An Unlikely Hero

Perhaps I shouldn't admit it, but I still think of certain works of literature as “girl books.”  I would never say such a thing about Jane Austen—a genius universal if there ever was one—but I have (intentionally) never read Anne of Green Gables or Little Women.  I like to announce, in mixed company, that I've never seen “Gone with the Wind” and then bask in the scandalized expressions.

    Which makes it all the stranger to confess that I love “Downton Abbey.”  When my wife raved about the six-season BBC series, my mind naturally dismissed it—I like football, not intrigues between valets and lady's maids.  I'm not going to be interested in some gossipy drama with gorgeous set pieces.  Boy, was I wrong.  If you're clinging to your machismo and ignoring “Downton Abbey,” you're only cheating yourself.  This is one of the three or four best television shows in the history of the medium.

    But the irony doesn't stop there.  Like most people, I tend to latch onto a favorite character and then root for them as the story unfolds.  To give you some sense of my bias, my favorite character in Wind in the Willows is Badger, in Lord of the Rings is Sam Gamgee, in the Marvel universe is Hawkeye, in the Narnia series is Reepicheep, in Great Expectations is Joe the Smith, and in Emma is Mr. Knightley.  My favorites all tend toward a certain type—loyal, steadfast, often the underdog, perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but undeniably true.  And male.  Almost without exception, male.

    My favorite character on “Downton Abbey”?  Mrs. Hughes.

    It took me awhile to admit this to myself.  There are plenty of strong male characters on the show: Bates, Carson, Mr. Mason, and especially Matthew Crawley.  Even Lord Crawley shows an admirable capacity for learning and being gracious.  But none of them resonates with me like Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper at Downton.  After four seasons, I could hide it from myself no longer: the person from Downton I would most like to accompany me to Mount Doom is the elderly spinster who has never traveled farther than London.

    How could this be?

    In some ways, Mrs. Hughes fits my “type.”  She is an underdog in the sense that she is an elderly servant caught in a system that is being rapidly dismantled; she is loyal and she is steadfast.  But it would be a mistake to describe her as manly.

    As it turns out, what I admire most about Mrs. Hughes is that she knows exactly whom to trust, and how far.  Other characters may be seduced by a pretty face or duped by a fast talker—not her.  Mrs. Hughes can take the measure of a man or a woman and know exactly how to respond.  She may occasionally err on the side of mercy, but she is never deceived about it—she never extends mercy in the belief that it is someone's just due.  She will trust you as far as you are worthy to be trusted, and that is the end of it.

    Why do I find this trait so admirable?  Because it looks a lot like wisdom.  The man or woman who trusts the wrong people can be played for a fool—can even be made to behave like Othello.  “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20).

    I admire this trait, too, because it reflects a fine moral discernment.  In the end, Mrs. Hughes is a good judge of character because she knows the simple biblical truth that we are what we do.  Good intentions, good looks, good brains or good sense mean nothing to her; praxis is all.  Live with integrity and you have integrity.  You can be trusted.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald understood this on some level, at least when it came to telling stories.  He summed up this crucial biblical principle in three simple words: “Action is character.”  Truer words were never spoken!  Men reveal themselves by what they do.  Put someone in a crisis situation and you strip his soul bare.  Does he rise to the occasion, or does he devolve to self-preservation?  We may hide our true selves on a good day, but each one of us is revealed when things get ugly.

    “By their fruit you will recognize them,” Christ tells us in Matthew 7:16-17.  “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”

    Unfortunately, far too many of us forget this basic truth, and pay too much attention to words or status or appearance or charm.  This is a recipe for being fooled—and say what you will about Mrs. Hughes, she is no fool.  Instead, she serves as the center for “Downton Abbey,” enduring all but trusting few.  When she pronounces about a fellow servant or someone upstairs, her verdict is sound.  Would that we all had the wisdom of the head housekeeper at Downton!