I watched Downton Abbey on the recommendation of my best friend. She knows EXACTLY what I like and recommended this series very highly. So I bugged the spouse until he downloaded season 1 and 2 for me. I started watching it with a lot of excitement and a bit of trepidation. What if the series did not live upto my expectations?
I need not have worried. The series was stupendous! And I absolutely loved it.
A bit synopsis. Set in a fictional estate called Downton Abbey somewhere in Yorkshire, the series traces the trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Crawleys and their entourage of servants. It is set in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, the very first episode begins with the sinking of the Titanic, after which moves on to the First World War. There is of course love and intrigue very cleverly woven into the story and makes for very interesting viewing.
I found the series engaging for a variety of reasons. The first is of course the stratification in English society - the aristocrats and the commoners. The way the former treats the latter. With kindness and benevolence - but never as equals. At the same time, the series also depicts the changing social equations and building aspirations among the commoners who want a better life. Being 'servants' is starting to chafe. This is clearly seen in the episode where one of the housemaids reveals to her friend, another housemaid, that she is taking typing and short hand classes because she wants to be a secretary-something that is unheard of among servants. With the help of Lady Sybil, the youngest Crawley daughter, she manages to realise her dream.
What I found most striking in the series was the status of women in England at the time. Women in the aristocratic families of course had cushy lives filled with dinner engagements and balls. But it is as if they live in gilded cages, because attending social events is pretty much all they do. Reminiscent of Jane Austen, there is pressure to find good husbands because of the practice of entailing property. An entail was a legal device used to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and/or from descending in a female line. Lord Crawley has three daughters and no sons. So his eldest daughter, Lady Mary is engaged to be married to her cousin and heir to the estate - and she does not love him. Said heir however, is on the ill fated Titanic and dies. The new heir is now Mathew Crawley, a second cousin of some sort (and very dishy!). And everyone expects that Mary should 'do the right thing' and marry him.
Then there is how the issue of women's 'virtue' and 'chastity' is perceived. Lady Mary is enamoured by a Turkish gentleman called Pamouk. He, returning her sentiment, finds a way to enter her bedroom one night. Mary is held back by her upbringing, but wants to give in to him all the same. He uses this to his advantage, while promising not to 'violate her virginity' (you get the picture right?). Unfortunately for poor Mary, Pamouk dies while making out with her. Although the matter is hushed up, rumours do leak out and Mary's reputation is tarnished, making it difficult for her to make a good match. Not so different from Indian society don't you think?
While the women downstairs, ie, the servants and housemaids, did not have to deal with this kind of expectation, they also had their fair share of challenges as women. Primary was their vulnerability to being preyed upon by their employers, their families and social circle. One of the housemaids has stars in her eyes about her future. She becomes pregnant through one of the males visiting Downton and is dismissed from her job. She struggles to make ends meet and is stigmatised for being stupid and a slut. When the man who fathered her child dies in the war (after refusing to acknowledge his child or even help her), his parents attempt to take her child away from her telling her that they, being affluent, can give the child a better life. To her credit, she refuses and says that as his mother, she is best qualified to give her son a good life.
Then again, the winds of change begin to blow. Lady Sybil is shown as a women's rights crusader who joins the suffrage movement. She refuses to the live the life of an aristocratic female. Instead she trains as a nurse and joins the war effort by tending to injured soldiers. She also defies her family and blurs the line between master and servant by falling in love with the chauffeur (who incidentally is an Irish revolutionary). Lady Edith (another daughter) on the other hand, learns to drive and helps the farmers on her father's property by driving a tractor.
There is much, much more that can be written about Downton Abbey.
The cast is superb. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is magnificent. Her sense of timing and dialogue delivery is impeccable. The actor who plays Mathew Crawley, Dan Stevens is yummy! Mary is pretty, if a bit emaciated. There is really very little that I can fault the series about. Apparently those who hand out awards agree, because the series has swept almost all the telly awards this year.
I watched both the seasons at a go over the course of 5 days. Yes! Thats how much I liked it. Since then, I've given the series to a few friends to watch and they've loved it as well. My teenaged niece liked it too and was a regular visitor over 2-3 weekends to watch it.
I now eagerly await Season 3 which I'm told goes into production from January 2013. Hope it will live up to the expectations!!