Thursday, January 17, 2013

noble vs. nobility on downton abbey

Everyone loves Downton Abbey here in America, both the upstairs and downstairs intrigues. The third season currently in full swing, is already as fun and involving as the previous two. For me, one of the more interesting recurring themes of this and past seasons has been the characters' concept of "noble" acts or behavior. Can a modern person really fully connect with the idea of "doing the right thing," especially if that involves giving up something or someone you love or desire?
noble (according to Merriam-Webster)

of high birth or exalted rank : aristocratic

possessing, characterized by, or arising from superiority of mind or character or of ideals or morals : lofty
Resident heartthrob and sometimes infuriatingly priggish Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), now married to the lovely and willful Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), has more than once let his noble intentions/ideas muck up the plot. It's amazing that Lady Mary hasn't hauled off and belted him on numerous occasions — just in the first few episodes of this season — but that's where nobility comes into the picture. Such behavior simply wasn't done by someone of her station, and she's pretty sassy when needs be.

Newlyweds Matthew and Mary love each other, but don't always see eye-to-eye
But is Matthew's nobler-than-thou stance something inherent to his personality, people of his age, or might it be a direct result of his lack of nobility? Both Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Mary and just about everyone else in the vicinity see no problem with Matthew using an inheritance from his almost father-in-law to save and sustain their way of life (the Earl's bad investment skills had threatened the loss and sale of the family home). For all of his vociferous objections to taking money on false pretenses (he no longer loved the man's daughter and she conveniently died, paving the way for him to marry his true love Mary), Matthew doesn't seem to consider or care that his inaction would not just put a potentially serious rift between himself and his bride and his family, but he would also be putting a lot of the servants out of work. The family would not only have to seriously downsize their home, but their way of life, which would jeopardize the future of their staff.

Lady Mary and her family, especially her clever and vocal grannie, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) are trying desperately to hold onto their way of life, which is quickly disappearing in post-WWI 1920s England. The Countess is the essence of nobility, but her motivations many times stray from the noble in order to benefit herself and her family. She frequently coaches the younger generation on how to preserve the family manse — utilizing any means necessary. She was not above encouraging her son the Earl to force the break-up of middle daughter Lady Edith's (Laura Carmichael) engagement to an inappropriate man (of nobility, yes, but too old), even if it would most certainly result in the breaking of Edith's heart and possible eventual spinsterhood.

Edith made a lovely (almost) bride
The ideas about what constitutes proper behavior isn't exclusive to the upstairs residents of the Abbey. The servants are just as bound, if not more so, by convention and ideas of appropriateness, frequently trying to mirror their noble employers. Head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is shocked and deeply touched when Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) assures her that if she is indeed ill (she had a lump in her breast which turns out to be benign) that she need not worry, the family will take care of her and Downton will always be her home. She is equally amazed that not only has her "secret" somehow worked its way upstairs, but at Lady Grantham's response. Mrs. Hughes and Head Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) not only run a tight ship at Downton Abbey, but they are constantly schooling their charges on proper behavior and how to best focus on the family's needs.

The Dowager Countess has ways of getting what she wants and what she thinks is best for her family
Of course all of this scheming and characters' back-and-forthing about what's "right" and what they want is what makes Downton Abbey such a delicious soap opera, and at times morality play. It is hard to imagine, however, any modern man or woman hesitating for a moment to "take the money," whatever the source, as Matthew has struggled. Or for Lady Edith to feel that she had to listen to her Grannie or even her fiancee's pleas that they weren't well-suited due to his age. They must have had trophy wives in the 1920s, but the Crawley family certainly doesn't want their daughter to become, as the Dowager Countess views it, a "nursemaid" to her aged husband. A modern Mrs. Hughes might keep her diagnosis under wraps until she was sure, but she hopefully wouldn't be beholden to the kindness of her employer regarding her future healthcare and job retention. Maybe it's a good idea to have these "outdated" concepts of noble behavior to ponder. To see how far we've come in many ways, but also to be reminded that it can be useful and instructive to step back and ponder the moral implications of our behavior.
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