By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer
Humans will always need stories, especially made-up stories.
Speaking of stories – a new January means that, once again, it’s Downton Abbey time. Rejoice, all ye devoted, not to say obsessive, fans.
This BBC import on public television, now in its fifth season, offers a dramatic, historically accurate glimpse into the relentlessly proper, and deliciously improper, lives of rich British folks in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the lives of the “downstairs” servant community making “upstairs” life possible. The characters welcome us into their world, the lavish, uppity upstairs and the loyal, hardworking, downstairs.
Obsession? I know one person who couldn’t wait for this season to appear on American TV; she viewed it online from England. Women gather for Downton Abbey teas, attired in gowns and chapeaus suitable for Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, herself. How many millions of Monday morning emails are exchanged as friends ponder what will become of Lady Edith’s little girl, or wonder why any normal man would want to marry the icy Lady Mary? Websites are devoted to following the characters and speculating about their futures.
You might think we were talking about real people!
When I was growing up, my mother was a stay-at-home mom of seven children. By 1 p.m. each weekday, she was ready for some relaxation: soap operas. Each day she enjoyed the adventures and misadventures of people who seemed more interesting, and who got into more trouble, than people we knew.
One day, Mom and some acquaintances pondered the future of a baby just born to an unwed mother on one of the soaps. Finally, one of the other women declared, “Well, you know, there ain’t no baby at all.”
No baby. The baby and everything else on the show was made up.
But “not factual” is different from “not true.” We find truth in made-up stories, which is why we will always need them. Stories provide a safe place for us to work through our own conflicts, learn ways to think and act, discover what’s expected of us, learn how to cope, how to dare.
In the Downton Abbey story, Tom, the former chauffeur, married a daughter of the household and now helps to manage the estate. He’s no longer a downstairs person, but he’ll never fully be an upstairs person, either. We can all feel the truth of in-between, not belonging.
Barrows, the underhanded, unctuous underbutler, is disappointed in his life. His only pleasure seems to be contriving to make others unhappy. The shameful truth about us is that we take such delight when he gets his comeuppance.
Mr. Carson, the stately long-time butler, knows exactly how everything should be done. But to his dismay, his world is changing. His traditional “proper” doesn’t always work anymore. In him, we invest our distress about the disruption and confusion of change.
Characters in stories seems real to us because they are us — distilled, simplified, better or worse than us, working through their problems and anxieties where we can watch and learn.
Humans have probably been telling stories since there was language, stories to explain why the world is the way it is, and how we are to behave in it.
Their ain’t no baby, but the soap opera held a truth about the hopes and uncertainties of babyness.
Will books printed on paper become obsolete? Will broadcast TV disappear? Will movie theaters close because of streaming technology? Who knows?
Story-telling technologies can change.
But we will always need stories.
And that’s the truth.
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