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Downton Abbey & Jane Austen; Or, in Praise of Lady Mary

2013 February 17

By Alice Villaseñor (Medaille College, Buffalo, NY)

The house and characters of Downton Abbey

The house and characters of Downton Abbey (season 3). PBS.org

References to and parodies of Downton Abbey on popular US television shows such as The Big Bang Theory, The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Sesame Street testify to the widespread popularity of the series on this side of the pond. Because Jane Austen’s legacy as an emblem of nineteenth-century British costume drama is so engrained in our cultural consciousness (as a result of the proliferation of Austen adaptations on film—particularly since the mid-1990s), it is natural that scores of American viewers associate Downton Abbey with Austen’s stories. For many, Austen’s name is practically synonymous with British “frock flicks” featuring matters of the heart.

But the connections between Downton Abbey and the nineteenth-century novel (and Jane Austen’s novels in particular) go far beyond the American penchant for indulging in the love stories of “our betters” that come to pass while drinking high tea in corseted costuming. Even a cursory glance at film adaptations of Austen’s novels staring Downton Abbey actors reveals the similarities between the events at Downton and the plots of Austen’s novels.

Mary Crawley, Matthew Crawley, & Lavinia Swire (season 2). PBS.org.

Mary Crawley, Matthew Crawley, & Lavinia Swire (season 2). PBS.org.

For example, in both Downton Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, actor Dan Stevens plays characters who are trying to honor promises that are absolutely essential to women’s livelihoods.[1] In the second season of Downton, we agonize over Matthew Crawley’s dilemma.  With his impending marriage to Lavinia Swire drawing near, Matthew is clearly still in love with his cousin Mary. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s Edward Ferrars finds himself in a somewhat similar scenario: he is in love with Elinor Dashwood while secretly engaged to Lucy Steele. Personally, I find Matthew Crawley’s circumstances much more sympathetic than Edward Ferrars’ situation (Matthew falls in love with Lavinia in order to get over Mary, whereas Edward falls in love with Elinor knowing he was already engaged to somebody else).

The Earl of Grantham with his three daughters, Sybil, Edith & Mary (season 2). PBS.org.

The Earl of Grantham with his three daughters, Sybil, Edith & Mary (season 2). PBS.org.

With only three daughters, the Earl of Grantham lives a worry-free existence compared to Mr. Bennet of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Austen’s gentleman (whose estate is also entailed away from his female offspring) often retires to his beloved library (much like the Earl) in order to escape the chaos that ensues due to his wife’s preoccupation with marrying off their five, unmarried daughters. Lost in Austen, a fantasy/time-travel variation of Austen’s novel, features a Mr. Bennet (played by Hugh Bonneville) whose plot suffers even more complications than does Austen’s original patriarch.[2] For example, Bonneville’s Mr. Bennet must acknowledge that his favorite daughter has absconded from Regency-era Hampshire in order to explore twenty-first century London!

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham

Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham

Like Lost in Austen, Becoming Jane also takes several liberties with a well-rehearsed Austen history: the novelist’s own biography.[3] One of several changes to Austen’s life story is the invention of Lady Gresham (played by Dame Maggie Smith), a foreboding figure based on the crotchety character of Lady Catherine De Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice. As incredible as it may sound, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, appears somewhat tame next to the menacing image of Austen’s Lady Catherine.  Of course, both characters are fierce about protecting the reputation of their families. But Lady Catherine’s fear of an impending union between the novel’s heroine and her own wealthy nephew elicits the infamous insult: “Heaven and earth!—of what are you thinking?  Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”.[4] Cousin Violet—who, over the course of seasons one and two, eventually grows to accept Matthew Crawley’s position as heir—is not quite so aggressive about the fate of Downton. Moreover, given the Dowager Countess’ decision in season three to send money to Sybil and Branson so that they can attend Mary’s wedding, it is possible that we may witness further examples of condescension in season four.

DVD cover of Masterpiece Theater's Northanger Abbey

DVD cover of Masterpiece Theater's Northanger Abbey. PBS.org.

Perhaps the most important characters that tie together Downton Abbey and Austen’s plots (especially plots rehearsed in the visual medium of film) are the estates these stories center around. As most Americans have not visited any of the grand properties scattered over England’s countryside—Austen’s novels (and subsequent film adaptations) have served as our introduction to the concept of an “English estate.”  Norland, Pemberley, Hartfield, Mansfield Park, Kellynch and even Northanger Abbey are not just settings in Austen’s novels—they are the raison d’etre for the stories—and that marks them as quintessentially English for many Americans. Austen’s love plots are always bound up with issues related to these estates, as Austen’s characters navigate the delicate line between practicality and love.  This balance is most eloquently summarized by Elizabeth Bennet in one of my favorite lines from Pride and Prejudice: “Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?”.[5] Elizabeth’s jesting words align very much with the serious questions of inheritance and love that the world of Downton Abbey revolves around.

The reader of Austen’s novels (especially Sense and Sensibility) understands the powerful effect of beginning a story with the chaos that ensues due to the death of a male heir.[6] But even while Downton Abbey begins in familiar territory, the Austen reader is treated to new twists.  In the first season, Lady Mary, her mother, and her grandmother all express the wish Austen’s heroines do not directly state: Mary should inherit her father’s estate. Never does Austen present us with three generations of strong female women banding together to so directly question the status quo. Moreover, no Austen hero has to continually defend his reasoning as to why he would not break the entail for the benefit of his daughter(s) even if he could (as we witness Lord Grantham do in season one).

Of course, some of Austen’s characters do hint at such notions. Notably, Lady Catherine sees “no occasion for entailing estates from the female line.”[7] The narrator of Pride and Prejudice also suggests that Mrs. Bennet often rehearses the subject with her family (“I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”).  Of course, the text quickly squelches Mrs. Bennet’s words, assuring readers that her unreasonable demands are quelled by her more reasonable daughters (“Jane and Elizabeth attempted to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond the reach of reason”).[8]

The explicit conversations about entails that occur between the male and female characters of Downton Abbey have been a long time coming for the Austen fan.  We have seen movements towards these sentiments in some of the film adaptations (for example, Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood must explain to her younger sister Margaret that “houses go from father to son, dearest, not from father to daughter.”).[9] Presumably, silly Margaret (and the silly viewer who is new to Austen’s world) will stop asking such naive questions once she grows a little older and learns to accept her fate.  Viewed in this light, is it any wonder why today’s Austen readers are drawn to a plot about a daughter who makes such a fundamental declaration of equal rights? Like Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, Lady Mary has more than her fair share of “unlikeable” moments, but when Mary expresses her point of view so clearly, it is difficult to stop oneself from standing up and screaming, “Huzzah, sister!”[10]

One of the attractions of Downton Abbey is that it can be enjoyed on so many different levels.  The series includes enough explanations about life in Edwardian England (i.e., the nature of entails) for the benefit of viewers who lack an extensive knowledge of common nineteenth-century tropes.  And for the reader (and viewer) of Jane Austen’s narratives, Downton Abbey illicits new insights into old favorites. Edith may (literally) be in the driver’s seat in season two, and Sybil fits a more classical definition of the “new woman” than any of the Crawley sisters. But Lady Mary’s contributions are not to be overlooked, as she gives voice to the sentiments of so many nineteenth-century heroines who came before her.

Alice Villaseñor is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities Department at Medaille College in Buffalo, NY.  She is a board member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and her research on the Austen family and Jane Austen’s work has been published in The Reports of the Jane Austen Society (UK), Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, and a special edition of Persuasions: On-line.  You can follow her on Academia.edu.


[1] Sense and Sensibility.  Perf. Dan Stevens.  Masterpiece Theatre (PBS, 2009).

[2] Lost in Austen. Perf. Hugh Bonneville.  (Ovation Channel, 2009).

[3] Becoming Jane. Perf. Maggie Smith. (Miramax, 2007).

[4] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. (Ed. Pat Rogers; Cambridge UP, 2006), p. 396.

[5] Ibd., p. 173.

[6] Sense and Sensibility begins with the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood, leading to the removal of his widow and daughters to Devonshire.  Austen’s narrator details the circumstances defining the line of succession for Norland estate in this first chapter. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (Ed. Edward Copeland, Cambridge UP, 2006), p. 3.

[7] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. (Ed. Pat Rogers; Cambridge UP, 2006), p. 185.

[8] Ibd., p. 69.

[9] Sense and Sensibility. Screenplay by Emma Thompson. Perf. Emma Thompson.  (Columbia, 1995).

[10] Austen said that Emma was “a character no one but myself will much like.” Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record (2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2004), p. 209.



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