The Transfigured Role of an Aristocracy

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A new marchioness, a baby boy, and five marriages (one consummated and four budding near to fulfillment). Thus did Baron Fellowes of West Stafford choose to end his six season saga Downton Abbey this evening as the last aired episode finally reached this side of the pond. What is the chief reason for the appeal behind this most popular of PBS series? Many have cited the pageantry, the intrigue, the utter unpredictability of its characters and plot twists. But I think that the show’s extreme popularity is due to what is missing most in modern American society: a sense of old-fashioned propriety, common kindness, and a transfigured, contemporary role for an ancient aristocracy.

downton-abbeyIn America, our history and education have trained us to be suspicious of royalty and traditional privilege. The self-made man with all of his democratic backing is the hero meant to stir our souls to admiration and respect. But the likes of Maggie Smith‘s Dowager Countess, with all her sharp witticisms is the one who instead commands our attention. Indeed, cousin Violet (as she is known among extended family), in her appeal to tradition, sounds less like a dying death knell and more and more like ancient common sense as the seasons progress. And the appeal to tradition is hardly just a concern of the folks upstairs in the big house; the chief butler Charlie Carson would have none of most of the modern conveniences we take for granted among the 99%. So what in the end motivates these blue-bloods and their society if not progress and the American way? This final episode answers it succinctly: Love and the Christ-like self-sacrifice of a transfigured aristocracy.

violet-isobelAristocracy by design, especially British aristocracy, seems to be anything but self-sacrificing. The world we are introduced to in the pilot episode (season 1) is one of dominance and subservience, of privilege and status, of lording over and serving under. But as the series progresses, and we get to know the characters more intimately, another dimension is revealed: one in which the rules are still followed, but their spirit reigns preeminent. So the Lady Mirada Pelham, Bertie’s mother, who cares so much for morality can yet admire Lady Edith for her honesty and rise above her compromised moral standing to receive her in marriage to her son. And who can forget the peculiar friendship forged between the odd pair of Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet? In the final episode, it is the latter who encourages her friend not to stand so much on ceremony and go for it with the man she loves. In fact, in the end, all the characters we expect to stand on pomp and circumstance sacrifice their own personal standing for the love of their common brother or sister.

And this is the true purpose of an aristocracy, literally “the rule by the best”: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. This is the love and self-sacrifice that animates the Crawley Family to the end of its fictional existence. May it now inspire and animate the lives of those of us counted among its fans.

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