By Deborah Cohen
Not long now, Downton fans. The beribboned third season wafts ashore in America today, though if the students I teach are any indication, the younger set (fervent Occupiers, some of them — savor the irony!) have already partaken via illegal means.
Downton Abbey — it’s often been remarked — has scored a greater success among guileless Americans than class-savvy Brits, who know to object to its nostalgia for a world of monkish servility for the many and unfettered plenty for the few. That’s certainly true, so far as the critical reception goes. Where American critics lavished giddy praise (and six Emmies and a Golden Globe) on the show, British reviewers have responded far more stingily. This season even the reliably conservative Daily Telegraph described Lord Grantham as an “anachronistic nitwit.”
Downton’s viewing numbers, though, tell a different story. In the UK, the third season averaged an audience of nine-plus million, or 36% of the country’s viewers. PBS pulled down just over half that number in America, and given that the population of the United States is nearly five times as large as Great Britain’s, it’s not just Americans who are succumbing to a fantasy land of benevolent country grandees and Edwardian millinery.
And so, however righteous Simon Schama’s salvo against the “unassuageable American craving for the British country house” may have been, the charge must also be turned back — fair is fair — to the native audience.
Leaving aside the class angle, let us chew over another aspect of the show that’s hardly provoked any comment. Above all else, Downton Abbey is about a family. Given the triumph of other family-related shows on TV (Modern Family at the head of the pack), Downton’s account of the emotional dynamics of the aristocratic Crawleys is arguably as central to its success as the period frills and furbelows.
Percolating through the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey, and motoring much of the plot, is a Crawley family secret. The Turkish diplomat, Kemal Pamuk, has died in fragrante delicto after romancing his way into Lady Mary Crawley’s bed. A panicked Lady Mary calls in first her loyal maid, Anna, then her mother. At Anna’s suggestion, they decide to move Pamuk’s body back to his own room.
Little does the trio of plotters realize, however, that their stealthy progress down the corridor has been observed by the scullery-maid Daisy, who eventually tells Mary’s rivalrous sister, Edith, who tells the Turkish Ambassador, who in turn feeds the rumor mill of London Society. Eventually the news comes to Mrs. Bates, the estranged wife of a Downton valet, who threatens to expose the entire incident in the tabloids, forcing Mary (almost) into a marriage of serious inconvenience with the loathsome press baron, Sir Richard Carlisle.
So just how plausible is this story-line?
Far-fetched as the diplomat-in-the-bed incident might seem, Julian Fellowes, Downton’s creator, has claimed that he borrowed it from real-life. In the diary of a great-aunt of a friend of his wife’s is told the tale of a corpse, dead in the act, smuggled down the dim halls of a country house.
That the Countess of Grantham, furious as she might be, would keep her daughter’s secret as her own is entirely believable. That Lady Mary’s father would be left in the dark is not improbable, as women (especially mothers) often managed family secrets, with or without their husbands’ knowledge. That the young housemaid would blurt out the news was, or so the Victorians believed, a dangerous likelihood. “Remember this, husbands, and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters,” the novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon warned her readers, “Your servants enjoy the fun.”
But would Lady Edith have exposed her sister? Here the plot falls down. The shame of the one sister would have been felt by the other. More often than not, familial solidarity, especially in matters of morality, was steadfastly maintained, even by siblings who despised each other. However poor Edith’s marriage prospects were, they would have been still worse had her sister’s reputation been ruined. When the official snoopers of the Victorian-era Divorce Court sought to uncover the secrets that petitioners had hidden, they at first imagined that family members would furnish the best evidence. But rare, it would turn out, were the parents or siblings who willingly sent a black sheep to slaughter.
When it comes to the subject of familial dynamics, then, Downton is pure mid-twentieth century melodrama. It caters to our present-day inclinations rather than the historical realities. The closely-guarded skeleton in the closet is nowadays as rare an item of household furnishing as the antimacassar. But for the Crawleys, even the vengeful ones, there was little about the truth that could set them free.
Deborah Cohen’s Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain will be published by Oxford in the US in March, and by Viking Penguin in the UK in January. She is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University. She tweets from @deborahacohen and her website is www.deborahacohen.com.