This semester I find myself engaged in a television serial for the first time in a long time, and I think it’s no accident that it’s the same semester that I’m teaching Victorian literature again for the first time in a long time. The pleasures of the serial are well established, and the Victorian novel originated many of them: the multi-strand narrative with many characters, intertwining narratives of class mobility and courtship, love, death, and striving.
But really, what is it about Downton Abbey that is so seductive, and especially, it seems, to academics? The PBS series seems to have captivated far more viewers than it might really deserve. I’m not at all sure it’s as good a series as, say, Mad Men or The Sopranos or The Wire, for example. While the dialogue is witty (especially as delivered by Maggie Smith) and the costumes and sets are often breathtaking, the politics are regressive and the series often seems to devolve into soap opera or melodrama, with far more incident in one (admittedly large) house than seems likely for an otherwise unremarkable group of people. Is it really just the costumes that keep us watching?
I think it’s the nostalgia that really hooks us—and it’s a nostalgia we viewers get to share with the characters. The setting, at least twenty years after the end of the Victorian era, looks almost insistently backward; we only get the barest hints of the innovations in art, literature, and music that were really overtaking the country at the time. While we viewers look back at the twenties, the characters themselves look back to the 1890s and even earlier, lamenting the world they lost in the Great War. Our own nostalgia, then, is fed by the characters’—their sense of loss reinforces ours.
Perhaps that’s why I find academics so interested in the series; we may see our own plight echoed in that of the Downton denizens, who sense their way of life is ending but have—for the most part—not yet adapted to the new. As we read the news about MOOCs and online course delivery, as we open the newspaper (or, more often, scan the headlines on our newsfeed) about one more attack on the liberal arts, we may, like those at Downton, feel that we have invested in a way of life that is both valuable and beautiful but that the world around us no longer values. I don’t myself sympathize with Lord Grantham, but do I look like him to the world outside? Or am I a Matthew or even a Tom Branson, coopted by the family into turning my talents to shoring up a dying system?
Of course the series isn’t over, and it’s possible that Matthew and Branson between them will not only save Downton but turn it into something new and vital, the harbinger of the future. I don’t see that happening yet, but it’s how I’d like to see myself in the series. Or perhaps I can be Edith, the daughter of the house who can see it clearly enough to report on it to the world outside, and perhaps in so doing change it from within.
I don’t really think the academy is Downton Abbey, of course. We have far more vitality, and far more diversity, than the failing country house of the early 20th century. But as a cautionary tale it’s an interesting thought.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts