A Source Critic Looks at ‘Downton Abbey’

Editors’ note: Students of biblical interpretation know how source criticism attempts to find the original sources used by Scripture’s various authors and editors. Inspired by their example, an aspiring source critic of the popular television show Downton Abbey searches for the stories behind the story.

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Readers familiar with the period drama Downton Abbey will have encountered it in final form as broadcast by PBS to an American audience. It is widely assumed that the screenplay for the mini-series was written by one Julian Fellowes of Dorset. This mistaken assumption, though promiscuously propagated by the press, evinces a lack of sufficient attention paid to the uneven, at times contradictory, nature of the narrative. It is patently obvious to this author and to those of a critical ilk that the so-called Downton Abbey storyline is the product of multiple authors with several different aims.

The first clues to the interlaced source texts of Downton Abbey are the alternative versions of the same events. Twice we witness the deserving hero, Matthew, inherit the immense fortune of a man he barely knows. Twice we see a middle-aged servant resist proposals of marriage and the temptation to leave service (first Mrs. Hughes in season one, then Mrs. Patmore in season three). Twice we behold newborn infants tragically lose a parent. Thrice we watch members of the staff (Branson, Jane, and, in season three, Edna) in uneasy romantic pursuit of the family upstairs.

A second clue that the Downton story is the work of multiple redactors is the many anachronisms that find their way into the dialogue. While this is a risk of any period piece, it is unfathomable that the same author who meticulously plans Edwardian feasts of oysters a la russe and asparagus salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette would allow his characters to admit that they “couldn’t care less” or to soften their retorts with “I’m just sayin’.”

Three Redactors

This author proposes that there are at least three redactors behind the wildly popular series. These three authors do not, by any means, correspond to the three distinct seasons. These authors each redacted an original body of material, though it is unclear whether the alterations took place successively or simultaneously. We will call these authors the Aristocrat, the Moralist, and the Progressive.

The Aristocrat chiefly aims to preserve the welfare of Downton and the honor of the family. He concerns himself with the provision of male heirs, flower shows, dressing for dinner, and maintaining the family property by tying tightly the knots of any and all fortunes to the Downton estate. He punishes Lady Sybil for marrying an Irish revolutionary by killing her off and turning her husband into an enforcer of the feudal system. The Arisocrat retells the Sybil/Branson romance in the Branson/Edna romance, but he reworks the plot to his own satisfaction by sending Edna on her way.

The Moralist, in turn, punishes the characters for their moral indiscretions. Each of Thomas’s attempts at homosexual liaison backfire, humiliating him and placing him in the contemptuous power of the Duke of Crowborough, the unfortunate Kemal Pamuk, and finally Jimmy Kent. Pamuk also manages to bring down Lady Mary, but the Moralist ensures that she suffers infamy and the purgatory of engagement to Sir Richard Carlisle.

Working at cross purposes to the Moralist is the Progressive. The Progressive perpetually tries to redeem Thomas after the Moralist has punished him. Thomas as painted by the Progressive is a lonely soul, his wickedness the product of years of bullying. The Progressive happily redeems Lady Mary by marrying her to Matthew, who accepts her with full knowledge of her sexual experience. The Progressive speaks through the mouthpiece of Cousin Isobel and Lady Sybil. He briefly commandeers Lord Grantham, who has heretofore embodied tradition and stodginess, inciting him to accept Thomas’s homosexuality with a figurative shrug.

No doubt, members of the contingent known as the Fellowes School will have other explanations for the author’s inconsistent characterizations. They will say that Fellowes wrote seasons two and three in a hurry, amid the whirl of a transcontinental publicity tour. While this explanation may appeal to audiences who favor simplicity, those of a scholarly bent will never choose the simple solution over a meticulously plotted source conspiracy.

Authentic Core

This will bring the reader to ask, what was the original body of material upon which these redactors left their mark? Is there an authentic core to Downton Abbey that is free from the taint of any agenda? To answer that question, the reader need only ask, what portions of the script are universally applauded?

Quite clearly, the proverbial witticisms of the Dowager Countess (played in the final form by Dame Maggie Smith) constitute the unaltered heart of the narrative. Free of gloss or bias, timeless in relevance, it is the words of the Dowager to which viewers return again and again, and in which we find words to live by.

  • zilch

    I agree. But who’s the Dowager in the Bible?

  • Jason Price

    We need more cutting wit like yours in the church, this may be the funniest post I have ever read at TGC.

  • http://www.fencepostblog.com Dan

    An unexpected benifit of seminary: I actually get this.

  • http://johnbotkin.net John Botkin

    Hahaha! This was excellent.

  • Marshall

    Well done! A point very well made.

  • http://www.eagleprojects.com Phil Eyster

    Well done. Good use of time and typing and the internet. This should get a wider audience at Harvard and Princeton. Good job.

  • Jonathan Bailes

    Betsy, within that proverbial core which has not fallen prey to the ideological agendas of the three redactors you identified, I recall a particularly apt saying of the Dowager: “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” Your wit succeeds where perhaps more crass arguments fail to persuade. Well done.

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  • Chris Zmuda

    Love it!

  • Rachael Starke


  • Chris Woznicki

    I don’t watch Downton Abbey but either way this is so good and witty!

  • Darlene

    Excellent! Loved reading it and shared with John.

  • Craig McNinch

    I’m a British theology student in Scotland so really appreciate the source criticism but, also have quite a good depth of ‘turn of the century’ history under my belt as it was a focus in high school.
    What may look like multiple authors is in fact just Julian Fellows (although there are other folks who will help polish his work no doubt). The issues that he brings to the fore in terms of the upstairs family and downstairs family mixing to much and storylines seeming to be repeating themselves (the multiple parents dying, the inheritance question and marriage proposals to more mature ladies) were actually all serious issues in these times in Britain. Our social classes were being massively shaken after WW1 and while some of the deaths and such are perhaps being a little over played that has two very clear reasons.
    The first is that Fellows originally promised only two series, then money bags grew and we were faced with similar storylines as (let’s be honest) he’s begun to run out of ideas.
    Secondly is that while he saw money bags, some actors wished to move on or felt that the show would take this confusing downward turn in season three and so refused to renew their contracts. Ironically that caused even more trouble as Fellows had to recreate very similar storylines to previous episodes to make ends meet.
    All in all the trap of being too critical was sprung within this argument. The writer, thinking overly critically looked at the evidence and found what they expected. This is of course a problem in biblical studies to-especially in the Psalms.

    At the same time however I replied to this not to rant and poke holes but to try and create a mock response of a less critical person because having my extra knowledge I was more aware of certain fact and able to highlight some short comings of source criticism. While it is a useful tool we have to rely on God to communicate His word faithfully to us and always to some level, trust the text as the divine word of God and not rip it to shreds.
    To conclude…this post is fantastic and I want to try it out on a TV show myself.

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  • Iatros55

    Good on yer, Betsy. Excellent writing, good points, and it made me laugh. My favorite character, and perhaps everyone’s, is the Dowager Countess. She should be included as the Greek Chorus, adding explanation and insight to the play.

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  • http://aslanslibrary.wordpress.com Haley

    Betsy, this is fantastic! It’s so fun to read your writing… Any chance you’ll start blogging somewhere regularly?

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  • Jarred E.

    That was awesome!

  • Alan

    This is fantastic, I love a good bit of reducto ad absurdum. Though I fear that this is old news, given that “New Directions in Pooh Studies” (Clines missed a trick not calling it ‘schatology’) was published in 1998. If you enjoyed this, give that a look and see J, E, D and (two kinds of) P extracted from A.A. Milne’s work. The archaic Sanders tradition, appearing only once in the text is my favourite moment.

    Sadly far too many people have not noticed that source criticism is bankrupt and of so little use I’d hesitate to call it even a useful tool. It certainly is a tool, but so are those who value it above inspiration.
    (I didn’t mean to pack the puns in quite that densely, but they flowed so freely I didn’t want to stop!)

  • Brian Roden

    Currently taking an NT Intro class at seminary (took OT Intro last fall), so this fit right in with some of the material we have covered.

  • http://www.twitter.com/belliandrew Andrew

    And I suspect Carson represents D.A. Carson? Striving to return order to the chaos?

  • Tim H

    Hoorah! Finally critical modern scholarship has discredited the ignorant dogmatism of the Fellowes tradition. Perhaps now we can begin to educate people about the fact that there were many Downtons before ITV decreed the official version. I hope some enterprising academic (Elaine Pagels, perhaps) can contribute to this new era of Downton scholarship by providing modern translations of the Gnostic Downtons for further study.

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  • RayC

    Betsy, I just came across this. Thanks, this is mind-blowing stuff! I’m sure there’s a lot more behind this than meets the eye. Do you know where I can enroll in a doctoral degree on Downton Abbey source criticism??

  • Brian

    This is one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. Thank you.

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