Thursday, March 1, 2012

Enough with Downton Abbey?

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—

Through the Looking-Glass
As many of you may know I am writing a novel about my Irish ancestors who settled in the Ontario wilderness in the 1820's. A friend sent me an article entitled "Enough with Downton Abbey: We Need a New Little House on the Prairie." I smiled when I read the following words: "Enough already with palaces and kings; I want to see a log cabin and a Conestoga wagon." I am laboring to recreate life in my great-great-great grandfather's log cabin which he built with his own hands. As I research Daniel O'Connor I am in awe of what he achieved and how he struggled to educate his large family while maintaining the practice of the Catholic faith in spite of local prejudice. Known for his wit, humor and courtesy, he became the first Irish Catholic magistrate in Leeds County, Ontario. He was a man of honor and a true gentleman; I am proud of being his descendant.

As for Downton Abbey vs. Little House, why can't we have palaces and log cabins? Aren't there good stories there that need to be told? Or are we edging towards the Marxist view that everything that has to do with aristocracy is to be trodden in the mud? It amazes me that after all this time of watching Marxist regimes fail over and over again in the last hundred years we still see the world in terms of class conflict, just as if we were Bolsheviks. Like good Marxists we focus on the material world rather than the spiritual; in the material world possessions reign supreme. We assume that those who have more are happier than those who have less, which leads to envy of the well-off, but then Marxism is fueled by envy and covetousness. Having studied royal and aristocratic historical persons for a large part of my life I can tell you that happiness has absolutely nothing to do with wealth or power.

Which brings us to Marie-Antoinette. She is mentioned in the following lines of the aforementioned article:
Period pieces that take place in aristocratic settings only enhance the paradox. Greater moral indignation and more fantastical enjoyment: a higher degree of social inequality, with dizzying levels of glamour on the upper end. Six years ago, the culture critic Camille Paglia wrote an essay about the sudden popularity of Marie Antoinette, the beheaded Queen of France, among writers and filmmakers. Within the span of a year, the former Queen had become the subject of two historical novels, one scholarly study, two documentaries, and a film directed by Sofia Coppola.
Perhaps it is because I know what I know about her that I find nothing glamorous about the life of Marie-Antoinette. There is nothing glamorous about marrying a complete stranger and having to give birth in public. Her life was one long tragedy which she tried to brighten up with the resources at hand, for herself and for others. She died an ignominious death knowing that her young children were being tormented in a damp prison. To study and write about her is not any kind of an *escape* but a somber meditation on the four last things.

 However, a cheerful aspect of the Queen's life, one which is either totally ignored or else ridiculed, is the enormous interest she took in the lives of the poor and the peasants. It  had several practical manifestations, such as building homes for the destitute and establishing foundling hospitals. She did not see it as anything extraordinary; it was only doing her duty.

Which brings us to the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. Although the gowns and romance and stately manor house are charming to watchentertainment is supposed to be, well, entertainingwhat lies at the heart of the drama is the serious responsibility called noblesse oblige, the duty of those who have to take care of those who have not. What sets Downton Abbey apart from other television shows about privileged folk is that in Downton Abbey there is a code of honor. Lord Grantham refrains from seducing a parlor maid because he knows he would be taking unfair advantage of her due to his rank, not to mention committing adultery. In Downton it is made clear that honor does not belong to any particular class since Bates the crippled valet is a prince of a man, as is Carson the butler. Thomas the footman, on the other hand, is a miscreant and the parvenu Sir Richard shows us that an old saying about silk purses and sow's ears still rings true.

Is it un-American to enjoy Downton Abbey as some have claimed? For that matter, is it un-American to read and write about European monarchs who still play a huge role as characters in works of historical fiction? Americans, like everyone else, enjoy good stories. Our ancestors, from various continents and cultures, told each other stories, many of which we would now categorize as fairy tales, the older ones as myths. Many or most of them involve kings or queens or princesses or princes. Those that deal with peasants end with the peasants acquiring wealth or an endless supply of food and usually involve marriage with a member of the nobility as well. Such is not only the stuff of dreams but stories, now retold in books, movies and television dramas, can help us to deal with the present, not by escaping it, but by viewing it in the light of either a great tragedy or a great romance or both. To quote screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi:
Aristotle writes in his Poetics that stories are important because they serve two primal instincts in us, namely, the instinct for imitation and the instinct for harmony. We learn by imitation, and in stories, we have the opportunity to learn many more vital lessons than our own life experience could teach us. In stories, we learn vicariously through beloved characters, which means with a lot more enjoyment than the school of hard knocks of our own lives. The instinct for harmony drives us to seek in stories all of the things that real life can't give us—excellence of craft and high stakes, intimate access to the lives of others, intelligibility of their choices and motives, unity of plot such that all the boring or irrelevant parts are edited out, and satisfying resolution. In a very real sense, we need stories to teach us how to live. We enjoy the lessons because stories delight us with their artistry.

Secondly, Aristotle says that a society needs stories that lead its people to cathartic experiences of compassion and fear of evil. We should stumble out of dramatic plays and movies asking, "How could this thing have happened? What was the source of all this trouble?" while all the while feeling, "There but for the grace of God go I."
I must say that it is harder to write about Irish peasants in the Canadian wilderness  than it is to write about Marie-Antoinette. Marie-Antoinette's story is the perfect tragedy. Yet Irish peasants coming to a New World have a potential for drama as well. When you have nothing then there is nowhere to go but up. Share


Unknown said...

I enjoyed your commentary. One of things I liked mostabout Downton Abbey was that the noblemen were good people trying to live by honor and to provide for others. For once it wasn't a show about the amoral rich guys.

Good luck on your book. It sounds intriguing

Theodore Harvey said...

If Downton Abbey is "un-American," then that's one reason I love it so much! I find it sad though not surprising that the sort of Marxist premises underlying the Santiago Ramos article have found their way into Catholic websites.

Occasionally reading blog comments etc. about the new Ordinariate I encounter a disturbing contempt among _some_ Catholics for...well, people like me, that is, Anglicans who dare to actually like monarchy, England, aristocracy, even things like complex sacred choral music in church. I even came across the claim that devotion to King Charles the Martyr represents "everything that's worst about Anglicanism--fawning over royal power, etc." One "consolation" is that I don't think these sorts of people would approve of you either--and you're as Catholic as they come.

Flambeaux said...

While I still haven't seen any of DA, I will confess that log cabins, conestoga wagons, and the whole "prairie pioneer" thing holds less than zero interest from me.

Maybe it's because I don't have fond memories of Little House on the Prairie (book or TV series) but that period of history, especially as lived out in the nascent United States, just doesn't hold my attention.

I expect my wife feels differently as she does have fond memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.

This subject comes up for discussion every time we receive a particular homeschooling book publisher's catalog in the mail. They advertise several of their offerings as Catholic equivalents to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

What I wish I saw more of, and am half-tempted to try writing, are adventure books for boys and young men. Seems to be a dearth of those, particularly since much of that genre in the 19th century was dominated by authors with very English sensibilities.

Nonni said...

You have stated so articulately exactly how I feel about the characters of Downton Abbey. I found it so refreshing to see the aristocratic not uniformly portrayed as clueless and demeaning toward those of lesser means. I was also gratified to find wickedness, nobility and plain ol' fallen human nature among the servants and wealthy alike. Neither status, rich or poor, is a guarantee of virtue or wickedness.

julygirl said...

The broader the scope an individual's interest reaches, the broader the individuals mind grows and develops.

Programing such as Downton Abbey is a bright spot in the otherwise tawdry, vulgar and limited scope of offerings in the current TV scene. I welcome it.

Aron said...

I agree whole-heartedly! It is about time that a decent television show was praised for being what it is--decent and watchable. Not to mention showing aristocrats in a good light for a change. I also, as always, and pleased to see people taking up the cause of la reine malhereuse. In haste,
~Aron <><

Christina said...

Hear, hear! I could not agree more, especially with your comments that Downton Abbey illustrates the concept of noblesse oblige. I love the show. If enjoying DA is wrong, then I don't want to be right :)