The Dangers & Delights of Downton Abbey

by guest blogger Maya Rodale, author of smart and sassy romance novels

My mother, who has forced me to stay up past my bedtime to watch PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre (now called Masterpiece) all my life, has not seen Downton Abbey. Neither has my history-obsessed English husband. But why I ask, desperately. How can you not watch the masterpiece of all Masterpiece Theatres?! Interestingly enough, they both gave the same answer: fear.

To be specific, it’s their fear of the time commitment, which at one point would have been a whole day (Season One) and now would be a whole weekend (Season Two). This is a valid concern. Downton is one of those shows that suck you in so that when you start watching an episode in the morning, it’s all “just one more” until, before you know it, darkness has fallen, the day is done, and you are still unshowered and in your pajamas. Let’s not even pretend otherwise.

It’s not just romance, intrigue, and gorgeous dresses (though it is certainly all of those things). It’s partially the particular period and particularly the speed of history in the era in which it takes place (the show starts in 1912). So much changes so fast. As my friend and fellow author Laura Lee Guhrke writes, “The old ways of the aristocracy were giving way to a modern, more egalitarian society. Women were fighting for the right to vote. There were exciting innovations in technology and medicine.” One minute the dowager countess is spooked by the newly installed electricity, and before you know it, the telephone is ringing and World War I is over. Would you ever see such rapid change within a generation in any other period in history?

In Downton, we see all of these developments play out in the lives of some very interesting characters.

Guhrke’s favorite is Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham: “She has this tough, ‘I don’t care’ veneer, but underneath, she’s got a soft heart that she hates people to see. She’s vulnerable, tough, and real, a brilliantly layered character.” Earl Grantham, the head of the family, has ONE JOB, and that job is to not lose the family home and fortune…in an age where everything conspires against him. What pressure! Then there’s the dashing young man plucked from obscurity to be named heir to the earldom and three vexing daughters, one of whom runs off with the family’s driver. (Ah, young love!)

But the drama isn’t confined to abovestairs: There’s all sorts happening with the staff. Romance author Lorraine Heath loves “the contrast of the upper echelon (the aristocracy) with the common people (the servants); the British with the Americans.” As an author, she finds it interesting “how the nobility interacts with the servants, how the up-and-coming common man is looked down upon, knowing that a time will come when the aristocracy will lose some of its wonder.” (Perhaps in real life, but decidedly not in romance novels or on PBS.)

And then, of course, there’s the dowager countess. When I grow up, I want to be the dowager countess. Heath describes her so perfectly: “She’s a snob but sees it as her right to be a snob. Yet every now and then, the kindness shows through, the part of her that makes her beloved by those who surround her.” She also has the best lines of the show (do watch the YouTube video Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says).

If anything, this all just proves the point that the show is something to be quite afraid of. My family members are facing a lost weekend, perhaps even a week (with my company, of course). If you dare, there is really only one thing to do: Clear your schedule, call in sick, put your pajamas on, and surrender to the pleasure of such a fine show.

What do you love about the show? If you haven’t watched it, why the devil not?

Love Downton Abbey? Check out Laura Lee Guhrke’s novels—they’re set in the same time period. Her most recent is Trouble at the Wedding.

Love the English lords? Lorraine Heath’s most recent novel is Lord of Temptation, and her next novel has one of my favorite titles ever: Lord of Wicked Intentions.

If you haven’t yet seen the show, for Lord’s sake, watch it already! Order the DVDs and turn off your phone.


Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels, as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master’s degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her latest book is Seducing Mr. KnightlyLearn more at



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20 Responses to The Dangers & Delights of Downton Abbey

  1. Nikki Lindqvist January 4, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    Yes, yes, yes! The Dowager Countess is the very best! She is played brilliantly. What I enjoy about it most, though, is probably exactly what you say… you see how the times change so quickly. It’s a wonderful little history lesson for young people today which might go down more smoothly than reading a history book. At least it would’ve worked that way for me. If you’re not watching it… what ARE you, NUTS?!?!?

  2. maya rodale January 4, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    It’s definitely such a great way to get into history! I wonder how many of us have gone on to read more about the time period after watching the show?

    Speaking of that, this article from The Onion is funny: “Watching Episode of ‘Downton Abbey’ Counts As Reading Book”,27308/

  3. Nikki Lindqvist January 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    You would probably appreciate this article (in English) about a Stockholm museum exhibiting some of the Downton Abbey clothing.

    “Lady Mary’s dinner attire and the Dowager Countess’ lilac hat with the berry-cluster ornaments helped a Stockholm museum break its all-time visitor record in 2012, and prompted it to extend its opening hours as queues were spilling onto the pavement.”

  4. DJinPA January 4, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    This reminds me of the days of change my grandmother saw. She was born a blacksmith’s daughter and a small farmer’s wife in rural downstate Illinois in a county without paved roads, never learned to drive and was too old to qualify for Social Security. She was born in 1892. When they went somewhere, they went by buckboard, train or walked. She had a hard time believing that men walked on the moon but yet she enjoyed jet travel to visit her far flung children and living into her 90s to see her son, my dad, work for IBM in the heyday of the boom of computer technology begin to take off. She first got the right to vote as a young married woman. But she taught me many things that today are seen as something beyond “retro” and almost lost information. I would argue we are living in a time of similar rapid change. Perhaps hard to see as we live through it. And, yes, I am hooked on D.A. Friends from over the pond inform me that this season, while not a barn-burner, isn’t as bad as I feared it could be after last year’s incomprehensibly, dreadfully stupid plot developments such as the amnesiac Canadian long-lost cousin who appeared as quickly as he left–the very worst of soap opera type conventions. ugh. I agree re: pajamas and all day D. A. marathon. If only for the delicious Maggie Smith.

  5. DJinPA January 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    Oh, and as for the Sh!t the Dowager Says: If you love this, you need to go live in small town South amid the best of Steel Magnolia snap. Such snobbery and lacerating tongues still do exist–even in America. It is delicious so long as you are not on the receiving end.

  6. Donna in Delaware January 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Love it, love it, love it! Would not miss an episode of anything on Masterpiece (Theatre) ever! Grew up watching and will probably die watching. Who can resist anything (if you are an Anglophile and history buff, which I am) of this era, and played so wonderfully by these cast of actors. They are brilliant, one and all, in their roles! If you miss it, you have definitely missed out on something amazing. Maria, do as Maya suggests and call in sick! Catch yourself up, if you dare, on a remarkable series before the third season starts. You won’t regret it!

  7. Barbara January 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    I have heard mention many times of the Downton Abbey business. Yes, the time commitment has not yet been made, but I am now a little closer to making it, dang ya. My interest is now piqued.

    My youngest and I am working through the Star Trek series (all of them, including the movies, in chronological order) and maybe I can convince him (in the disguise of a history lesson for homeschooling) to include this in our ever-expanding list of shows to see. I am sure it will have to wait until after Firefly, but that had a short run. Streaming Netflix makes it way too easy to spend time in front of the dreaded TV. 🙂

  8. maya rodale January 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    DJinPA: I would LOVE to “live in small town South amid the best of Steel Magnolia snap.” 🙂

  9. Donna in Delaware January 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    I think I’ll throw a viewing party, with lightened up dishes of English fare. Maybe try a drink or two that the Grantham girls have before and during dinner!

  10. Nikki Lindqvist January 4, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Just now got this from the Christian Science Monitor… “Recipes for Downton Abbey fans”

  11. Kathleen Williams January 4, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    I’ve been hooked on Masterpiece mini-series sine the 70’s (I still think their Pride and Prejudice with David Rintoulle as Mr. Darcy is THE best version of all time, and yes replaced the VCR tape and do have it in DVD). So of course I have been a Downton fan from episode 1!! Cannot wait for this season to start airing here in the USA and am really glad I have not seen/heard any spoilers yet. Cannot wait for the sparks to fly between the Maggie Smith Nd Shirley MacClean characters!! And of course, rooting for Lady Mary’s happily ever after.

  12. DJinPA January 5, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Maya: Yes, it is a lot of fun as a spectator and fly on the wall. Very entertaining. The drama is magnificent. But, if the Mean Girl Lunch Table/Church Lady Pack suddenly turns on you especially if you are an outlier “Yankee”…OMG. Not fun. For reference material, see “GCB”, that new TV show that began and got cancelled last year. It hit a nerve with people who thought it was offensive to church ladies. I used to be a church lady. I used to be the head of a church lady organization who found myself in the high beams of it all, so yeah, it is fun to watch but not to participate. Best kept in the realm of literary fancy than real life. Much nicer that way. Jus’ sayin’…

  13. maya rodale January 5, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Oooh a viewing party! What a fabulous idea!

  14. maria (farm country kitchen) January 5, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I have a better idea…Maya, come home and watch your sisters, clean up the whole house, do the food shopping, pay my bills and feed us all so that I can spend a whole weekend catching up and watching season one and two!!!! Oh, and drive your teenage sister wherever she wants, whenever she wants it because she absolutely MUST do things. That would be a fun party for me! 😉

  15. Brenda January 5, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    The most important thing I did last week was get my husband hooked on Downton Abbey. We spent last Saturday watching season 2. Yep, we got sucked in and never looked back. Can’t wait til tomorrow!

  16. maya rodale January 6, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    I’ll check my calendar and get back to you, Ma.

  17. Mel January 7, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Downton Abbey is the worst of English history, when the 1 percent controlled the country (a nation of Romneys) and the 99 percent lived miserably. Thank god that era has passed. Don’t understand the awe which people watch this show seeing they would have been in the 99 percent and treated like dogs by the 1 percent.

  18. Sally January 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    That’s exactly the reason I’ve resisted watching. . .until the New York Times informed me that Shirley Maclaine would be appearing. Last night was our first night. It’s true, we have to find time to lose two whole weekend days to catch up. The 2013 season’s first episode did not disappoint this come-lately one bit!

  19. Nikki Lindqvist January 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    Gosh, Mel, do you think we’re not smart enough to figure out which side we’d have been on???

  20. Gina January 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Absolutely hooked on “Downton Abbey”. Then again, I love everything British.

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