It’s a cold February Sunday evening, I’ve finished my work, wrapped myself in a thick blanket, and have the television turned on. I’m ready to be immersed in a story – Downton Abbey. Somehow I had missed this series’ arrival on these shores. Yet, it didn’t take long to catch up and for the last seven weeks I’ve been engaged in the lives of Mary and Matthew, Sybil, Mr. Bates and Anna, Daisy, and others. The microcosm of this English abbey and its interaction with the wider world has provided an escape from weekly routines. In such a ‘home’ and village, how could there be anything but fantastic stories? It’s not another bar down the street, a house in the suburbs, or a city apartment. Yet, something in these shows has me reflecting on my own life as well – beyond a desire for fine clothes, lavish surroundings, and an adoring suitor.
At one level it’s great fun to think of myself entering the story as one of the ladies of the manor – growing up in a world of privilege with plenty of time just to sit on a bench under a tree and read. Yes, I would enjoy a slower paced life and the safe structures of a well-defined society with apparently no real worries. However, at the same time, the many constraints and expectations would eventually drive me crazy. What’s wrong with attending a political rally or seeking out my own mate? Why must I dress for dinner and be kind to the guest who is obviously using the family? The stress of keeping up appearances is all too apparent in most of the characters as cracks in their individual and intertwined stories emerge.
These cracks grew larger as the season finale brought several characters to moments when the stories they had been bravely trying to author, fall apart. After the war the macro-predictability of Edwardian England is gone, as well as the micro-predictability of one’s role as a servant or even an earl. What they had expected out of life is often no longer possible. This can be frightening or merely irritating to someone intent on keeping the comforts of past decades. However, it can contain also the seeds of freedom. After creating self-made prisons in order to bear responsibility for mistakes, several characters take the risk of speaking about their offenses. Intimations of their prisons draw family members and friends to draw out these confessions. Fearing rejection, they are surprised when their errors don’t condemn them to a life of judgement. Instead, their honesty provides a new path for a life not previously imagined. In the aftermath of war, more importance is put on living in an honest mess, than a perfect lie.
I can’t wait to enter this world again on Sunday evenings. In the mean time I’ll be pondering some questions and looking at the cracks in my own story: What lies am I using to protect myself and others? What structures in my life and work are useless and even counter-productive? What new worlds might courageous honesty open? And, of course, how can I find that adoring suitor with a fantastic accent?