I feel a little shamefaced posting about Masterpiece theatre, but I can’t be the only Victorianist out there watching Downton Abbey. I think overall the first season was a little stronger than the second, but have enjoyed every episode nonetheless.
I wondered as I was watching the first season if the disability themes were meant to be educational. There was a fair bit of didactic content meant to teach history in the first couple of episodes. For example, the valet would iron the newspaper and explain to the new maid that it was so the master wouldn’t soil his hands with ink. One major plot in the first season was the scheming to get rid of the valet, Bates, on the spurious grounds that his limp made him unable to fulfill his duties. The cook also accidentally swapped salt for sugar, endangering her job by revealing that she was going blind. (Her sight seems to have recovered this season.) I wondered as I watched these incidents if they were supposed to point out to a twenty-first century audience the precariousness of employment as a servant in the early twentieth century, when you could be turned out after years of service with nothing, depending on your master’s goodwill.
The second season moves the action up to WWI, and Downtown Abbey has been turned into a convalescent home for returning soldiers. One fascinating twist occurred in Sunday night’s episode. The heir, Matthew, came back from the war with a spinal injury that the doctors predict will prevent him from walking or reproducing. I thought disabling the heir was much more interesting than killing him off, since he’ll be around for a long time to come and presumably will still inherit, but won’t produce an heir himself. (Adoption was not yet legal in the UK at this point for reasons of anxiety about inheritance.)
It will be interesting to see if disability continues to generate complicated plots on the show. Fellow Victorianists, I know you’re watching out there. What’s catching your attention?