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October 22nd, 2017

Why I Love Downton Abbey

From the very beginning, Americans decided that we are not going to have noblemen like the British.

We decided that if somebody is to be admired or respected, it is because he has done something great; not because he has a fancy old title in front of his name.

240 years later, there aren’t many major divides between the US and the UK. After fighting a bitter war against King George III, we seem to be perfectly willing to embrace the baby who will ultimately become King George VII.

But we still have total disdain for the concept of nobility.

Two of the people I admire most in Central Vermont are Gary Hass and Deborah Phillips, the owners of this newspaper.

However, if they suddenly claimed to be noblemen, my respect for them would drop, not increase. If they suddenly declared themselves to be the Earl of East Montpelier and the Baroness of Berlin and asked people to refer to them as Lord and Lady, nobody would do it.

Of course, Mr. Hass and Mrs. Phillips would never do that. It’s completely absurd, right?

The wonderful PBS series “Downton Abbey” takes us to a time and place when this wasn’t absurd at all; it was a way of life.

The show takes place 100 years ago in a small town in rural England. The most wealthy and prominent citizen of the town is Lord Robert Crawley, proprietor of Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is a sprawling, majestic mansion. It’s a tangible reminder of the days when Crawley’s ancestors ruled the county with an iron fist and the ancestors of the villagers bowed before them in fear.

The story begins when the rightful heir to Downton Abbey dies aboard the Titanic. And it turns out that the next in line to inherit is a distant cousin. Not only has no one ever met him, but he isn’t even a nobleman; he’s a middle class lawyer from Manchester.

The most logical choice to inherit Downton is eldest daughter, Mary. But in the early 20th Century, women still had no inheritance rights. So unless she marries someone rich, Mary – and her two younger sisters – run the risk of losing everything and going from riches to rags.

The show takes place at the dawn of the feminist movement and “Downton Abbey” explores the three very different points of view of the Crawley sisters.

Lady Edith wants nothing more than to find a husband, any husband. Lady Sybil wants nothing more than to become a political activist in the burgeoning Progressive movement. And Lady Mary doesn’t know what she wants, but she knows darn well that she’s not going to let a man tell her.

Since it takes place at a Lord’s estate, “Downton Abbey” can’t help but weigh in on the issue of class in England. And, surprisingly, the show looks back fondly to the days when titles meant something.

Show creator/writer Julian Fellowes makes a subtle argument that the servants at Downton aren’t victims of the caste system – they are eager participants.

Not only does Downton Abbey give the maids and butlers a decent job and an amazing place to live, it gives their lives meaning and purpose.

Perhaps a healthy respect for our social betters isn’t such a bad thing after all. That being said, I’d like to give humble thanks to the Earl of East Montpelier and the Baroness of Berlin for letting me publish this col-umn in their wonderful newspaper.

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