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3Qs: Exploring Downton Abbey

“Downton Abbey,” a critically acclaimed British drama in its second season on PBS, depicts the lives of wealthy Edwardian aristocrats and their servants. Heather Streets-Salter, a British history scholar and the director of the graduate program in world history at Northeastern University, says the program’s high television ratings are due in large part to our fascination with the British way of life.

Why do British period dramas such as “Downton Abbey” appeal to the American audience?

One simple answer is that Americans tend to be Anglophiles; at the most superficial level, they like British accents and British humor, which is slightly different from that of the United States. You also can’t discount the fact that most of these shows are very well acted.

On a deeper level, though, Americans have a fascination with the grandeur of aristocracy. The characters in Downton Abbey were, by birth, born into particular classes and had such different lives and expectations because of it. I think the tyranny of heredity fascinates Americans. In a way, it’s exotic for us because the United States has prided itself on not having those kinds of hereditary class relations.

What does our fascination with “Downton Abbey” say about American culture?

Fascination with British dramas is not a new phenomenon, but I think the fact that “Downton Abbey” is so successful has to do, in part, with the economic crisis that we’re in.  “Downton Abbey” begins, in 1912, just two years before the start of World War I. The first season ends with the start of the First World War, which, viewers know, will result in catastrophic tragedy. There’s this sense that we know — but they don’t — that an era is coming to an end, and that this family is about to be plunged into the depths of the war.

I think Americans — and the British — also like the fact that the program also focuses on the servants. This kind of speaks to an American interest in the working person, and it’s also slightly exotic because it feels very foreign to us to imagine having an institution that functions on the labor of an army of servants. Very, very few people live like that (or have ever lived like that), so seeing how those two worlds play off one another is different, fascinating and intriguing — especially when we see how some of the servants manipulated their employers for their own purposes.

Moreover, the program’s wealthy aristocrats screw up just as badly as we all do, and in fact some of their screw-ups are even more catastrophic as any of ours would be. In one story line, the oldest daughter, Mary, sleeps with a Turkish guest, who suddenly dies. If her exploits had been discovered, not only would her marriage prospects have disappeared, but also her entire family would have been disgraced. Americans are fascinated by the ways that the rich and successful can self-destruct — especially from sexual scandals. We’re riveted by that notion of the higher you are the farther you’ll fall.

Why does the Edwardian era, depicted in “Downton” and in recent films such as “The King’s Speech,” draw so many viewers?

I think it has to do with that historical precipice. Edwardians are recognizable to us because they are buying automobiles and telephones and talking about socialism, but at the same time, they’re also rooted in 19th century traditions and moralities. We also love the costumes and the material culture, maybe more because we know that it’s all about to implode.

In terms of British history, some of the complicated morals from the Victorian era come under question: the women’s suffrage movement, for example, which began in the 1860s, was being discussed by the wealthy and the poor alike — each trying to adjust to the meaning of women’s suffrage for themselves and their lives. Sexual morality, homosexuality and traditional notions of honor and loyalty were all being questioned. It’s a period where even the people living at that time realized that there was a lot of change happening, and I think that is a feeling we can recognize in our own time. The fact that the characters in Downton Abbey did not know where that change was going is a powerful reminder for ourselves — fueling our fascination for their predicaments and how they managed to work through them.

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