Too Modern? Downton Abbey and other period drama storylines

Yes, this is a rant.

I am a Downton Abbey fan. I wouldn’t call myself a casual viewer–I read fanfiction once in a while, for God’s sake–but I’m not as fandom-involved as some Downton fans are, for my own sanity. I prefer to keep the Downton discussion amongst friends–and blog visitors, should any be brave enough to comment.

This goes back to my opinions on costume dramas and my preferences for them, as expressed in a past post, Why I Like Tom Branson.

So, when I came across some Downton season 4 spoilers, I read them and take them as they are. After all, I’m not Julian Fellowes. They’re not my characters. Writing, rewriting and researching my own cast of characters and their issues from 1800 has given me an appreciation of the work that must go into writing a production like Downton, though of course, writing a novel in one’s bedroom is not the same as filming a hit drama. My cast don’t act or speak except on the page and in my head, ergo, they don’t leave the story when their contract is up.

Some of these season 4 spoilers indicate that Mary is going to have a “difficult relationship” with her newborn son. What difficult means, I’m not sure. Mary never struck me as particularly maternal and after all, she must associate her son’s birth with her husband’s death. Whether Mary is simply an aristocratic mother, loath to spend much time with her baby, or suffers from some postpartum depression will not be clear until series 4 airs.

I read a post somewhere–a fan was complaining that she hoped they wouldn’t go down the postpartum route, as that felt too modern to her.

Too modern? 

Of all the things on Downton to feel too modern… (The late, unlamented Mrs. Bates: “As. If.”)

Others hope that Lady Mary won’t let go of the widow’s weeds just yet. Do they want her to do a Victoria and mourn forever? Not only would that be grossly out of character, but it would feel like watching a version of New Moon. And I threw New Moon on the floor while reading all about little Bella’s depressive state.

Someone else noted that Mrs. Hughes’ breast cancer scare felt too modern to her.

Lots of people had cancer in olden times. Lots of people had depression and postpartum depression at that, in olden times. Only difference was, they didn’t call those conditions by their modern names and they didn’t have treatments for them. But of course they existed and I think, in the right story and circumstance, it’s interesting to see it depicted.

Just as financial ruin when a bank goes under existed in the 1840s-set Cranford.

Or people take advantage of the poor and there were people of color about, as depicted in Garrow’s Law.

Or how there are strong women in every era–even during the medieval ages, like Aliena in The Pillars of the Earth.

Or there were gay people, like Thomas in Downton Abbey.

Or people got cancer and had really painful surgeries to attempt to treat it, like John Adams’ daughter had in the miniseries John Adams.

So, how do you like your period piece dramas? Do you like them wholly in the past, no connection to anything in the present? Do you find certain plots “too modern,” even though they would have or certainly could have happened at the time? What about those plots strikes you as particularly modern? 

4 thoughts on “Too Modern? Downton Abbey and other period drama storylines

  1. I think we interpret any time period through the lens of our own, and it's impossible not to, to some degree. I love looking at period pieces filmed in the 60s, say, to see what's filtered through, whether it be culture, politics, makeup, fashion, or language. One thing that often sticks out to me is women's rights. The DA daughters all have a lot of spunk, and I have often wondered if they were truly typical of the period.


  2. I get tired of all of the spunky, feisty women in historical romance because they aren't conventional for their time. But as for the Crawley daughters, their spunk feels more realistic to me. Not all of them try to push every single boundary. And I would think that being an aristocratic daughter gives a young woman more confidence and more security than your average working woman at the time–hence, the spunk.


  3. I kind of like to see \”modern\” dilemmas in period pieces, where \”modern\” is defined as some of your examples found here. That is, we take a look at how problems that are recognized as real issues today and see how they would have been treated in another time and place.What drives me crazy in Downton is when they make a character in-story ignorant in a way that no one of the time period would be, so they get to do an exposition dump on the audience. Trust your audience! All that over-explaining about the entail almost made me switch it off in the middle of the first episode. That would have been a real loss, because I've enjoyed the bulk of it even its soapier moments.


  4. Exactly! I loved Downton from the first episode on, but I kept thinking, \”Why does Mary even think she can be an heiress?\” She would've known from birth that she'd get a portion as a dowry and that was that. But then I was also surprised that so many people didn't know what an entail was. Thank you for your comment!


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