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Love in a Time of Comital Entails

Downton Abbey makes white nerds tweet like Kanye


There are primarily three types of people who append Roman numerals to their names: monarchs, popes and Americans.  If there exists an explanation for this incongruity other than vanity, then I have to admit I am ignorant of it.  What I am certain of, though, is that the phenomenon has more to do with aping monarchic naming traditions than it does honoring the likes of Benedict XVI.  This is not only because the majority of IIIs and IVs in our country are at least patronymically Anglo-Saxon, and therefore view Catholics with the sort of skepticism that yokel Midwesterners might save for theistic satanists and Harry Potter readers, but also because it dovetails nicely with what I view as a general and unhealthy fascination with the trappings of British and European aristocracy.

Anglophilia, if my Facebook newsfeed is a realistic indicator, is a relatively common occurrence among Americans, particularly among young women raised on Long Island.  One need only look at the coverage of Wills’s and Kates’s ROYALL WEDDINGE this past summer which, according to a sophisticated excel spreadsheet I built today, was watched by over 1 billion American women.  The common female response to this matrimonial happening was like something out of the most precious Jane Austen novel imaginable, replete with sighs and daffodil spores and whatnot.  Typical complaints focused on the fact that these young women would now need to focus on somehow marrying William’s red-headed half-brother, Harry.

Our nation’s weird fascination with nobility can be traced back to the Constitution, wherein we specifically forbid the US Government from granting titles of nobility (Article I, Section 9).  Obviously, this makes Americans really, really want titles of nobility.  Americans have long been characterized by their undeserved confidence in nearly all respects (ever read any amateur poetry on the internet?  I have).  What could make more sense for such a people than hereditary titles of enoblement?  Could you imagine being able to skip the line at the airport because you’re a Duke or a Duchess?  If you can, you’re doing it wrong: dukes fly private.

But while living in enormous country houses and draping one’s naked body with fancy shades of velvet (this is what I would do) would be nice, the effect it has on society as a whole is stifling.  The class into which you’re born in such a world is the class in which you will die: Jay Gatsby and other would-be social climbers would have to content themselves with mere daydreaming, while the lord of the manor exercised the right of prima nocta on Gatsby’s young daughters (Gatsby had no daughters, because he is fictional.  Also dead).

Downton Abbey (spoilers obviously to follow) is, inter alia, a cautionary tale about mixing love and game theory.  The show centers on the noble and servile denizens of Downton Abbey, a great house in Yorkshire county.  While the show covers the exploits of numerous characters both “upstairs” and “downstairs,” the true gravity of the story exists in the will-they-won’t-they tension between Mary Crawley, eldest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, and Matthew Crawley, the Earl’s 3rd Cousin (before World War II, it wasn’t considered weird to marry your cousins).  Matthew, previously unknown to the noble Crawleys, being so distantly related, is introduced to the family when the Earl’s original male heir dies in the sinking of the Titanic.  Marriage between Mary and him is supported by the Earl and his wife, the idiotic American heiress Cora (known on the show as “Lady Grantham,” known in this entry as “stupid Cora”), largely because the family’s fortune and real estate are tied to the Earl of Grantham title.  In other words, unless Matthew marries one of the three Grantham girls, they’ll all be homeless and poor, which is a distasteful end to a life otherwise adorned with fox hunts and indentured servants.

Mary and Matthew also eventually fall in love-love, which is as much a prerequisite for marriage in Merchant Ivory films and ITV period dramas as it is in the divorce-doomed American weddings with which we are so familiar.  You can tell that Mary is in love because when she looks at Matthew, her eyes resemble the shadow a black hole creates within its event horizon.  That’s love to me.  When stupid Cora gets pregnant, though, EVERYTHING IS RUINED.  If Cora should pop out a baby boy, then that little mistake would be the next Earl of Grantham and Matthew Crawley would go back to being an unpolished barrister in Manchester.

With the news of Cora’s pregnancy, Mary and Matthew find themselves presented with what the English are required to call a “sticky wicket.”  Should Mary accept Matthew’s proposal only to witness the birth of a baby brother slash new heir, then her marriage to Matthew will be morganatic (aristocratic term for “gross”) and worthless (except she loves him, I guess).  Mary’s hesitation in the wake of her mother’s ultimately doomed pregnancy makes sense in terms of the noble marriage economy, but it comes as no surprise when ultimately Matthew is just like “fuck that!” and retracts his proposal.

Romance in Victorian/Edwardian period drama has all the predictability of Afghan presidential elections.  We know (not in an epistemological sense, but whatever) from the very onset of the series that Mary and Matthew will end up together.  Their courtship is basically an inversion of the courtship of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: here Mary raises her nose at the commoner Matthew, who balks at her pretension but clearly has an opinion of himself not wholly commensurate with his previous social position.  The fact that they don’t get along in the beginning is like a Chekhovian gun: you know that before the series is over, they’re going to bang.

So with this, the main love story, essentially preordained, why watch?  Well, for a lot of reasons (the Dowager Countess is hilarious, Sybil Crawley is super hot), but chiefly because it will be interesting to see how the players handle the fact that Britain’s glory days, both as a political super power and an aristocratic fairy tale theme park, are fast extinguishing.  The true fall of many of England’s great houses is only briefly touched upon in the second season of Downton Abbey (Sir Richard looks into buying the house of a noble family who can no longer afford the upkeep).  The theme of England’s waning glory as it applies to great houses and professional servants is deeply explored in Kazuo Ishigura’s fantastic The Remains of the Day.  If you like Downton, read that.

While waiting for those themes to really manifest them here (and they’ve begun to), we must content ourselves with yelling at Mary whenever she appears on the screen for not marrying Matthew when she had the chance.  The idea that Mary wouldn’t marry Matthew should her mother produce a male heir is absurd to the forward-thinking American audience, but to the daughter of an Earl who lives in a baller palace built by the hands of uneducated Irish slaves (one assumes), such a concern was very, very important.  Obviously, economic circumstances will play into any marital decision, but from Mary’s perspective the downside risk is that she would be the wife of a successful, educated and loving barrister who is second in line to inherit Downton Abbey.  That may be fine for commoners like us, but to someone like Mary, the opportunity cost of not marrying a titled gentleman is basically inconceivable.

Mary’s two sisters, Sybil and Edith, don’t seem to share Mary’s concerns to the same degree.  Edith makes out with a gross common farmer (Edith isn’t hot though, so there’s that) while Sybil runs away with an Irish Socialist chauffer (the triple FU to the old man).  It is Sybil’s story that serves as the most obvious metaphor for social upheaval the UK will go on to experience in the 20th century: not only does she fall in love with a commoner but she herself is “political.”  Meanwhile, when Mary is asked if she has opinions, she simply says that she does.  Quite.

As we all know from The King’s Speech (and, erm, history), King Edward VIII would follow Sybil’s lead and marry the American divorcee Wallace Sampson (who despite being decidedly not a socialist, is nevertheless a common foreigner) and send the Royal Family and those who love them headlong into scandal.  While royal observers reacted to Edward’s marriage and subsequent abdication with horror, those of us who aren’t put off by Wallace’s obvious Svengali-like characteristics might consider the King’s decision to represent the grandest possible romantic gesture.  It is the very opposite of Mary’s hesitation.

For this reason, an eventual marriage between Mary and Matthew has no dramatic or romantic upside.  In the wake of Cora’s (un?)fortunate miscarriage, Matthew’s claim to the title and entail is absolute.  Should they marry now, we would never know whether or not her interest is genuine.  Should they not marry, the issue still can’t be resolved, although perhaps it can serve as a cautionary tale to young women about transparent strategizing in matters of the heart.

One Comment

  1. Jon wrote:

    Excellent use of Chekhov’s gun!

    Monday, March 25, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

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