By Anna Post
The world of Downton Abbey has that special knack of feeling so removed from our lives today and yet so familiar at the same time. The differences are everywhere, and many of them have to do with the finest of fine points about etiquette: We are shown Carson, the butler, carefully checking the spacing of place settings at the dinner table. When was the last time you used a ruler to set the table? We see the Dowager Countess imperiously tell Mrs. Crawley to call her by her title when they first meet. Most adults only do this now with others’ children—if at all. And then there is Sir Richard’s subtle confusion between a shooting jacket and a walking jacket. Funny enough, this is one that Vermonters where I live might relate to; though we would likely just take it off if it was too hot.
From dinner gloves to rules of chaperonage and complex hierarchies of servants to tangled systems of inheritance, Downton truly is another world. And it’s often a beautiful one, full of sumptuous gowns changed several time a day, rooms fit for a queen (or at least a countess), glittering jewels, and silver polished to within an inch of its life. Nor does Downton shy from some of life’s harder realities of the day: a lack of women’s rights, intense snobbery, and an unforgiving judicial system, to name just a few.
But in the end, Downton’s appeal isn’t just costumes, grand homes, and charming ways of speaking. It’s more, even, than a meticulously researched representation of Edwardian life. It’s true secret is in how its characters relate to and interact with one another—the good, the bad; the ugly and the sweet. The etiquette of how the characters truly interact with one another behind all the “yes, my lords” and “no, my ladies” is no different from how we do it today. There is consideration, respect, and honesty—and sometimes, as we are all human, their counterpoints of indifference, spite, and deceit. Etiquette is about how people interact with one another, and, at the end of the day, the characters of Downton Abbey act in a way that we recognize as how we would want to be treated today: with dignity, fairness, and caring.