To begin, no spoilers.
Thanks to a review (by Mary McNamara) of Julian Fellowes’ masterpiece, printed in the Los Angeles Times‘ “Calendar” section (1 January 2016), I’ve got to thinking about “Downton”. When Season One aired in the States many wanted to know what lay behind the script, what had served as the imputes for his ideas for the show and its characters. One particular contribution Fellowes mentioned stayed with me. He spoke of a book about the buccaneers, the book’s title is, appropriately, The Buccaneers. A queer enough title. In regards to the British aristocracy the term referred to American heiresses, women of fortune who married into the aristocracy for the prestige of a title, in exchange for this status they brought with them a great deal of money. The buccaneers began coming to Britain in the 1870s and continued into the nineteen teens. And their wealth was badly needed in the early part of the twentieth century. This all pertains to Downton Abbey by way of Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern).
For the entirety of the five seasons “Downton” has aired, I’ve felt that Lady Cora was the one character Fellowes shortchanged. Fellowes has explained that he wanted to explore what it was like for those American heiresses, leaving home, marrying into a society most foreign to them, particularly to the nouveau riche. The aristocracy was a social circle that included manners that were more akin to customs, where “manners” are a set of proper behavior and “customs” are a system of beliefs about a social order and how best to preserve that order. Alas, Cora has had little to say, hence our opportunity to see her in action and to consider her views on a myriad of subjects has been denied us. When she has disagreed with her husband, Robert, Earl of Grantham, she has as often as not merely stared daggers at him rather than voicing her disagreement. This is particularly the case in public settings. Yet even when the two are on their own, in their bedroom, Cora’s questions are all to easily ignored and/or dismissed, while her counterarguments are all overridden by Robert. In their relationship, Robert is lord and master, much to the diminishment of Cora and Fellowes’ opportunities to plumb her moral character. Perhaps Cora’s being an American daunts Julian Fellowes and he just as soon not try to explore too deeply the nature of the American mindset of the nineteen teens and twenties.