I’ve been plowing through season five of “Downton Abbey,” the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in early 20th-century Britain, which premieres on Sunday, Jan. 4, on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic,” and a few thoughts have come to mind. They’re not particularly organized, but here goes (warning, if you want to remain utterly spoiler-free, you may want to stop now. I don’t tell, but I do hint).
Creator and writer Julian Fellowes is a Catholic, and while not born to British aristocracy, he married into it (meeting his wife while having an affair with someone else’s), and has become a “toff,” as the British put it, with a big house and all. But it’s impossible to determine the state of another person’s soul, so it’s hard to know how much Fellowes allows his faith to influence his storytelling or even his life.
As he told the U.K. Telegraph in 2011, in describing his usual weekend, “On Sunday, I like going to Church. I’m a Catholic so I’m conditioned to it. Quite apart from anything else, I think it reminds you that you’re not in control of everything. I go to the local Catholic church and [my wife] Emma, who is Anglican, has the advantage of going to our incredibly pretty village church.”
He and his wife have one son (apparently that was her wish), but the boy’s godmother is Princess Michael of Kent, a Catholic whose marriage to Prince Michael of Kent (in a civil ceremony) knocked her Anglican husband out of the royal succession. While Princess Michael’s children have been raised Anglican (they still could inherit the throne), she and her husband later followed their civil ceremony with a Catholic one.
As exemplified by the Kents’ religious do-si-do, the position of Catholics in England, especially ones in the upper crust, is complicated, as anyone who has read or seen Evelyn Waugh’s classic tale “Brideshead Revisited” knows. It began when King Henry VIII split with Rome and declared himself head of the new Church of England. This lead to the persecution of Catholics, the seizing of Catholic churches by Henry’s new entity, and the appropriation, looting and destruction of monasteries.
For example, it’s quite possible that “village church” Fellowes’ wife attends was originally the town’s Catholic church. At the same time, one could suppose that, owing to its name, the fictional Downton Abbey was at one time a Catholic monastery. Now it’s in the hands of an aristocratic family, which could have received ownership of it from the king, as a reward for services rendered — something Fellowes has yet to explore.
Catholicism has come up in “Downton,” in the person of Tom Branson, the family’s Irish chauffeur, who’s always seemed more attached to his radical politics than his faith.
He romanced and wed Sybil Crawley, and in the wake of her death following the birth of their daughter, he insisted the child be baptized Catholic. This scandalized his father-in-law, Robert Crawley, the monarchist Earl of Grantham, who spouted the sort of anti-Catholic sentiments typical of his era and situation.
But after that season-three storyline, God has largely disappeared from “Downton,” and that has bothered at least one British writer.
Writing in the U.K. Telegraph in 2011, correspondent Robert Colvile noted the lack of churchgoing in the show, observing, “For a series that prides itself on its realism — and even has the word ‘Abbey’ in the title — it’s a bizarre omission. Religion, and especially the Sunday service, would have been a basic element of life in such a community, part of the warp and weft of existence. Perhaps it’s this godlessness, rather than any malice on the part of writer Julian Fellowes, that explains why Downton’s residents appear to have such a peculiarly cursed existence?”
Catholic convert Timothy Stanley doesn’t think much of the series. In a piece for History Today in 2013, the British historian and journalist denounced the cozy picture the series paints of the relationship between upstairs and downstairs.
“It is hard to imagine,” he wrote, “another people in the world who would make such a warm drama out of such a potentially miserable era. Imagine if a U.S. company relocated the show to the Deep South in the 1910s. Would it paint a similarly rosy picture of master-servant relationships in the era of segregation? Yet the British continue to suspect that they lost something special, even moral, when their society graduated from an aristocratic empire to a modern democracy.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that Catholic themes aren’t still present in “Downton,” even if faith isn’t often mentioned.
Last season, middle daughter Edith Crawley, pregnant after an affair with a man currently missing, decided against an abortion and went abroad to have the child, which is in the care of a local farmer. The first scene of season five deals with this dilemma and with the natural pull of a mother to her child.
Meanwhile, gay footman Thomas Barrow, who’s been portrayed as a scheming villain, fell for handsome fellow footman Jimmy Kent. But even after having his advances firmly rebuffed, Thomas stepped in when thieves attacked Jimmy and took a beating in his place. This led to a reconciliation between the two, who, in a touching scene, agreed to go on as platonic pals. While Thomas did not suddenly become a different or kinder man, Fellowes made the character more complex, giving him his full measure of human dignity.
By the way, in season five, we get to see more of that friendship. Also, while Thomas continues in his plotting, bullying ways, he is also still capable of physical courage when danger threatens. Later in the season, he seeks to deal with his sexuality so he can “fit in,” in a way that’s bound to be controversial.
While the now-widowed Lady Mary Crawley is actively pursuing romance in her usual perfunctory manner, the notion of sin and redemption does come up in season five. One character seeks to overcome bad actions in her past, while another worries about the repercussions of cooperating in something she believes is wrong.
There’s the usual romance and intrigue — the legal troubles of valet Mr. Bates trundle on — and by the time American audiences see the “Christmas special” that concludes the season, there may be at least one wedding.
Anyone hoping Fellowes would take the “Brideshead Revisited” route and dive deeper into the murky and poetic waters of English Catholicism may have to wait a bit longer. “Downton” seems in no danger of evolving from an entertaining soap opera into anything approaching art on the level of Waugh’s elegiac story of the wealthy but troubled, yet very Catholic, Marchmain family.
But at the same time, the Church in England is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made a wildly popular visit to the U.K., meeting with the Queen and urging the country to “resist more aggressive forms of secularism.” His words may have come decades too late for the Church of England, which has yet to meet a societal wind that it won’t bend for, but it did reinvigorate the country’s Catholics.
Then in 2012, Benedict established the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, allowing larger numbers of Anglican faithful and clergy, sometimes whole congregations, to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, while maintaining many distinctive elements of their theology, spirituality and liturgy (that don’t conflict with Church dogma, of course).
(Click here for a piece featuring Southern California’s own Father Bartus, a former Anglican priest now heading an Ordinariate Catholic church in Orange County, south of Los Angeles.)
The election of Pope Francis has had a galvanizing effect on Catholics and non-Catholics alike, including in Britain. A U.K. Guardian piece from Dec. 2013 recounts that, just two weeks after the election, “Westminster Cathedral found itself awash in penitents.”
Season six of “Downton Abbey” is a certainty, continuing the unlikely success of an actor-turned-writer who, religiously and politically (Fellowes is staunchly conservative), stands opposed to the bulk of his countrymen. And so far, it’s working for him.
As star Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl, observed, “He’s the most humane of writers, I think. Lesser authors judge their characters. Julian doesn’t.”