Other than my wracking sobs for fictional characters, the most distressing part of the latest season of Downton Abbey was that I forgot to keep track of the number of time that words to the effect of "the world is changing" were said. I think that sentiment permeated the season as much as lavender and starch permeate the Dowager Countess's unmentionables.
I know that when you hold a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but I couldn’t watch the beautiful, wasteful, opulence of life at Downton without thinking of the present world. Thoughts on climate change and income inequality and class, gender, and identity struggles all flitted through my head while I watched the beautiful people on the little screen try to keep their lovely home and ancestral heritage stable as the world changes. All that over-consumption, crumbling as the necessary support networks falter…climate change may be my hammer, but I don’t think I’m wrong with the analogy. The show is still a soap opera, I still watch it mostly for the beautiful clothes and the Dowager’s snarky, silky retorts, but just because it is fluff, doesn’t mean some truth and beauty and intelligence can’t be there also.
The people who seem to get truly screwed in Downton—as perhaps, in our current reality—are the parents. They’ve been raised one way, expect certain truths to remain true, and are hurt when life deviates from their plan. The grandparent-aged folk have enough experience and perspective to handle a certain amount of change. And, then the young people are leading the charge, demanding that, if the world is changing, that we must change with it. If this sounds familiar to anyone else, I won’t be surprised. Some friends and I have been talking about how the ramped-up over consumption of the last fifty years has been in service to the Baby Boomer generation, and, to quell the literal rising tides, that we need to return to, remember, the harder, more skilled, smaller lives and greater capabilities of our grandparents’ generations and farther back.
I think of this every time another friend takes up canning. Or knitting. Or farming. These things may be trendy and hipster, but also, they are useful skills for life. I try not to think that some Cormac McCarthy-esque Apocalypse is nigh with climate change and increasing economic inequality and joblessness, but I do think there will come a time where to use less will not be a choice. I’d prefer to learn how to be capable before there is a need, and there is sweetness in making an active choice. The world is changing and we must change or go extinct, as they say in Downton.
I am already frightened for this summer’s wildfire season in the West, for the hurricane season along coastlines that are still raw from last year, for whatever slings and arrows and emergencies we’ve forced ourselves to weather this year. It is more than time to change, the world has already changed, continues to do so, and we must change, and quickly, to live in the world we’ve created. Or it, and we, will go extinct. For my part, there is still too much that is wonderful to give up now. Battered and hot and crowded and problematic as this world is, I think it’s still worth fighting to hold on to. And little actions, like learning to be more self-sufficient and kinder, may not be enough of a weapon. But they are a good, well-intentioned, start towards change.
One of my favorite storylines of Downton has been Lady Sybil falling in love with the Irish Catholic Revolutionary chauffer, Tom Branson. I think that any one of those identities would be enough to sink his battleship amid the Crawleys. They certainly threaten to, a new mark against the man appears pretty much every time he does. Without saying too much, what I most loved about this latest season was watching him come into peace with his old identity and his new as a member of an aristocratic, English, Anglican, family. Rather than fight for Home Rule in Ireland, rather than firebomb and terrorize the countryside in service to his (rightful) passions, he turns back to land and family, and gives himself in service to those ideals.
John Adams, who I like for being persnickety and overly verbose and for helping Abigail Adams to some prominence, wrote “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.” I think that this is the source of the somewhat watered down, “I am a revolutionary so my son can be a farmer and his son can be a poet.” I’ve seen that line attributed to both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but I’m going to demonstrate a small bit of loyalty to my new state and give it, here, to Adams.
I don’t see why revolutionaries can’t be farmers and poets. In truth, I don’t see a better way.