Note: This post contains spoilers for Season 3 of Downton Abbey.
Like much of Britain and America, we here at Christ and Pop Culture love us some Downton Abbey, the Julian Fellowes television series that traces the lives of a family of English nobles and their servants over the course of the early twentieth century. One of the most recent exchanges on the series came in dueling articles published at The Atlantic. On February 6, Meghan Lewit contended that the “show is terrible at romance” and that stable if bickering marriages have replaced the far more dramatically interesting torrid passions of the earlier seasons. A day later, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz fired back, asserting that “the current season of Downton Abbey is arguably the most interesting of all,” because it shows its characters now in mature, committed relationships forced to navigate the daily vicissitudes of life.
From both a critical and a Christian perspective, I’m with Gritz on this one. The growing pains of Matthew and Mary Crawley as they settle into a marriage that they know from the start will be at once permanent and contentious are to me more fascinating and less wearisome than the constant “Will they or won’t they?” of the first two seasons (especially the second). The frayed tension between Robert and Cora after Lady Sybil’s death, representing perhaps the most traumatic grief the couple has had to encounter in their married life, was among the most heartrendingly authentic points in a show best known for its melodrama. We know that the superficiality enjoined in the dowager countess’s counsel, “People like us are never unhappily married,” can hardly salve their hurts; yet we also know that Robert and Cora represent a marriage that many contemporary Americans could not even conceive, having wed first and fallen in love afterward. Thus, they know better than anyone that marriage is about more than the fleeting passions that Margaret Lewit longs for in her Atlantic piece. And the marriage many viewers consider the most romantic of all—that of John and Anna Bates—has seen the couple largely separated, he enduring prison while she labors for his release, which has only now been at last accomplished.
Contra Lewit, then, the Downton Abbey perspective on marriage, like the Gritz perspective, is far closer to the biblical perspective—that is, messy and mundane, but lasting. Biblical marriage, across the board Old Testament and New Testament, is depicted as covenantal, and as such it is frequently in both testaments made the basis for comparison to the believer’s covenant relationship to God (in the New Testament specifically, Christ). And just as the believer’s relationship to God assumes a love beyond infatuation or fleeting passions, married love for the Christian may be as much quotidian and humdrum as it is fiery and fervid. Most couples who remain married over decades of life would, I suspect, testify that they have been “in love” and “out of love” with one another on multiple occasions; but even the latter condition does not preclude acting out of a love that is greater than any moment’s desire. Sure, passion makes for dramatic television; but permanence makes for good marriage, and those who know it can appreciate it on the small screen as well.