Students of biblical interpretation know how source criticism attempts to find the original sources used by Scripture’s various authors and editors. Inspired by their example, an aspiring source critic of the popular television show Downton Abbey searches for the stories behind the story.
Readers familiar with the period drama Downton Abbey will have encountered it in final form as broadcast by PBS to an American audience. It is widely assumed that the screenplay for the mini-series was written by one Julian Fellowes of Dorset. This mistaken assumption, though promiscuously propagated by the press, evinces a lack of sufficient attention paid to the uneven, at times contradictory, nature of the narrative. It is patently obvious to this author and to those of a critical ilk that the so-called Downton Abbey storyline is the product of multiple authors with several different aims.
The first clues to the interlaced source texts of Downton Abbey are the alternative versions of the same events. Twice we witness the deserving hero, Matthew, inherit the immense fortune of a man he barely knows. Twice we see a middle-aged servant resist proposals of marriage and the temptation to leave service (first Mrs. Hughes in season one, then Mrs. Patmore in season three). Twice we behold newborn infants tragically lose a parent. Thrice we watch members of the staff (Branson, Jane, and, in season three, Edna) in uneasy romantic pursuit of the family upstairs.
A second clue that the Downton story is the work of multiple redactors is the many anachronisms that find their way into the dialogue. While this is a risk of any period piece, it is unfathomable that the same author who meticulously plans Edwardian feasts of oysters a la russe and asparagus salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette would allow his characters to admit that they “couldn’t care less” or to soften their retorts with “I’m just sayin’.”
This author proposes that there are at least three redactors behind the wildly popular series. These three authors do not, by any means, correspond to the three distinct seasons. These authors each redacted an original body of material, though it is unclear whether the alterations took place successively or simultaneously. We will call these authors the Aristocrat, the Moralist, and the Progressive.
The Aristocrat chiefly aims to preserve the welfare of Downton and the honor of the family. He concerns himself with the provision of male heirs, flower shows, dressing for dinner, and maintaining the family property by tying tightly the knots of any and all fortunes to the Downton estate. He punishes Lady Sybil for marrying an Irish revolutionary by killing her off and turning her husband into an enforcer of the feudal system. The Arisocrat retells the Sybil/Branson romance in the Branson/Edna romance, but he reworks the plot to his own satisfaction by sending Edna on her way.
The Moralist, in turn, punishes the characters for their moral indiscretions. Each of Thomas’s attempts at homosexual liaison backfire, humiliating him and placing him in the contemptuous power of the Duke of Crowborough, the unfortunate Kemal Pamuk, and finally Jimmy Kent. Pamuk also manages to bring down Lady Mary, but the Moralist ensures that she suffers infamy and the purgatory of engagement to Sir Richard Carlisle.
Working at cross purposes to the Moralist is the Progressive. The Progressive perpetually tries to redeem Thomas after the Moralist has punished him. Thomas as painted by the Progressive is a lonely soul, his wickedness the product of years of bullying. The Progressive happily redeems Lady Mary by marrying her to Matthew, who accepts her with full knowledge of her sexual experience. The Progressive speaks through the mouthpiece of Cousin Isobel and Lady Sybil. He briefly commandeers Lord Grantham, who has heretofore embodied tradition and stodginess, inciting him to accept Thomas’s homosexuality with a figurative shrug.
No doubt, members of the contingent known as the Fellowes School will have other explanations for the author’s inconsistent characterizations. They will say that Fellowes wrote seasons two and three in a hurry, amid the whirl of a transcontinental publicity tour. While this explanation may appeal to audiences who favor simplicity, those of a scholarly bent will never choose the simple solution over a meticulously plotted source conspiracy.
This will bring the reader to ask, what was the original body of material upon which these redactors left their mark? Is there an authentic core to Downton Abbey that is free from the taint of any agenda? To answer that question, the reader need only ask, what portions of the script are universally applauded?
Quite clearly, the proverbial witticisms of the Dowager Countess (played in the final form by Dame Maggie Smith) constitute the unaltered heart of the narrative. Free of gloss or bias, timeless in relevance, it is the words of the Dowager to which viewers return again and again, and in which we find words to live by.