Downton Abbey, My Marriage, and Me
What the popular television series is teaching me about the values of marriage and community.
I’ll admit it. I’m one of the millions of Downton Abbey fans. The characters are interesting, their clothes are beautiful, and the setting is enchanting. So when I can learn a little more about the way the show is created or about the history of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, I do.
To prepare myself for the third season, I read a book about Lady Almina Carnarvon, who was the countess of Highclere at the turn of the century and through World War I. Reading about her life was informative and charming—the best kind of reading!
I found this quote regarding Lady Carnarvon’s marriage especially fascinating: “When they were at Highclere or at their house in London, the Carnarvons were always entertaining. It was a curiously public existence compared to domestic life for most married couples today. They were hardly ever alone, and their house was always full of staff and guests.”
This “public existence” is displayed in Downton Abbey by the marriage of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley. The newly married couple lives with her family in a house full of staff. Most dinners include at least two guests: Matthew’s mother and Lady Grantham (the inimitable Maggie Smith, who steals the show with her one-liners and facial expressions).
Sometimes I can’t help but compare Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley’s situation with my own. You see, I too recently got married. Though if I’m honest, that’s basically where the similarities end.
Both the Carnarvons of the early 20th century and the fictitious Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Crawley are surrounded by family and servants in a castle, while my husband and I live by ourselves in a modest home. The Carnarvons and the Crawleys are surrounded by family, while we have to be intentional to spend time with our relatives, even though we live in the same town.
While the Carnarvons and the Crawleys spend most of their time with the same 50 people, my husband and I have to consistently pursue deeper relationships with some of the many people God has placed in our lives. Where they have to seek time alone as a couple, my husband and I have to seek time in community.
It’s a striking comparison. Though the large amount of staff is a function of the Carnarvons’s (and Crawleys’s) wealth and status, middle class and poor families also used to live lives in community. Middle class families often lived in the same house or village as their extended families. Sometimes they even worked together in the same trade. Underprivileged families had to squeeze into small homes where privacy wasn’t an option. Community wasn’t a choice.
For my husband and me, we have to choose to pursue community. Because we have privacy and independence, it’s easy to become focused on our own wants and interests. It’s a curious consistency that as you can isolate yourself as a single, you can just as easily isolate yourselves as a couple. We have to fight our self-centered desire to retain control over our time and energy. Joining a small group or being consistent in Sunday worship can seem like a personal choice rather than a spiritual necessity.
However, a community of two is not enough to sustain a marriage.
I love Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
We don’t give up meeting together because we remember what Christ has done for us. His work is why we can draw near to God, hold tightly to our hope, and meet together to motivate and challenge each other to grow in love and good works.
The Christian life is not just a wedding day where you declare your love. It’s a marriage that is lived out daily. It requires renewed commitment every day. And we need more than just our spouse to push us toward love and good deeds. We need the wisdom of couples who have loved and lived longer than we have. We need the insight of men and women to show us how to persevere in becoming the people God wants us to be. We need community to experience a deeper understanding of God’s grace.
As I preach this truth to myself, it encourages me to pursue community, and not just by default as shown on screen in Downton Abbey. It makes me fight my self-centeredness, and encourages me to participate in a community of believers—both for my spiritual health, and for the health of my marriage.
Beatrice Schoenrock is Today’s Christian Woman’s marketing project and social media manager.