We’re a week away from the season finale of Downton Abbey, which is the perfect time to reflect upon a fascinating topic: Period dramas and the women who love them.
Downton Abbey is fabulous, true, but for most of us it’s just the latest entry in a long list of engrossing costume dramas. Many of us can trace our love of these films back to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, or to the Merchant Ivory films of the late ’80s. These films taught us to associate big English country houses with pure, unadulterated viewing happiness.
And why is that, exactly? Why do we females tend to prefer films about aristocrats with hyphenated last names over films where a rogue CIA agent has to stop a madman from blowing up a large office building?
I have my theories.
1) The clothes. I’m not a girly-girl, but I have to say, I would looooooove to wear the gowns that show up in these dramas. Deep inside of me is some very little girl who still likes to play dress-up, and these films are like catnip for her. (Related thought: I think one reason women dream of their wedding day is because it’s the one time in their lives when they get to dress like a woman from another century.)
2) The houses. My own home is a postwar tract house, the West Coast version of Levittown. It is not without charm, and I am happy here, but the sight of Downton Abbey or Pemberley or Romola Garai’s house in the 2009 adaptation of Emma always makes me think, Ooh, what would it be like to live in a place with so much history and so much land and so much closet space?
And have you noticed that these houses never have Legos and Playmobil parts scattered about the floor?
3) The men. Yes, some of the male characters in these dramas are real rotters, but I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the fact that most of the men in these films are gentlemen. They stand up when women enter the room and are gracious and treat ladies with respect and unforced courtesy. That said, if I go too deeply into this line of thought I am forced to admit that these same guys probably thought that women shouldn’t have the vote, which is definitely no bueno. But there is still something very seductive about a world where it is always ladies first. (One of my parenting goals, incidentally, is to raise my boys to be both chivalrous and to believe that women can be president. Check back in ten years and I’ll let you know how it’s going.)
4) These period dramas are literary. Most of them are based upon great books of the past, and as such, they come from a place of strong characterization and good storytelling. Even those that aren’t based on classic novels feel as if they are. Good stuff.
5) We women grew up reading books like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. When you have fond childhood memories of these novels, you automatically have a warm feeling toward any story involving moors, large estates, or shoes that button up. Think of these kids’ books as the gateway drug to Austen and Brontë. (Isn’t it nice to be addicted?)
6) The insults. When people in these films want to put someone else down, they usually do so very elegantly, with Austen’s surgically precise wit or with Maggie Smith’s perfect one-line zingers. No one resorts to the f-bomb. That makes a nice change from today’s lazy insults.
7) Romance that makes you wait. It usually builds at a slow boil (think Elizabeth/Darcy) and often culminates in a dreamy scene like the one in the train station at the end of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (if you’ve never seen it, correct that as soon as possible). The dance scene between Emma and Knightley in the aforementioned Emma is also a great example of how sexy a meaningful glance can be. Overall, these period dramas prove that a kiss is most exciting when it takes a while for that kiss to happen.
8) These dramas make me appreciate my own era in a new way. This theory is a rapid departure from all the others, but it’s true that even when I am wrapped up in the pretty pastel world of tea parties and long gloves, there is usually something in the storyline that makes me oh-so-glad that I live when I do. It might be someone dying of the flu, or a woman stuck in a marriage with a truly terrible man (see Daniel Deronda for the textbook example of this). Any scene of childbirth in these films makes me count my lucky stars that I was born in the nineteen seventies, because having experienced both an ectopic pregnancy and a breech baby, I’m well aware that either of those could have killed me a century ago. So even though these adaptations make me oh-so wistful for a bygone time, they also make me glad — when I really, really stop to think about it — that I live when I do.
So that’s my list. Are you a period drama addict, too? Why do you love them? And while we’re at it, what’s your favorite? (if there’s one I haven’t seen, I want to know!).