Marriage on 'Downton Abbey' Isn't Boring—It's Realistic

Grand romantic yearnings have given way to something more satisfying and intimate.

Grand romantic yearnings have given way to something more satisfying and intimate.

banner_jennie response.jpg

Meghan Lewit's Atlantic critique of Downton Abbey and its contented relationships made me think of the first line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That wry opening sentence was all I knew about the Russian novel before I sat down to read it—that, and the fact that things don't end well for Anna.

Here's what I didn't know.

There's a subplot in Anna Karenina that's just as interesting as the main story. It's the tale of Konstantin Levin and his young bride, Kitty—at first glance, a much less glamorous couple than Anna and Vronsky. Levin is a hard-working landowner, not a dashing cavalry officer. And Kitty isn't swept away by passion—in fact, she turns Levin down the first time he proposes to her.

What makes their relationship so appealing is that it feels entirely real. Halfway through the book, when Kitty finally agrees to marry Levin, he's overcome by otherworldly joy:

All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life. He had eaten nothing for a whole day, he had not slept for two nights, had spent several hours undressed in the frozen air, and felt not simply fresher and stronger than ever, but felt utterly independent of his body; he moved without muscular effort, and felt as if he could do anything. He was convinced he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if need be.

But his euphoria doesn't last—and that's when things start to get interesting. Early in their marriage, the couple has a major fight: Levin is called to his brother's deathbed, and Kitty wants to come with him. Levin insists that she'll only get in the way, and Kitty is outraged:

"There, you always ascribe base, vile motives to me," she said with tears of wounded pride and fury. ...

"No; this is awful! To be such a slave!" cried Levin, getting up, and unable to restrain his anger any longer. ...

"Then why did you marry? You could have been free. Why did you, if you regret it?" she said, getting up and running away into the drawing room.

When he went to her, she was sobbing.

The couple has a tender reconciliation, and the scene could have ended there. But after all the kissing and making up, Tolstoy gives us one more glimpse into Levin's complicated psyche:

He was dissatisfied with her for being unable to make up her mind to let him go when it was necessary (and how strange it was for him to think that he, so lately hardly daring to believe in such happiness as that she could love him—now was unhappy because she loved him too much!), and he was dissatisfied with himself for not showing more strength of will.

In the end, Kitty does come along, and she's wonderful. Levin realizes that her presence at the dying man's bedside has saved him from despair and made their love "still stronger and purer." Also, he finds out that she's pregnant.

This is the stuff real marriages are made of. If happy families are all alike, as Tolstoy somewhat disingenuously tells us, it's not because nothing interesting goes on behind closed doors. It's because good marriages are dynamic. Each one is filled with tiny challenges and mood shifts, and couples are always making micro-adjustments, like drivers speeding down the highway with their hands firmly on the wheel. It may be more dramatic to watch two lovers veer off into a ditch, like the doomed Anna and Vronsky. But the Levins and Kittys of literature remind us how nuanced relationships can actually be.

That's why the current season of Downton Abbey is arguably the most interesting of all. We're no longer wondering whether Matthew and Mary will ever walk down the aisle. And so far, no one of noble blood has run off with a chauffeur or kissed a housemaid. But we've seen the young Crawleys learn how to maintain respect, and even passion, as they bicker over money. We've seen Lady Grantham let go of a fierce grudge against her husband and allow him to share her grief.

It's those private, believable moments that keep the show from going the way of The Office, where Jim and Pam's happiness left a void that couldn't be filled by any number of goofy romantic subplots involving Andy Bernard. There's plenty of uncertainty ahead for Downton Abbey, both as a television program and as a fictional estate. But by letting his characters grow into real relationships, creator Julian Fellowes has made a promising investment in its survival.