Love Lessons From Downton Abbey

7 things we can learn about romance and passion from the PBS series

There’s always something romantic percolating in Downton Abbey. Whether it’s Matthew finally getting down on his knee to propose to Mary during a swirling Christmas-time snowstorm or Mrs. Hughes taking Mr. Carson’s hand as they wade into the surf during a summer outing, for five years dedicated audiences have been following every flutter of the heart of the Crawley clan, their acquaintances and servants.
What strikes me is that most avid Downton-ers have nothing in common with the fictional upper class Crawley clan. These lords, ladies, butlers and scullery maids have been weathering the tides of change coming to Yorkshire, England during the second and third decades of the 20th century. Not our era nor our social class — but recaps and episodes appear in Malaysia, Canada, France and even China.
Why? The show’s “everyman” and “everywomen” themes — especially those having to do with romantic relationships — have universal appeal.
(MORE: Downton Abbey Offers These 5 Parenting Lessons)
Here are seven lessons about love we have learned from Downton Abbey, amplified by views from loyal watchers:
1. You know it’s love when someone brings out the best in you.
Characters involved: Matthew and Mary
What happens: “I’m not very nice,” Mary has said in various ways to her suitors. Indeed, she had little compunction about dragging a dead lover’s body to his own room or breaking off the engagement to a man she was probably marrying for his money anyway. When Mary is with Matthew, however, she becomes the person he thinks she is: thoughtful, courageous and loving. Even more affecting, after his death (oh boy, I hope this wasn’t a spoiler for anyone), Mary basically becomes Matthew, taking on the stewardship of the family property and making sure her family’s legacy continues.
Lesson learned: As Miriam Sand Pfleger, from central Jersey, wrote on Facebook, “It’s like that old saying … be the person your dog thinks you are. Mary thought she was a better version of herself with Matthew because he saw her differently from how she saw herself.”
(MORE: The Women of Downton Abbey)
2. Don’t keep secrets from the one you love.
Characters involved: Anna and John Bates
What happens: Bates, who had been Lord Grantham’s “batman” during the second Boer War, comes to work at Downton Abbey and gets little sympathy from the staff who feel his bad leg (result of an injury suffered during the war) disqualifies him from being a valet. Only Anna, lady’s maid to the Grantham girls, shows him kindness, and even marries him when Bates is wrongly accused of his ex-wife’s murder. Then comes the evening when Anna is raped by a visiting valet. She begs the only two who know, Lady Mary and Mrs. Hughes, never to reveal her secret to Bates. Traumatized, Anna insists on living in the main house for a while, jeopardizing her marriage. When the rapist is killed, suspicion falls on Bates — and even Anna seems to fear her husband committed the deed.
Lesson learned: The irrepressible Dowager Countess has drawled pithy pearls about how no one ever has all the facts, and implies that full truth isn’t needed in love relationships. But the show proves the exact opposite: For instance, Matthew doesn’t give a fig when Mary confesses she isn’t a virgin. Marla Schulman, who lives in the Los Angeles area, wrote to me on Facebook concerning the Bates duo, “Keeping secrets from your partner only leads to more misery.”
3. Be open to possibility.
Characters involved: Rose and Jack Ross, Rose and Atticus Aldridge
What happens: Rose, who comes to live with her Crawley cousins when her aristocratic but broke parents ship off to India, may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, but she has a huge heart and seems immune to prejudice. Her black jazz singer lover wisely decides to break it off even before Lady Mary comes a-pleading. He knows the liaison would be a disaster. But Rose’s confusion that the destitute former Russian nobility don’t consider Atticus to be truly of Russian heritage because he’s Jewish again reveals her willingness to accept people. The delighted Atticus sees her generosity of spirit and asks to come a-courting.
Lesson learned: Kathy Bliss from Southern California said to me, “If you let preconceptions get in the way, you may miss out on the love of your life.” Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, an economist from the Philadelphia area, observed in an email that “before 2020, we’ll be seeing more of the class/cultural matches that would have made Lord Grantham shake his head.” It’s not as if every person you meet is appropriate, but for those of us looking for love in midlife, or even watching the romantic escapades of our adult children, it’s good to keep Rose in mind.
4. Long-term relationships have their ups and downs.
Characters involved: Lord and Lady Grantham
What happens: At the beginning of Season Five, our favorite aristocrats celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary. Robert’s toast to Cora is lovely. Does it matter that five years before, The Earl of Grantham nearly had an affair with a housemaid? Luckily, Cora seems never to have known about that. Is it fair that Robert gets so exercised when he comes upon the rather effete art historian, Mr. Bricker, in his wife’s bedroom — even though Bricker assures the enraged husband that Cora had not encouraged him? Note that Cora is excited about Bricker’s interest in their painting by the Italian Renaissance artist, Piero dello Francesca. But she doesn’t tell Bricker to bugger off even when he professes his love.
(MORE: 3 Surprising Secrets to a Long Marriage)
Lesson learned: My wise friend Debbie Skolnik, from Scarsdale, N.Y., told me, “If you're married, don't take flirting too far. It can be fun, but can also hurt your marriage. If Lady Grantham had told the art expert that she wasn't interested, he wouldn't have shown up in her bedroom and Lord Grantham wouldn't have gotten such an awful shock.” Married people may flirt and even have affairs, but if a marriage has a solid foundation, then long-term partners can often resurrect the treasure that is a love based on something greater than convenience or physical attraction. I doubt Cora and Robert will seek counseling (though I’m sure it will all work out well). We 21st century folks are lucky to have the option of seeking help from experts when we experience marital troubles.
5. Be true to yourself.
What happens: Thomas is a problematic character, the guy we love to hate. He’s also gay. At one point, Thomas makes a pass at the handsome footman Jimmy Kent, mistakenly believing that Jimmy returns his feelings. Thomas almost gets arrested, but, in the end, everyone wants to avoid a scandal. Thomas, who still holds a flame, also takes a beating from a couple of thugs whose target was actually Jimmy. In the end, the two become friends, Jimmy admitting that he could never have thought he would be friends with “that kind of man.” Still, societal pressure is too much, and Thomas decides to undergo treatment to fix his sexual proclivities, something that rings true historically. The quackery could kill him.
Lesson learned: Again, we are lucky to be living in the 21st century when gay and transgender people are more readily accepted into mainstream society. Yet, it’s not always easy for parents to accept their children’s sexuality and psychologists even recommend that some adult children follow their gut and don’t come out to family. My friend Susan Diamond in Vermont says, “I would hope that any Downton Abbey fan who has rejected a gay or transgender child note closely how ill Thomas becomes. The idea that we should expect our children to be just like us is antiquated.”
6. It’s OK if you can’t let it go . . . sometimes.
Characters: Edith Crawley and Michael Gregson
What happens: None of the Crawleys seem to take Lady Edith’s grief over Michael Gregson’s disappearance seriously. After all, no one knows that the relationship had become sexual, and, as Gregson was still married (to a madwoman, a Jane Eyre touch), no engagement could be official. Furthermore, only Grandmama and Aunt Rosamund know about the “love” child, and they both want Edith to send the toddler to some kind of school or orphanage in France. Meanwhile, Edith is rightfully distraught, and none of us 21st century folks think her emotions are out of bounds.
Lesson learned: It’s hard getting over the loss of love. Some people never do, and we should be patient with them. On the other hand, if someone is mourning a failed relationship or even the death of a partner several years after the fact, there are support groups and therapists to help, the kind of people whose existence might have provided relief to Edith.
7. Hold your loved ones close.
Characters: Mary and Matthew, Tom and Sibyl, Edith and Michael
What happens: Death seems to stalk the Crawley family. The show is, after all, a soap opera. When an actor in the series gets a great offer to move on, Julian Fellowes has to write the character out of the script. Some of what happens in the show — for instance, Sibyl dying in childbirth — might be avoided these days in most countries. But brutality equal to a Nazi putsch where Michael met his end is still part of our lives. Random violence happens. As do car accidents.
Lesson learned: “Wear your seat belt, always, and remember that convertibles are dangerous,” says Barb Winger who lives near Portland, Ore. “Get good medical care; fight for your right to competent doctors,” Isabel Portella, of Chicago, adds.
I begin each day thinking of those I love. I make a point of telling my husband that I appreciated something he did. I call my cousins. I text my kids.
This is what I’ve learned from Downton Abbey.

Linda Bernstein
By Linda Bernstein
Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches journalism at Long Island University, Brooklyn.

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