Longtime Rice Professor Robert Patten is settled on a couch, engaged with a small group of people in enthusiastic conversation about a place close to their hearts — its traditions, history and unique customs, the people and the class divisions and, of course, the place itself.
Nope, it’s not a Centennial Celebration roundtable about Rice University but rather a discussion of one of the hottest shows on television: “Downton Abbey,” the critically acclaimed PBS drama that follows an aristocratic English family and its servants at a sprawling estate in early 20th-century Yorkshire.
Patten appears on the new HoustonPBS’ talk show “Manor of Speaking,” a 30-minute live program launched last month and devoted to all things “Downton.” Airing immediately after each new “Downton” episode, “Manor of Speaking” is hosted by “super fan” Ernie Manouse, who is joined by regulars Patten, the Lynette S. Autry Professor Emeritus in Humanities and professor emeritus of English, and Helen Mann, former Vice Consul of Press and Public Affairs at the British Consulate General, and two other guest “experts.”
The group discusses everything from story recaps and predictions to history lessons, English etiquette, cuisine and fashion. They also try to answer questions from the in-studio audience, from callers and from tweets.
“I wormed in as ‘The Professor,’” joked Patten, who has written and edited countless books, articles and reviews on Victorian fiction, art and print culture. Patten is a leading expert on Charles Dickens and has been an editor of Rice’s SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 for more than four decades.
He has no idea how he was selected to appear on the show — “I got an email one day out of the blue” — but he’s glad he was. “‘Downton’ is one of the richest shows I can remember watching,” he said, and millions of viewers in the U.S. and around the globe agree. According to PBS, 7.9 million people watched the premiere of the show’s third season last month.
“Everybody says its popularity has to do with our fascination with class, and that could be true,” Patten said. But he conjectures that it’s the rich characters and their relationships that are so compelling. From the aristocratic family upstairs to the working-class figures downstairs and even the estate itself, the plot revolves around relationships with raw human emotions.
“What I think is that we’re seeing not only class behavior, but in many cases really classy behavior among people, upstairs and down,” he said. “The emphasis really is on the human relationships and the historical continuity of the estate.”
For example, Patten said, the depth of the relationship between Mary, the eldest daughter of the aristocratic Crawley family, and the butler, Mr. Carson, her surrogate father, has unfolded over the seasons. In the first episode of the third season, on Mary’s wedding day, she descends a staircase in her gown and to the waiting Carson and her father, Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham. “That could just be the head of the upstairs and the head of the downstairs, which is part of it, but it’s really Mary’s two fathers,” Patten said. That scene emphasizes what this marriage means to the building itself, which is a symbol of the dynasty and the economy and all kinds of things, he said, “and then you have paired the downstairs head and the upstairs head.” The set direction, the costuming and the framing of the shot subterraneously communicate so much, he said. “And then Mary asks not her father but Carson, ‘Will I do?’ To which he answers, ‘Very nicely, my lady.’
“They’ve used that picture a lot in their publicity; they know that’s an iconic moment — but it’s only iconic because they’ve built up all those experiences between Mary and her father and Mary and Carson.”
And then there’s Lady Cora, countess of Grantham. “Elizabeth McGovern is phenomenal in the role,” Patten said. “Cora is an American with all the American habits of speaking, of moving and caring about people, in a loveless marriage to begin with that her father forced, with all her fortune tied up in the abbey. She didn’t produce an heir, and she has had to become the mistress — in British terms — of this estate, without losing the American accent or aping the British. And then there are moments when she and the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith) get together, and we realize that Cora has done in her own right an extraordinary job of assimilating.”
The popularity of “Downton Abbey” has inspired a new class that Patten will teach this semester at the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Called Life in Downton Abbey: The Fiction and the Reality, the course will explore how the show dramatizes the struggles and changes of the time period, adapting the realities of British aristocratic life to the convention of the television soap opera.
Currently the most popular class among those offered by Continuing Studies for the spring session, it has an enrollment of more than 125 students. “Bob is a delight to work with, and his perspectives on ‘Downton Abbey’ and the changing world of its time are fascinating,” said Steve Garfinkel, director of community programs at the Glasscock School.
Patten was prepping for the Continuing Studies course in late January, doing background reading along with watching episodes for the talk show. “There’s a lot of backstory that you don’t know, but it’s printed; you can get it,” he said, trailing off as he flipped through a recently acquired unofficial guide to the show and exclaimed, “I just read something I didn’t know: Marigold Shore, maid to Lady Rosamund, who is Robert’s sister, dismissed when found having an affair with Lord Hepworth. I don’t remember that at all! I have to read up on this!”
But it’s not just the story lines that are so captivating, he said.
“How the show is made is part of its artistry,” Patten said. “I want to think about the program as a way of translating the social reality of what happened to great country houses before, during and after World War I.”
A good example of what that partly constitutes, he said, is that Highclere Castle in Hampshire, where “Downton” is filmed, is standing for a Yorkshire estate that, as the name “abbey” suggests, dates to the Middle Ages. “But Highclere was built by Sir Charles Barry, who was building the Houses of Parliament, in the 1840s. So the house is already not at all like what ‘Downton Abbey’ is supposed to be,” he said.
But the creators of the show make it work, he said. “The production very intelligently understands how the medium can represent the historical fact while distorting what would have been the historical fact.”
The creators also do that through pacing and cadence, he said. “They have to show a servant faculty that is much smaller than the reality of the house, but they can nevertheless do it in a way that still keeps the authenticity of what it takes understairs to manage upstairs, and one of the ways they do that is with the rhythm.
“Upstairs they sit down; downstairs they are always moving except when they sit for the meal. And at the meal, of course, they are serving themselves in contrast to upstairs being served — and it’s a lot about the being served upstairs. They’ve had to do with a much smaller staff — a much smaller cast — than would have been in the house but try to interpret it in such a way through the medium of television that other things like the stillness of the folks upstairs, the leisure of their walking and the assumption that things will be ready for them when they reach around.
“I’m interested in how all of these things serve to make a particular historical social change in Britain authentic using the only means we’ve got — inner thinking,” he said. “They’ve done an astonishingly fine job.”