope that some of these star-crossed lovers will finally end up together.

But I'm starting to think that wanting love to prevail somewhere, anywhere, on the estate of Downton Abbey might be too much to ask for.  Why can't poor Edith finally have a man?  Does she really have to resort to the married farmer, or now, this mysterious burn victim from Canada who says he had amnesia and he's really the heir?  Will Sybil give up everything and run off to fight for Irish independence with the chauffeur, Tom Branson?

And then there's our so-called happy couple who preside over all, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, who at first seemed to demonstrate, in defiance of Western romantic tradition, that marriage and passion might possibly be found in the same place.  But then Cora was suddenly too busy making herself useful in the war to join her man at table for every meal.  Can their marriage function if she joins the twentieth century?  Will he seek comfort with the new maid? 

That leads us to the two primary couples.  In the downstairs realm, will Mr. Bates and Anna ever be able to wed?  It looks now like the murder of Mr. Bates' nasty, blackmailing ex, Vera, might be pinned on him.  Will he and Anna ever get a break?  And has there ever been a valet in the history of the aristocracy who had so many brushes with the law and scandal, and was always forgiven and taken back by his lord and master?

And finally, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley.  They had their games, their differences in class and upbringing, their colossal egos, and they blew it.  Now they each have someone in the picture: Lavinia for Matthew, who wants to be with him despite his war injuries, and Sir Richard for Mary, who will ruin her if she tries to break it off because of what he knows now (thanks to her own confession, thanks to Vera Bates) about her deadly dalliance with the handsome Turk.  That would all make things difficult enough, but then the writers had to give him a war injury that would make it impossible for him to "sire" heirs?

This might be taking the classic Western love plot too far--or perhaps it's just a very literal interpretation of the genre?

My addiction to the show made me want to go back to my trusty, Denis de Rougement, who, in Love and the Western World, explains the age-old conflict between passion and marriage as the conflict between those two kinds of love, eros and agape.  He tracks the basic Western romance plot back to the troubadour poets writing in the 12th century in Languedoc, who were perhaps influenced by the Cathars, the heretics that believed that God was love, but the world was evil, including all institutions, among them, marriage.  While the Cathars tried to be chaste (especially their perfects, their version of priests), their believers struggled in their bodies to follow the path with varying success.  (See Day 51: The World on the Page: On Keeping a Journal, Part Two, for a little more about the Cathars, especially one French reader's comments.)  The troubadour poets, some of whom may have been heretics, de Rougement proposes, celebrate "faraway love."  Falling for someone unattainable has its roots in these medieval poems.

In the legend of Tristan and Isolde, the basic romantic love plot solidifies to become the form we now know so well, even eight centuries later.  Boy (Tristan) meets girl (Iseult) on a boat.  Girl isn't available. (She's engaged to be married to the king.)  But they drink love potion and fall into each other's arms.  Later, King Mark suspects the duo of adultery, sends her off to be swarmed by lepers, and sentences Tristan to the stake.  They escape into a forest, and when King Mark finds them one night, Tristan's sword is lying between them.  The king assumes that this is a sword of chastity keeping them pure.  All is forgiven, but things still don't end well.  To review the rest, I suggest going to see the Wagner opera.

Unconsummated passion is one of the features of the Western love story.  And the classic delay of fulfillment, all those obstacles, provide opportunities for the characters to become better humans, and far more spiritual.

Or not.

So Matthew's war-induced impotency is the sword of chastity.  And given the show's emphasis on their distinguished line carrying on, and not dying out with the Earl, this plot development fits a little too perfectly into both the Western romantic tradition and this particular story.  But, seriously?  It's clear that Matthew still loves Lavinia, and that Richard won't let Mary go without ruining her, but is his injury to his vitals going to be the ultimate obstacle that keeps the lovers from being together?

How can the writers do this to us?

Well, at least at the end of the last show, Matthew was feeling a curious "tingle."  So there's hope for him, for them, and for the romantic fools among us who are still holding out hope that this story will end well for some of them, at least.  (But not Thomas or O'Brien, and don't get me started.  Why did they have to make the male villain gay, and the female villain a lady's maid with an Irish name?)

When the love potion does its magic, Tristan is in love with love.  Maybe that's our problem too, eight centuries on.

For those of us who are hooked but wish the formula were different, perhaps we are like Lysander, in Midsummer Night's Dream:

Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But, either it was different in blood,-

It's hopeless.  Until this story ends, and even thereafter, I will continue to be smitten.  Unconsummated passion, lovely countryside, beauty, history, revolutionary change:  Downton Abbey has it all.  Now, if they would just give that cute dog more to do, the show would be perfect.


  1. When Isobel was turning DA into a hospital, she said it was to be decided where the dog would be allowed. Lord Grantham informed her: it has been decided. Isis will go wherever she pleases!

    And one more note: isn't it interesting that the two villains are the only ones ever shown smoking?
    Can't get enough of that Downton Abbey. I can't. And I'll never stop worrying about Mr. Bates.

    1. Oh, that is so true about the moment when the dog was allowed to go wherever she pleases in the hospital. That was a great moment of victory for team dog. Perhaps we can use this historical example in the new pet policy at school!

  2. Two paws up for the write-up; embellishments and synopsis. Unrequited love in the form of series installments..