Last night, we went to Downton Abbey again, our Downton, busy and gossipy as it always has been. Time may not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, but despite the bustle, the interior of that stately home and the goings-on within it are beginning to feel a bit musty. It’s not so much that Lady Mary looks any less divine in mourning, or that Thomas’ temporary redemption has rendered him dull, so much that Downton‘s balance between romantic and family drama punctuated by politics is growing stale. It’s one thing to give a show a carpet-beating, restoring the color and luster to a tapestry that’s gotten a bit faded. It’s quite another to feel, as I felt, watching the two-hour season premiere, that I’d rather have another rug, and perhaps another family, entirely. And if gossip can be trusted, series creator Julian Fellowes may be feeling the same way. So what might ITV, which makes the show, or competitor BBC, do in its wake?
This year, Downton Abbey‘s got its usual raft of issues, which the characters on the show will deal with in their typical upper-class, relatively moderate way. Joseph Molesley is out of a job after Matthew Crawley’s death, and as the market for servants begins to contract, both because of increased mechanization of household work (Daisy is excited by an electric beater) and because women like Isobel Crawley are cutting down on the size of their staffs, he has trouble finding more work. Edith is contemplating following Michael Gregson to Germany, where he can seek a divorce from his mentally ill wife on the grounds of insanity. Talk of ruinous death taxes and farming subsidies skitters along the edges of conversations in fine homes. Nanny West gets sacked for treating Sybil and Branson’s daughter like she’s a different species from Baby George.
But Downton Abbey has always been careful to have the politics that influence its characters’ personal lives be incremental rather than radical. Branson, for example, got absorbed into Downton’s elite, and Sybil’s death meant that the family was lucky enough to avoid a radical fissure. That is, I think, a deliberate calculation, and one of the reasons the show has done so well in the United States. Downton Abbey allows Americans, who can be more affectionate about the British aristocracy than the British themselves, to maintain a romantic dream of an economic and social system from which we’ve escaped, and to believe that the nobility is capable of evolution and reform. That calibration is convenient, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to bring political issues more aggressively to the fore of period storytelling without sacrificing romanticism or family drama. And British history has two families who might make for particularly rich counterpoints to the Crawley sisters.
I’m thinking, of course, of the Pankhursts and the Mitfords. The Pankhursts come first in the chronology, and one excellent place to start with their story is Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, his terrific book about resisters to the first World War, a conflict that split the Pankhurst family.
Emmeline Pankhurst was a critically important leader in the British women’s suffrage movement, a radical who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, which became notorious for its militant tactics including breaking shop windows, and whose members went on hunger strikes when they were jailed. Her daughters were all involved in the movement, but moved in radically different directions as the campaign for suffrage progressed. Christabel went into exile in France to avoid the Cat and Mouse Act, and on her return home, joined her mother in supporting war against Germany, shaming British men who weren’t in uniform and calling for conscription, a turn towards intense patriotism that was intended to bolster support for the suffrage movement. Adela immigrated to Australia, where she first became a prominent anti-conscription and peace advocate, and ultimately a proto-fascist and a member of a political party that advocated an alliance between Australia, Germany, and Japan in World War II–she was eventually interned for it. And Sylvia split with Emmeline and Adela over both her pacifism and her class politics–Emmeline and Christabel wanted to leave class out of their suffrage advocacy–working against World War I, to provide lower-cost meals to Britain’s working poor, and ultimately for Ethiopian independence.
The rifts between the women were huge, and weren’t just over politics. Emmeline, for example, cut Sylvia off forever when she refused to marry the father of her son. Christabel moved to California and got born again. Things like the white feathers campaign to shame British men into joining the army, hunger strikes in prison, and the publication of competing suffragette newspapers would lend plenty of drama and visual panache to a Pankhurst program. In any case, there’s plenty there to support eight episodes of television over a number of seasons, especially if a show about the Pankhursts jumped years between seasons like Downton Abbey has.
The Mitford women, captured deftly by Mary S. Lovell in The Sisters, were posher than the Pankhursts, and even more epic in their scope. Diana Mitford, the middle child, divorced her husband Bryan Walter Guinness, who was one of the heirs to the brewing family, to marry Sir Oswald Mosley, who founded the British Union of Fascists. Unity Mitford, the next-youngest daughter, became personally friendly with Hitler, and attempted suicide when war was declared between Britain and Germany. Jessica, the second-youngest daughter, became a Communist and a muckraking journalist in the United States, most notably publishing The American Way Of Death about the funeral industry. Deborah, the youngest, became Duchess of Devonshire, and a leading advocate for the preservation of Britain’s architecturally and culturally important grand houses. Nancy, the oldest, wrote novels about the family. In a way, the Mitford women are a logical sequel to the story of the Crawley women: their lack of education and occupations had much more serious consequences for them, and the political splits in British society created rifts in the Mitford family (including between the women’s mother and father) that couldn’t be stitched up with a bon mot or a conveniently-timed family tragedy.
None of this is to say that Downton Abbey isn’t fun, or that it can’t draw gentle humor and piquant insights from Mrs. Patmore’s adventures with kitchen appliances, Molesley’s regretful staring at the moon, or Lady Mary’s coming back to life by taking an interest in the estate, to the deep consternation of her father. But in its fourth season, and with the example of the considerably more politically daring Call The Midwife on offer, it’s hard not to find the fourth season of Downton Abbey a little bit soft and silky. It’s awfully fun to sink into a fluffy bed of the Crawley ladies’ fabulous wardrobes, but at some point, you want to hoist yourself up and go for a brisk walk.