Replay: Downton Abbey & The Right Stuff: Must an author be faithful?

Update: With the recent premiere of Season Five of Downton Abbey in the U.S. I thought I’d resurrect this post from the past. Watching the latest machinations of the various members of the Crawley family, I’m struck by how this show just happily ignores reality in a broad sense, even while being fetishistic about things like table settings and how women wore their hair. But the show is a smash hit on both sides of the pond, while I’m still looking for a publisher for Entertaining Welsey Shaw, so who’s to argue with success?

Downton Abbey

What boulderdash. Of course authors don’t always have to be faithful. Fidelity is overrated. They’re allowed to cheat, just like everyone else.

…When writing, that is.

A lot of people think writers have an obligation, in fiction, not to lie, to get it all right. Some of the biggest compliments I hear about a written work—and movies as well—is that they’re “realistic.” Whatever that means.

I’ve tried, as best I can, to be very realistic in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. I’ve done a lot of research, visited and stayed in many (though not all) of the places in the story, and Google Mapped and Streetviewed it to death.

I have a few cheats. There is no Amtrak train that goes from Callicoon to Penn Station every day. And it takes Joseph a little less time to get into Manhattan than it probably would in the real world. The Starbucks is described as perhaps a bit bigger and roomier than it really is (or was…it’s gone now, as the building it resided in is being remodeled).

I traveled to Callicoon, NY, a very small town on the edge of nothingness (and liking it that way) and lived there for a week. I know one resident well and she’s a character in the novel.

It’s quite hard, though, to decide when to be faithful and when to take liberties. There are no “right” answers.

Why am I thinking about all this? Downton Abbey, that’s why.

Yep, that beloved British drama is back in America, and so far there’s some controversy about how good this season is. A number of critics are saying nay instead of yay.

But what’s both made me laugh and caused me to grit my teeth is that many of its defenders state that they’re “learning” a lot about history from the show. It’s not just a melodrama, it’s educational.

That’s like saying you’re learning a lot about the oil business by watching Dallas. Or about archeology from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or about the Anschluss from The Sound of Music.

Downton Abbey is many things, but historically-accurate ain’t one of them.

Downton Abbey

A long time ago in a world that never really was…

No aristocratic family would concern itself with the goings-on of the downstairs people the way the Granthams routinely do. They wouldn’t tolerate the scandals below stairs, and servants would be dismissed for the smallest infractions, not coddled and fussed over, not to mention employed after being imprisoned for murder, the way they are in this show. (No, it wouldn’t matter to them if the murder charges were eventually overturned, and by the way those charges were overturned, once the evidence was brought to the court, faster than most people can fix a parking ticket.) Rich families didn’t even know the names of the people below stairs, save the highest-ranking ones. But here the aristocrats worry about the daily trials and tribulations of the lowest help.

In the real world, employees having relations with each other would be sacked—or rather, the woman would be sacked. The man would just be given a stern talking-to. Things weren’t fair in those days, not like it’s portrayed in the show.

The downstairs people of the show, despite unquestionably having a lot of work to do, also seem to find plenty of time to play. In real life they worked almost constantly, except Sunday mornings, when they went to church. Attendance was compulsory.

While the Downton characters, both above and below, seem so charming and engaging, if you had to spend any time with these people in real life you’d probably run screaming from the upper-class ones (shallow, vain and smug) or feel so bad for the lower-class ones (depressed, sad and miserable) that you’d excuse yourself and leave as quickly as you could. An era that is now so romanticized was actually pretty miserable.

A show that illustrates all this brilliantly—and which Downtown creator Julian Fellowes no doubt watched before starting his series—is the U.K. reality TV series Edwardian Country House (renamed Manor House in the U.S.) For several months a group of people assumed the roles of Edwardian-era folks, some upstairs, some downstairs. Things were handled very realistically. In fact, a couple of the downstairs staff couldn’t take the emotional strain and eventually bailed out. The upstairs folks had the time of their lives however.

I wish more people who fawn over Downton Abbey and the time it represents would watch this show.

So does fiction have to “be realistic,” whatever that means, to be great? Of course not. While Melville’s Moby-Dick is so accurate in its detail that it could almost be used as a marine biology textbook, Shakespeare took liberties with his plays, even the “histories.” So Julian Fellowes can too.

But I think there is an obligation for the audience to realize when they’re being entertained. Often the truth is distorted for a grander purpose than literal reality. Many philosophers, such as René Girard, have talked about the value of this. It’s often why fiction is so unique and important a teaching tool, what people who denounce its worth do not understand. Creative license can highlight greater truths than sheer pedantic literalism.

In one of the best movies of the 1980s, The Right Stuff, director Philip Kaufman takes lots of liberties with history to make a bigger point. His hero, Chuck Yeager, is portrayed as the lone cowboy, the silent type who is a man of deeds, not words. Early in the film he rides into town, literally, and offers to break the sound barrier in an experimental craft the next morning, without any fanfare, just because it’s a job that needs to be done.

Not to detract from the achievements of the real General Chuck Yeager, but that’s not how it happened at all.

The flight was planned far in advance. Yeager built up to it, testing the plane close to Mach 1 (the speed of sound) one day, a little closer the next, and so on, till he finally broke through. He didn’t just wake up, put on his flight suit and punch a hole in the sky. But Kaufman wanted to make a point, which was that today’s heroes have on the whole been more the product of marketing than real derring-do for the sake of derring-do.

So what’s the difference between The Right Stuff and Downton Abbey? Perhaps nothing, but I think there is, actually. The former two distorted to say something bigger than themselves about the human condition, draw an analogy to modern times, or then-modern times. Downton distorts to make sure the viewers go away from the telly happy and wanting more. Kaufman and Renoir distort to shed light. Downtown distorts to shade us from it.

In short, liberties are fine, dear writer. But know they’re being taken, dear reader. You won’t learn about history from Downton any more than you’ll learn about quantum physics by watching The Big Bang Theory. Bazinga!


5 responses

  1. Maureen Owen

    I’ve been seeing some Downton Abbey over here (Belgium and France) and while I’ve only watched Season One that was enough. I can’t figure out why everyone is so excited over hammy acting and completely implausible plotlines. And I hear in a later season some survivor from the Titanic turns up on their doorstep!? Seriously. When I heard that I stopped watching completely. My intelligence is being insulted. Oh, and British darling Michelle Dochery can’t act, can’t do anything but stand there and say things in a haughty monotone.


    January 13, 2014 at 11:19 am

  2. Rob W.

    Everyone is upset after last night because Anna was raped. Some even say they’ll never watch the show again, and Julian Fellows has descended into the realm of trash. Where were they all when Lady Mary was raped in her bedroom in the middle of season one?


    January 13, 2014 at 10:59 pm

  3. Good point!


    January 13, 2014 at 10:59 pm

  4. mary burdt

    I love Downton Abby. Why? It is entertaining and I never give a thought to whether it is based on reality. I know it is a TV show, therefore, definitely not a history lesson.


    January 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    • Welcome Mary. You’re watching DA the smart way. But I’ve read many who insist it’s so much “smarter” than anything we have on American TV, because you’re getting a history lesson. Oy…


      January 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm

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