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10 Life Lessons from Downtown Abbey

It's no wonder I loved the series Downton Abbey enough to watch it twice...this well-produced epic story of an aristocratic British family originally released on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre (and now available on Netflix) appeased both my appetite for historical fiction and my closet fascination with the principles and protocol of formal etiquette. Add gorgeous clothes, outstanding writing and superb acting, and it's a hit with me. (Did I mention gorgeous clothes???)

This time around I decided to pay attention to why I loved it so much the first time. The plots are entertaining and the characters interesting and the dynamics timeless. And as with most movies, books, even sermons, the second view illuminated some of the hidden truths I might have missed the first go round.

Far from a complete list, here are some things to watch for along the way:

1) You can love people who are different from you, especially when someone you love loves them.

Lady Sybil, daughter of the Earl of Grantham, falls in love with the outspoken, politically-radical family chauffeur (which is naturally shocking). It takes a while, but her family comes to see him as a brother. Lady Edith partners up with a publisher (gasp...he works!!) and her Papa (Lord Grantham) decides he's a pretty good guy, after all (although it takes a while). Although his birth and position are suitable, Cousin Rose's fiancee is Jewish (in the midst of a sea of staunch Anglicans). Lo, and behold, he's also wonderful...on top of being crazy about Rose.

2) Words matter...yet there is equally powerful communication in facial expressions and context.

The lines are expertly written and marvelously delivered...even poetic. Often intentionally subtle, and always with an upper crust British accent. One comment can move life forward or tear it down. But you don't have to hear the exact words to follow the scene...even the subtlest of brow twitches or sideways glances or eye rolls can say volumes. This also demonstrates the elevated level of performance by the actors and actresses, many of whom I was not familiar with prior.

3) Even when times change, good manners never go out of style.

"Proper" has morphed over time. (Perhaps a little too much, some would say...?) As we watch the Crawley family painfully adjust to the societal changes following World War I and through the 1920's in England, their default behavior is to the natural, formal framework and agreed-upon benchmark, in which there is some level of security. It's what they know and how they ground themselves, even when the outside world is challenging the rules. It's also smoother to go from formal to casual, rather than vice versa. Write the handwritten note or stand when someone older than you enters the room every now and then and see what happens.

4) Families sticking together get things done, even when they don't agree.

Offline, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Granny) and her granddaughters don't always agree on dating, attire, major life decisions, how to manage scandals. The three young adult daughters (and their mother) hide things from Granny of which they know she would not approve. Yet once she is brought into the loop (or discovers by mistake), no one goes to the wall harder for her people than Granny. That almost never means she likes what's happening. But Granny sees her family as one connected solutions and resolutions fall "magically" into place once the bigger picture comes back into view.

5) Wisdom is knowing when to fit in and when to stand out.

Sometimes you wear white tie (appropriate) to dinner even when wearing tweed (vulgar) is more authentically you. At least until you are accepted or respected or understood enough to wear the tweed. Sometimes it's best to follow the prescribed courting protocol of London coming out balls, handwritten letters, and carefully arranged dinner invitations...and sometimes it's best to show up unannounced and tell her you can't live without her. Knowing which is timely when makes all the difference.

6) Women are still dealing with many of the same issues 100 years later.

In the early 20th century, women were starting to pursue careers not seen suitable for women, rallying to make their voices heard, carrying the shame of sexual violence. Questioning societal expectations around child-bearing, marriage, physical strength, and intellectual capabilities. Trying to understand and navigate the idiosyncracies of men!

In the early 21st century...

7) Where there's a will, there's a way.

You can save the estate, even though your contemporaries are not finding success. You can turn a castle into an Army recovery hospital during a war. You can convince Lord Grantham your ideas are better than his (even if you're a woman). You can cover up the death of of a handsome dinner guest who dies in your bed. (At least until Granny finds out!)

8) There's no place like home.

Tom is Irish and a rebel at heart, so his inner torment is feeling out of place at Downton. The call toward Ireland or America haunts him, until he actually moves to those places, then ends up back again. Lady Edith has many reasons to leave Downton and stay in London, including the perpetual strife between her and her sister, yet she chooses the familiar and familial setting more often than not. (Perhaps the opulent surroundings and multitude of singular purpose servants have something to do with that?)

9) Even the most prickly of people ultimately don't wish to be alone.

No one likes or wants to be around footman Thomas Barrow, and he doesn't seem to care. Except he does. Butler Mr. Carson couldn't be more stiff or unapproachable, yet his business-like proposal to get Head Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes to invest in real estate with him is actually a thin veil for a marriage proposal. Granny is saddened at the prospect of losing Isobel's availability and companionship, even though their world views are quite opposite. The human need to be loved and accepted transcends wealth, station, gender, personality, or circumstance.

10) Everyone has secrets, yet truth still prevails.

Almost every character, whether rich or poor, aristocracy or servant, man or woman, has a secret. Meaning something in his or her past they wish to stay hidden for fear they will lose love/their job/their image/their pride. And like our day, there is underlying fear the secret will show up in the press (even before TMZ and Facebook). Reputation is gold!!! Yet in each case, although the dramatic tension keeps us engaged as viewers, releasing the truth makes the world right again. More often than not, the person(s) they thought would reject them, loves and respects them even more.

BONUS: It's possible to find true love/a new career/a fulfilling purpose at any age.

Spoiler Alert! Granny's long lost Russian lover shows back up in her life and invites her to run away with him. Cousin Isobel receives two marriage proposals from two prominent widowers in the sunset of her life. Young Daisy discovers education can open doors beyond being a kitchen maid. Mrs. Patmore knows she can't retire from being a cook without a plan, so she opens a bed and breakfast. Her Ladyship Cora Crawley (Mama) is an empty nester who accepts a surprising invitation to chair the hospital board...and thrives. You get the picture.

Happy binge watching...I'll leave you to it!


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