The Downton Abbey Phenomenon

Downton Abbey, the British TV series, is a huge favorite in the English speaking world.  With sharp dialog, sparkling sets, and fabulous clothes, who doesn’t love the Sunday night extravaganza of opulence and biting rejoinders? Being historically true to its times, it is a favorite of our duchesses.

It is such a phenomenon that Downton Abbey is going to shape what we see and read for the next several years. Ordinarily, we duchesses stick to historical fact. Today, I am going to take us on a journey of futuristic fantasy. Or, more bluntly put, my best guesses.

1)            An emphasis on older women who speak their minds. We’ve seen some of this in the Margaret Thatcher biopic and the Marigold Hotel movie. With Maggie Smith’s outstanding Dowager Countess (who could forget her reply to the newspaper magnate, when he said they’d never meet again, “do you promise?”), supported by Mrs. Crawley and her determination to bring good nursing care to the soldiers near the front lines and Shirley MacLaine’s nouveau-riche American force of nature, older women will become central in more “big” stories. The Dowager Countess’ lines get repeated around my house by young ladies who appreciate a good barbed comeback. Who doesn’t like to see, or read about, a woman of experience finding new paths or branching out and facing down all her naysayers. We hope that will be ourselves one day.

2)            An emphasis on large family sagas. These were very popular thirty years ago in Dallas and Dynasty on TV and complex tales of relationships surrounding a privately owned business or fortune. We’re seeing a renaissance now in Downton Abbey and the Borgias, disproving the theory that our attention spans are now as long as a thirty second commercial. If the story is compelling enough, readers and viewers will stick around.

3)            Rich guy/poor girl tales have been around since Cinderella put on that glass slipper. What Downton Abbey brings us is the poor guy getting the rich girl. Lady Sybil married the chauffeur. The Earl of Grantham lost his rich wife’s fortune. Anna’s husband is in jail, and while she is only rich in freedom, she’ll be trying to prove his innocence and seeing life while all he sees is stone walls. I predict more of this in our future.

4)            And the obvious. More interest and production of movies, TV, and books in the Edwardian, WWI, Roaring 20s and Depression time periods. More breath-taking costumes working their way into modern fashions.  We’ve seen this with Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire and Warhorse. There will be more.  I love this time period, and if everything that comes out is made with the same high quality as Downton Abbey, I can’t wait.

Twisted plots, revenge and grace, sharp words, poignant moments, fabulous wardrobes, and Isis, the retriever. Who could ask for more? I expect Downton Abbey to inspire some wonderful fiction in the future.


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13 Comments on “The Downton Abbey Phenomenon
  1. As a writer of Regency blending into Victorian, I, too, love historical dramas when they’re done so well. Another one you didn’t mention that has fabulous production values is Copper on American BBC. Takes place in 1860’s New York. Great show that just finished its first season.

    • I think of Copper as having more in common with Ripper Street, the BBC America series that just began last week. More of a historical police procedural. These are two more series that are rich in historical tapestry. Thanks for stopping by.

    • I loved her trying to help out when Branson returns and tells them about burning down Dublin Castle, saying how it was so ugly and no great loss. I can’t wait to hear her on Edith getting involved in the suffragettes.

  2. Excellent post. I am also a big fan of the show and agree with you that it will and (possibly already is) shaping what we read and view. I already have outspoken older women in most all of my stories because of my beloved grandmother who lived to be 99. She said exactly what she thought:)

    Thanks for a great take!

  3. I’m a latecomer to the Downton Abbey fanclub, but I caught up with the series last summer just in time to wait and wait and wait for the new episodes to show up on PBS.

    I’m interested to see how the phenomenon will affect historical romance specifically. I’ve got an old lady character who features fairly prominently in my WIP. She’s a bit too batty to give the Dowager Countess any competition, but she does love to stir up trouble.

  4. I think we’re already seeing more novels about this time period. I read Margaret Powell’s first novel “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.” I’m currently reading her second novel, “Servant’s Hall” and will soon read Fay Weldon’s “Habits of the House.” I think it was such an exciting time with so many changes no only socially but also politically and with the war. I hope Downton Abbey continues for a long time. It’s great!

  5. My husband and I are huge Downton Abbey fans. But I also loved Upstairs/Downstairs, Cranforda and Poldark. I also adored the Sharpe series. I hope they produce more costume dramas–I am so sick of reality TV! Great post, Duchess Kate!

  6. The *really* surprising thing, to me, is that men like this show, too. My boyfriend is really into it. He makes references to the show all the time. And the other day when they showed “Downton Place,” he said, “Ha! That’s the small house? It looks bigger than Bantry House.” Who doesn’t love a man who knows his great English/Irish houses?

    My brother likes it, too. He got into it with his wife because of how much my boyfriend likes it.

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