How Downton Abbey Cured My Broken Heart
The series addresses male emotions better than any entertainment set in the modern age.
It didn’t take more than a few episodes for me to be struck by the dilemmas of the lovelorn and -torn men: Matthew Crawley, the middle-class lawyer enlisted to be the Abbey’s heir, falls in love with the aristocratic family’s eldest daughter, a woman who disdains him because his very presence overrides her own birthright. John Bates, the valet, has such nobility of spirit that even (false) rumors of a dishonorable past prevent him from loving, and thereby tainting, head housemaid Anna. Branson, the radical Irish chauffeur, begins to fall for Sybil, the youngest and most protected of the Tory heiresses.
What many have derided as the era’s repression I saw as exacting a major upside: the lovers and beloveds of the time engaged in a scrupulous self-examination whose central quest was to be worthy of love. Furthermore, for the men, avoiding that quest—risking nothing in love out of fear, or apathy, or difficulty—was the true emasculation.
I watched the entire season stunned. The sitcom buffoonery or shoulder-shrugging boyishness that defines today’s adult men was nowhere to be found. Neither was the prideful cluelessness that husbands, boyfriends, fathers, even our political leaders, embrace in order to be seen as “just guys.”
The masculinity of Downton stood unapologetically opposed to this kind of posturing. What I was witnessing in Crawley, Bates, and Branson was a lived-out insistence that a soulful, ethical heart was the standard of a man’s love. It was curious to me how service to this standard did not render these men subordinate or submissive; on the contrary, it proved them real men. Even Lord Grantham, the patriarch, does not gain his nobility out of status but out of a refusal to shrink from the hard emotion as a factor in leadership, partnership, fatherhood—manhood.
Whether upstairs or downstairs, on this all men were equal. And so falling short of that standard, whether because one had loved wrongly or was wronged in love, was nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it indicated a lesson our time has perhaps forgotten: that in order to be a man, following one’s heart—no matter perception or love’s undeniable terrors—must become non-negotiable.
Downton Abbey became a gateway drug. After, I devoured adaptations of even older romantic tales: Dickens’s Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Nicholas Nickleby. I read with great absorption Brontë’s 600-page novel Jane Eyre. For all the men in these stories, the stakes of love remained high—which made their disappointments like stakes in the heart—but in their grief they never came across as weird, or naive, or effeminate. Rather, there was a dignity, strength, and honor that surrounded their despair because, to the other characters and now to me, they had gone somewhere only the stout of heart can go.
As it turned out, this was the only medicine that worked in my period of distress: In a world and time that esteemed—nay, championed—romantic risk-taking, male heartbreak was seen not as a defect but as the barometer of valor. These days, I have returned, somewhat, to the 21st century, but I don’t believe it’s where I’ll find my will to try again. For that, I’m setting the theme to Downton Abbey as my ringtone.
Brendan Tapley’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and the Boston Globe Magazine, among others.