Casting “Downton Abbey” from Literature: Upstairs

Hardcore Downtonites (and I use the term “hardcore” deliberately–what is “Downton Abbey” if not porn for Anglophiles?) like me have been rejoicing since Season 2 premiered on American telly (whoopsie, a tiny slip into our “jargon”). The Great War is raging, as is a feud between the Countess of Grantham and her cousin by marriage Mary Crawley–but fortunately for us all, the sisters of Downton have not had to trim their clothing budgets, so plenty of fine fabrics and adornments are on display. Their “granny,” the Dowager Countess, sensibly manifests her twin commitments to frugality and enduring style by simply having had her purple-bobble-trimmed hat made over into a purple-silk-draped hat.

My point is that while the costumes may change, the archetypes that Sir Julian Fellowes has employed  most certainly do not. Countess Cora remains dithery, Carson the Butler dutiful, and footman William cheerfully clueless (even after a stint on the run in a forest, but I won’t say more). This got me thinking: Which literary characters might best populate the fictional version of Highclere Castle (the actual estate that stands in for Downton Abbey)?

Let’s begin upstairs…

The Earl of Grantham–Henry Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Yes, poor Henry Dashwood dies in the first chapter of Austen’s novel, leaving his three daughters at the whims of the English inheritance system of the time–but his mild mien does put one in mind of Downton’s downright decent dad.

The Countess of Grantham–Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence  by Edith Wharton

Like Wharton’s exotic “Countess Olenska,” Countess Cora comes by her title via an overseas marriage, and actor Elizabeth McGovern’s mangled Gilded Age vowels are as authentic as the inheritances that similar “Dollar Princesses” brought to their wellborn yet impoverished husbands.

The Dowager Countess–Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Lady de Bourgh is so correct, so helpful–would a person ever want to disagree with her? Goodness no, which is why she and the Dowager Countess of Grantham would not simply support each other’s rampant snobbery, but fill in for each other seamlessly.

Lady Mary–Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady  by Henry James
The eldest daughter of Downton learns in Episode 1 that only her marriage to her middle-class cousin Matthew can save the family home, yet she is unable to reconcile herself to that marriage at the right time. She and Isabel Archer, that feckless debutante, might need a spa vacation together.

Lady Edith–Fanny Price from Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Fanny and Edith aren’t immediately similar, since Edith, consummate middle child, is less “timid” like Fanny than cutting like Emma Woodhouse. But in Season 2 of Downton, Lady Edith comes out of her Jan Brady shell and discovers that she, too, has hopes of a happy ending (oh, behave!).

Lady Sybil–Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Apologies for so many Austenian characters, but Dear Jane does know her class subtleties. In the case of Lady Sybil, only a temperamental girl like Marianne Dashwood will do, because only a passionate personality would leap over the barriers between Sybil and her family’s Irish chauffeur.

Isobel Crawley–Margaret Schlegel from Howards End by E.M. Forster
Their ages are dissimilar, but in other ways officious Nurse Crawley and efficient Miss Schlegel are two bluestockings in a pod. Neither is entirely comfortable with her era or opportunities, but neither is prepared to entirely flout convention.

Matthew Crawley–Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
“Cousin Matthew,” as he’s most often called at Downton, is a properly trained attorney and far less dissipated than Waugh’s Ryder, whose juvenile yearnings for the family Flyte would give him stalker status today–still, the two WWI captains are “in the trenches.”

The Colonel–Major Pettigrew from Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
When Downton’s village hospital becomes a war medical center, the steadfast doctor dons a uniform. His adherence to both professions, as well as his allegiance to Downton, echo the traditional outlook of 21st-century Major Pettigrew–who does, eventually, learn to adjust to a new world.

The Rakish Major–Harry Flashman of the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser
While the mustachio’ed Major of Season 2 is not a series regular, he does have a seminal role (oops, sorry, that’s a spoiler), and is hilariously like 19th-century comrade Flashman in his swordplay (oops again).

Next Week: The Downton Downstairs Cast