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January 23, 2013

Downton Abbey, My Marriage, and Me

What the popular television series is teaching me about the values of marriage and community.

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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.

Related Tags: community, downton abbey, family, hospitality, intentionality, marriage, pop culture

Comments

I find it more than a little disturbing that a series that has been dubbed a soap opera and "smut for snobs" by the world's press is being favorably reviewed by a Christian blog. Here's just an excerpt from "Time" magazine's piece.

"Forty-five minutes and one marriage of convenience, one engagement of convenience, one child out of wedlock, one new mother turned war widow who might be lying to cover up a child out of wedlock, one broken engagement due to sexual dysfunction brought on by war wounds, and one case of blackmail later, my mother’s nose was about 4 in. from the screen trying to guess what twisted juiciness next week’s installment might bring. “She’s going to push him down the stairs and kill him!” she predicted about Mr. Bates’ jilted wife. Downton Abbey is not a period drama — it’s a soap opera."

Downton Abbey is the spiritual equivalent of feeding out of the McDonald's dumpster. You might find a few perfectly good wrapped burgers, but why would you even go there in the first place?

Rebecca,
It's true. The show is a bit of a soap opera. However, it does have some historical merit. I've learned a lot about a period in history that I don't know much about. It was an important time of social and political transitions for a country steeped in tradition (see the changing role of women in society in Lady Edith learning to drive and writing for a newspaper, the Bransons involvement in Ireland, etc).

In writing this blog post and engaging with the show, I'm looking to engage with culture in a God-glorifying way.

On the shallow side, I also love to see all the striking shots of Highclere Castle.

Beatrice

I like your focus on the level of community in Downton Abbey and how contrasting it can be to our culture today. I agree that we need others besides our spouse to spur each other on in faith and Christian living. Well worded and thought out! Just as enchanting to read as Downton is to watch. :)

I love the comparison between seeking alone time (Downton Abbey) & community (today). A good reminder of the importance of community - especially in a marriage.
This is so true "a community of two is not enough to sustain a marriage."

This was very interesting and made me think about the type of community I'm involved in whether by choice or necessity. I really appreciate you're insight on this topic. I especially appreciate you saying "we need community to experience a deeper understanding of God’s grace." This also reminds me of how Jesus was constantly in community with his disciples, even though he had his moments alone in prayer, he constantly sought out his 12. As always I appreciate your willingness to be transparent.

Regardless of what people think of the tv show, your point is very well taken about the need for community particularly for a newly wed couple. I saw enough value in your words to forward the article.

We enjoy the show and recognize the plus and minuses of Downton Abbey. First, the flavor with some exact facts relayed give the viewer a look backards at a piviotal era in England as well as Europe. (Thomas escaped prison when identified which was not typical of that time.) It is rare these days to have anything on TV that has any history presented at all I lament that. The life of the wealthy was extremely different. The Crawley's depection of their marriage is atypical of that era. Typical marriages of the titled and wealthy were for exchange of wealth and attianing postion in society, not for love or even companionship which is alluded to early in the series. My family has a keen interest in history and find this series very satisfying in scope and story.
The comparisions of community was an excellent observation.

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