I must have been in deep isolation, not to have become familiar with the series of year. Yesterday I watched 6 straight hours of the first season of Downton Abbey, and this morning I found season 2 online. I have been interspersing episodes with chapters of Grand Pursuit and have found this makes both more meaningful and enjoyable. Labelled on Amazon “An addictive blend of suds and social commentary” it does not disappoint. I soon found that many of the negative reviews derive from one brief early interaction between homosexual lovers. This was not nearly as odd as the scene where a particularly handsome young man dies – off screen – as he attains satisfaction with his love object. The first scene works into the plot in a plausible way, and becomes just one more of the many twists and turns in the plot. The second is simply awkward, and one wonders if a more likely means for the main character to lose her virtue could not have been provided. In retrospect, it is best to regard that scene as burlesque humour. Overall, the series is very satisfying and Maggie Smith is her usual dominant and articulate self.
Reception of the programme was predominantly positive; ratings were extremely high for what is usually considered a “genre” show, and the first series picked up a number of awards and nominations after its initial run. It has subsequently become the most successful British costume drama since the 1981 television serial version of Brideshead Revisited, and in 2011 it entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most critically acclaimed television show” for the year, becoming the first British show to be so recognised.
The plot hinges on the same problem as that in Pride and Prejudice. Lord Grantham has only daughters, and cannot break the entail of the property for financial reasons. The eldest daughter, Mary, might have been able to attract the affections of the heir and distant cousin, Mathew, who is no Collins, but a modest and hardworking lawyer. However, she botches it early on and the cousin withdraws his proposal. Mary and Mathew, thrown together socially, and both concerned with the welfare of the estate, maintain a relationship of alternating distrust, cousinly affection and sexual attraction, creating one of the romantic tensions in the series. Much of the action and further romances take place among the servants, where the inequalities of the class system and gender intermingle. In the second season, Mathew is sent to France and World War I dominates.