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?
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. Knightly. Learn more at mayarodale.com