How Downton Abbey Cured My Broken Heart
The series addresses male emotions better than any entertainment set in the modern age.
© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.
Chances are, if you have watched the trailer for the second season of Downton Abbey eight times, you may be: A. an anglophile (who wouldn’t mind being a servant if it meant you could have that accent); B. an interior designer (for whom the show’s décor produces more rapture than its plotlines); or C. undergoing a heartbreak. Do I need to confess here that I am neither an anglophile nor an interior designer?
Before entering the late Edwardian halls of Downton Abbey, where I found unexpected solace for my solitude, I hadn’t realized just how unhelpful our times were to heartbreak, in particular how much less drawn male heartbreak is than its female counterpart. Where I had sought counsel online, the messages were shallow and feminine. (Get a makeover! Have some sister time!) In magazines and books, a consumerist view of loss dominated. My buyer’s remorse, as it were, would pass, soon to be replaced with a new version—as if love were an iPhone and not a singular person I had begun to imagine at the end of all stories. In the meantime, one friend suggested a time-tested catharsis for romance gone awry: “tweeting” through the seven stages of grief.
More and more, it seemed that, given its introspective rigor, the experience of heartbreak suffered from a modern aversion to deep reflection.
Right before my Downton discovery, I found myself in an empty theater, waiting for a movie about heartbreak to begin. A woman entered and chose a seat one row behind me. After a few minutes, she called out, “Are you here alone?”
I turned, unsure whether she was addressing me or the voices in her head. “Oh, mm-hm,” I nodded.
“You’re not waiting for anyone?” Please, I thought, ask me another question to confirm my singleness.
“No,” I smiled.
“Wow.” Sensing my bafflement, she explained, “It’s just that I couldn’t drag my husband to this movie.”
“Oh no?” I asked, wondering what she was implying. “Maybe if you threw in dinner?” I joked.
“No way. I mean, this is sort of a chick flick. Well, not sort of.”
When the lights dimmed, I tried to focus on the film, but her comment lodged in my mind. Since when had facing love’s questions, if they were faced at all, become the exclusive domain of women?
It wasn’t long after my theater incident that I stopped calling friends, writing emails, communicating much at all. I sank into a murk that was at least as companionably quiet as it was dark. Out of this retreat from the world came the world of Downton.
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.