Why Is God Still Absent from Downton Abbey?
Surely this history looms large in the imaginations of the Crawley family, particularly its senior members, who would be deeply aware of the reasons their home was built and transferred into their family's hands in the first place—and the reasons it might be transferred out again.
Season 3 begins on Sunday night here in the US, though record numbers in the United Kingdom have already seen it, along with many Downton-obsessed, tech-savvy Americans (and their parents).
Full disclosure: I haven't yet. But I've been unable to avoid spoilers—especially about cast members leaving the show (and their characters' inevitable and commensurate deaths). Funerals will doubtless ensue. A dim glance into the Downton future, via such spoilers, reveals a return of the vicar for two or three episodes—and also a brief kerfuffle about whether or not a Crawley child should be baptized Catholic. Alas, major plot points seem to center around money and Shirley MacLaine.
It's been well reported that Downton Abbey is the most successful British period piece since Brideshead Revisited, the series based on the Evelyn Waugh novel. Both are set in roughly the same geographic and economic regions—and as of Season 3, with some time overlap as well. Both stories mark long and descending trajectories for once-great English families. But the plot of Brideshead is driven by and steeped in its characters' passionate and complex relationships with God. Waugh's story turns on a crisis of faith that both sums up the sea changes of aristocratic life at the end of the nineteenth century and transcends earthly questions with spiritual ones.
Of course Fellowes has no obligation to repeat this accomplishment, and presumably has little interest trying. Yet it remains striking how much divine trapping there is in Downton Abbey, for what little role explicit faith plays in its characters' lives. There are numerous fascinating blog posts, including this one, that search for implicit Catholic and Christian themes in the show—good and evil, suffering for cause, various types and grades of love and devotion. At some point, though, especially with a vicar in the family's employ, it seems odd for such connections to remain unnamed, unspoken, and, for all we can see, unperceived.
In September, the BBC reported that Fellowes had begun development of a Downton prequel that will center on the courtship between the Earl and the Countess. That show was recently picked up by ITV. Fellowes said it wouldn't air until after Downton Abbey proper has concluded; Downton was also just renewed for a fourth season.
Perhaps Fellowes intends to write more explicitly about faith in the prequel; perhaps one of the Crawleys, or their servants, will wrestle with their faith in some future storyline of Downton Abbey. Perhaps Fellowes will revisit Brideshead between seasons and see what he can steal.
We can hope.
Todd Dorman has an MFA in fiction at Columbia University, and has written for The Paris Review, Image, and other publications.