Highclere may not be the most important character in "Downton Abbey," but it is the perfect setting for a drama that, despite its rich characterization and excellent dialogue, is weirdly regressive about class. Unlike _blanka dramatization of a _blankJane Austen novel, which is a historical document of the era it satirizes, "Downton Abbey" is made up from scratch yet celebrates (perhaps unintentionally) the class system it purports to deconstruct.
While the narrative distributes the fine and ugly qualities of human nature liberally among both the upper and lower orders, it's in the nature of this kind of costume drama that no one really identifies primarily with the servants. We all want to live upstairs, in the world of the earl of Grantham and his three daughters and the elegant garden parties and afternoon teas with which the aristocracy whiles away the time between adolescence and death. Even the one mildly radical character, a chauffeur with progressive ideas, confesses to being merely a socialist, not a revolutionary. Everyone is devoted to Downton Abbey.
Seen in the background of the drama, Highclere Castle stands for the life project of the earl of Grantham, who is devoted to maintaining it as an estate, a building and a social system. The historical references of the architecture suggest that the abbey has been there for hundreds of years - that it is a long-standing product of an unshakable social hierarchy - but in fact, it should be barely 75 years old when the series begins in 1912.
Curiously, the building was not adequate for representing the "downstairs" life at the fictional abbey. According to a very chipper receptionist at Highclere castle, the house has cellars, but these are windowless and currently contain an exhibition of Egyptology. For the television drama, the servants' space, including the kitchen, were created elsewhere. In the kind of Elizabethan-era home that Barry's Highclere imitates, they would likely have been on the same floor as the main hall.
But when it comes to historical fantasy, the rules can be rigid. "Downton Abbey" needs a downstairs, because that's where servants work, at least servants seen on classy, high-end British costume dramas. Rather like the exterior of Highclere Castle, and so many revivalist buildings, there is an overstuffed and over-perfect quality to the drama on "Downton Abbey," as if the author is borrowing a bit of the best story lines from two centuries of novels. Even the gay subplot, which includes a blackmailing servant, seems borrowed from both _blankthe stories of E.M. Forster and _blankthe trial transcripts of Oscar Wilde.
Which is to say, the writing is a hodgepodge of ideas, themes and subplots already familiar from decades of "_blankMasterpiece Theatre," reconstituted for a contemporary sensibility. Authenticity matters less than surface delight. A profusion of detail substitutes for a strong central narrative. And the whole thing is packaged as history, giving legitimacy to extravagance. A better definition of Victorian architecture can't be offered.