One cannot bring on the English pretension more than the Dowager Countess herself, in these excerpts from BBC's Downton Abbey.
I read an article on Downton Abbey recently by the famous Jesuit Fr. James Martin over at his blog. He claimed, like myself, to be a big Downton fan. However, he claimed guilt at watching it, for he felt that it celebrated a great deal of bad values: income inequality, noblesse oblige, and snottiness.
I have to disagree, as I think Downton does precisely the opposite by exposing how people really thought of themselves in that past era. But what got me thinking was Fr. Martin's comparison of Downton to Brideshead Revisited (if you are unfamiliar with the latter, read more about it here).
The thing that strikes me is how "modern" Downton is, in certain ways. Unlike Waugh's masterpiece and the very masterful rendition of it on television, Downton lacks grace. God is rarely present, despite the parish church the family attends featured in the show. Change of people's hearts was a rarity in the first season (although, as I say below, the second season has some exceptions).
Brideshead is all about the power of grace to draw people back to God, no matter how far they stray. Downton mimics this, but has not yet offered much in way of that. The closest thing, and I hope a bright portend of the future, was in a more recent episode of Downton when the eldest Grantham girl, Lady Mary, prays to God to protect her beloved Matthew Crawley. She begins conversion toward self-sacrificing love of Crawley, even to the point of remaining in an unfulfilling relationship. She changes, too, from a life lived around herself to a life lived for others, helping now at the hospital. Her own moral conversion, and that of her sister Edith, are both examples of grace. But the theme has yet to be really explored.
And that is what makes Downton, for me, often fall flat (despite the loveliness of it and the great acting quality). When it fails to offer the conversion or the offer of grace, it strikes me as a weak shadow of Brideshead. When it does, and it has done so recently (a portend of future things?), it brings a whole other level of beauty to the story.
As a theologian, no doubt, my prejudice is to see grace operative everywhere, drawing people by chance coincidence (chance to human eyes) back to almighty God. We live in a redeemed world where, when people sin, God's grace is offered all the more, even if they reject it.
A life, even depicted in a story or on television, lived without even the offer of grace becomes, ironically, unrealistic.
To paraphrase Father Brown, the creation of GK Chesterton, "the sinner is caught with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."
God's grace is very often the same, and it is what brings depth, realism, and beauty to the stories of our lives which would otherwise remains pointless and ugly.