Downton Abbey is back, though it won’t be shown here in the States until January. Being impatient, I am unable to wait that long without being completely spoiled, so, yes, I have been watching.
I am one of those creatures who loves costume dramas, romance novels about lords and ladies, and historical fiction, enjoying the pretty costumes, big houses and Jane Austen plots of inheritance, marriage and Society–
I find that I love costume drama-romancey-fantasy things more when there’s a dose of something different in the mix: a rebellious character or a sweeping social change or a cultural confrontation, an injection of reality and conflict amidst the fantasy of what the past would have been like, if one was rich. This is the root of my own work-in-progress.
And it’s because of this tendency that I like Tom Branson, the former chauffeur, now Sybil’s husband, on Downton Abbey. Branson represents not only the Irish (being half Irish, this naturally catches my interest), but alternative political philosophies and the increasing upward mobility of domestics. He is that dose of otherness that catches my interest.
Tom Branson strolled into Downton Abbey’s library in the fourth episode of season one. He’s young. He’s ambitious. He’s brash. He’s Irish. He’s a socialist. He’s different from the other servant characters. Soon enough, he and Sybil strike up a friendship which turns into a very slow and subtle romance in season 2.
I wish the romance had been better written, or at least, written more explicitly. But never mind that.
Season 2, which took place during World War One, showed Branson trying to convince Sybil to love him and to consider marrying him, thereby exiling herself from the world she’s grown up in. I’ve read reactions to this storyline and to Branson as a character which range from “Branson’s trying to manipulate Sybil” to “I get don’t why he’s so angry” and “I wish he’d go away.”
I’ve noticed a tendency in romance readers and in others who love historical costume dramas–not all of them, of course, but many–an expressed point of view that they enjoy the fantasy of the pretty clothes, the big house, the servants, the social rules. Anything or anybody that interrupts that escapism is character non grata.
For me, though, as long as the relationship is believable and loving, I like the trope of the poorer man falling in love with the rich girl. It must go back to my Titanic-loving 12-year-old self.
I have wondered why some viewers haven’t taken to Branson. Is it because they’ve bought into the social strata of the show, taking the Crawleys’ rather snobbish point of view? Is it because Branson, as a minor character, doesn’t have as much screentime as some others and hasn’t made an impression on them? Is it because there’s been shoddy writing?
Branson, in addition to being a romantic character for me, on top of being the agent of difference and change, is also a character of great significance because of my Irish ancestors. The Edwardian era, WWI and the 1920s were a significant time in Irish history. We heard a little about the Easter Rising during Season 2.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, in which Ireland was declared a dominion of Great Britain rather than a part of the kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (The Act of Union of 1801, which came about because of the rebellion of 1798), was signed in 1921.
The Treaty garnered a mixed reaction. It left Ireland a part of the UK when the country wanted full independence.
Northern Ireland, with its Protestant majority, had been partitioned from the rest of the island and opted out of joining the Free State, staying a part of the United Kingdom. The island was divided, descending into the Irish Civil War, between those were pro-Treaty and those who were anti-Treaty. Michael Collins famously said that the treaty would allow Ireland “the freedom to achieve freedom.” Collins was shot dead in his home county, Cork, in August 1922.
This is the time period of Downton Abbey, beyond the estate grounds. I don’t think a piece can be a proper period piece without some mention of the events of the time. Tom Branson is trying to do what’s best for his English wife, but also burning with the desire to help his country, which has been under British rule for centuries with so much persecution, hardship and misery. I expect this conflict to go deeper in the coming episodes. As long as he’s unharmed and devoted to Sybil, Tom Branson is all right in my book.
Here’s Julian Fellowes on Branson: