Here’s a newspaper headline that caught my eye: ‘TV’s next Downton will be the American novel that inspired it.’ (The Times, 14th May 2020)
The Custom of the Country
Intrigued, I read on to discover the novel in question is The Custom of the Country by one of my favourite authors, Edith Wharton. Now, this is a great book, but I would never in a million years have related its theme of unscrupulous social climbing to the golden atmosphere of benign overlordship that suffuses Downton Abbey. (Which isn’t meant to criticise Downton Abbey – I’ve basked in the cosy escapism provided by all 6 series.) Here, in all the plotlines featuring good or bad behaviour, whether among the upper or the servant classes, I can’t remember a single one in which a ruthless, ambitious, hard as nails nobody sets out to topple the ancient social order and succeeds.
There are a couple of devious valets, one Irish nationalist chauffeur, some brave leftwing newspaper hacks and lots of scullery maids striving to better themselves, but not one of these ousts the kindly Lord Grantham from his place at the top of the hierarchy, nor would wish to.
Ambition, greed and desire
By contrast, Edith Wharton’s heroine, the gloriously named Undine Spragg, uses her beauty to carve her way to the top of American society, trashing ‘old’ aristocracy in New York and Europe alike, unfazed by the real human suffering she leaves in her wake. This is so opposite to the atmosphere and values of Downton Abbey that it’s hard to see how the one could arise from the other; yet here is Julian Fellowes speaking in 2013:
‘Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton’s writing, you are on her side…. I want Downton to be a warm show and I hope I am kind to them in their weakness… I do feel it is a lesson I have learnt directly from the writing of Edith Wharton.’
An antiheroine in the tradition of Becky Sharp
This is splendid of Fellowes and also fascinating. Wharton’s writing is indeed miraculous, but I’m not sure it puts you on Undine’s side, any more than reading Vanity Fair makes you root unequivocally for the heartless Becky Sharp. Undine and Becky are both antiheroines, brilliantly drawn, sent by their creators as missiles to wreak havoc on traditional society, destroying good and bad aspects of it alike without a single moral qualm. Fellowes’s characters, by contrast, have their faults; but Downton Abbey’s great appeal lies in the unstated assurance of all romantic fiction, that everything will work out all right. The characters we get to know and love will all end up happy and fulfilled and – this is the crucial bit – will deserve to.
To redeem or not to redeem
Since The Custom of the Country is no more a romance than Vanity Fair, I’m not sure Fellowes’s endorsement will help Sofia Coppola in her task of adapting it for television. Audiences expecting a similar feelgood story to Downton Abbey will be disappointed. Several previous attempts in the last 30 years to turn the book into film have foundered and I can’t help wondering if this is to do with the difficulty of catering to this kind of audience expectation.
Beautiful, scheming, ice-cold survivor Undine Spragg will be a fabulous role to play and if Coppola’s screenplay stays faithful to the spirit of Edith Wharton, this could be a terrific film. Yet I fear she may feel pressurised to go down the same road as every adaptor of Thackeray’s masterpiece has done, and ultimately ‘redeem’ Undine, just as Becky Sharp is always ‘redeemed’ at the end of films of Vanity Fair.
We shall see. I hope not. But I’m not holding my breath.
(From an article originally published on Authors Electric)