Thursday, 9 February 2012

Downton Abbey, Simon Schama and sex

This blog will be (it really will be) mostly about Canadian history but I can't not start with the bit of glossy British history as soap opera that has been most on my mind over the last few weeks: Downton Abbey. I got hooked almost immediately and tried to pace myself through the first season (only seven episodes - so not more than two evenings at TV addict speed). A few days ago, finally up to date on season two and therefore having to wait a whole week for a new episode, I found myself googling to see what others were saying about the show.

And there was Simon Schama, a historian whose work I admire a good deal (he's delicious on the terror of the French Revolution in his book Citizens). But Schama was not at all pleased with Downton Abbey. He bemoaned the 'unassuageable American craving for the British country house' and wondered why they were so keen to slobber up the snobbery and historical simplicity of the series.

Now, Schama is certainly on to something. The series is more than a little kind to those who live 'upstairs' in this stately home. Even I can't help but feel sympathy for the aristocratic dinosaurs who are about to lose their place to liberal democracy (but really just a newer kind of  capitalism). Why does every character in the show who says, oh so simplisticaly, 'the times are changing', always have to also be a conniving bugger who you'd like to push through a window?

But Schama is also making the easy historical mistake to assume that it is the class element that is itself to credit for the show's success. Yes Americans (and Canadians) seem to want to watch films and television that assume everyone is both more beautiful and a heck of a lot richer than they are.

But it's more what is timeless about the series that makes it work. It is romance in action - forbidden love, delayed desire, hope that rises, and then falls, and then rises, only to fall again, but not terribly, not finally, always leaving some hint that it might come again. And for this kind of romance to work, the piece almost certainly has to be historical. Whatever else the show gets wrong, what it gets right is its portrayal of the fact that sex and marriage were so much trickier before the 1960s.

After no-fault divorce and the humdrum acceptance of living commonlaw (or, heck, just sleeping over whenever and whereever) the romance genre had to change drastically. This is why modern romcom movies always need to do backflips with their plot to keep the two lovers apart from each other, to keep the suspense which isn't really suspense, in the air. It's because modern life makes it so easy to toss away one love (or really anything - commitment to family, community, you name it) to go after another. But in Downton Abbey the repression, and hence the romance, lingers.

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