A friend of mine wrote on Facebook about Downton Abbey: “take away the English accents, the bucolic setting, the period costumes, and the antiquated moral code, and you’re left with Days of Our Lives.
So true, I thought at first. Downton Abbey often suffers from severe melodramatic fits.
Such as: the illicit lover who ends up dying in flagrante delicto...the spine-injured war-hero who suddenly and miraculously walks again...the lovers kept apart by social class...the dying fiancée who importunes her betrothed to marry the woman she knows he really loves...the odious newspaper magnate who coerces a young woman into marriage on pains of exposing her awful secret...
Pretty fruity stuff, as Bertie Wooster would say. But how different, really, from plot elements that might be found in Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, or The Great Gatsby?
Speaking of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. T.S. Eliot (that’s Thomas Stearns Eliot, high-priest of high culture) once wrote an essay called “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” In this essay about two pre-eminent practitioners of the Victorian potboiler Eliot wrote:
You cannot define Drama and Melodrama so that they shall be reciprocally exclusive; great drama has something melodramatic in it, and the best melodrama partakes of the greatness of drama….It is possible that the artist can be too conscious of his “art.”…We cannot afford to forget that the first—and not one of the least difficult—requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting.
Eliot’s point is that what we enjoy in the best melodramas are qualities inherent to great storytelling itself.
To want one’s nerves rattled, to want one’s comedy laugh-out-loud, to want one’s love stories full of pain and anguish but still, by series end, to culminate in a marriage—these are the natural wants of the human being seeking a story, not the low, vulgar tastes of the great soap-opera watching unwashed who don’t know any better.
G.K. Chesterton echoes the theme in his magnificent book on Dickens (whose 200th birthday, by the way, we celebrate this month). Writing on Dickens’s immense popularity in the mid 19th century, Chesterton first feels a need to address the charge that Dickens’s work is admirable even though he was widely admired. As if being a hugely popular novelist is an automatic strike (or two) against a writer’s literary merit. But for this kind of pretentious bushwah Chesterton holds no truck.
[Dickens’s] power...lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind.
But isn’t Chesterton admitting here that Dickens’s work is “common” in the sense of vulgar, addressed to “the mind of the mere mob”? Not at all:
[The] common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody...”
There is a great democratic impulse in Dickens’s devotion to the common mind. As Chesterton puts it, “Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people.” It is not so much that Dickens wrote what people wanted, but that “Dickens wanted what the people wanted.” And what he wanted were the simple, but not simplistic, truths that reveal our common humanity.
I heard Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter of Downton Abbey (and a Catholic), remark in one of the “extras” that one of the things that most interests him in the story is the way in which it reveals people both “upstairs” and “downstairs” as equals. High birth and money may separate us accidentally, Downton Abbey urges us to see, but life’s dramas will always expose these superficial differences and reveal the common truth that we are all human beings before we are anything else.
And this is what Downton Abbey does at its best: reveal truths common to the saint and the sinner, the philosopher and the fool. Sure, it sometimes sacrifices character and plot development to the quick emotional payoff. But often enough it tells a compelling melodramatic story that Dickens himself might well have enjoyed.