By Alan Halpern
It is hard to imagine two more disparate settings than an upstairs hall at Downton Abbey and a simple home on the outskirts of Anatevka. Yet, as I watched Robert and Cora’s final conversation on the Downton series finale, I thought immediately of Fiddler on the Roof and Tevye and Goldie and their daughters. (The exact number of daughters differed from the page to the stage and big screen.)
In each case, parents are confronting the end of the world as they know it. While their specific circumstances differ, both have been balancing and continue to balance “like a fiddler on the roof,” between the traditions and practices of their parents and the requirements of modernity. They are sometimes puzzled or flustered by their children. They will be unable to conceive of the worlds of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In Fiddler, Tevye marvels and muddles through as each of his daughters successively chooses a husband in progressively more alien ways. The first chooses for herself from within the community; the second from outside Anatevka, but within the Jewish community; and the third, crossing a line, from outside the Jewish community. Even before fleeing the village, Tevye sees his way of life evolving beyond his recognition.
The Crawleys similarly adapt in their attempt to preserve a way of life they know cannot continue indefinitely. Their daughters marry for love, but outside the expectations of the pre-war society in which the series began. One takes on the active management of the estate and ends up happily in a match that provides neither money nor title, but with someone who proves an emotional and intellectual equal. Another crosses boundaries to marry the chauffeur, creating consternation for characters both upstairs and down. Long after her death, her widower struggles to feel accepted and to belong.
[Spoiler alert] Edith’s marriage to Bertie Pelham, Marquis of Hexam, provides a fascinating example of evolving standards and interpretations of values. Encumbered by an illegitimate daughter, Edith is, in the words of her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Pelham, (a gorgon of the British aristocracy), “damaged goods.” But Mrs. Pelham pivots around her own values to accept the match. Earlier in the episode, she states her goal of remaking Brancaster as a bastion of British values, a task that requires her son to be an exemplar of British virtue and character. A wife with an illegitimate child would seemingly undermine her objective. Defending her change of heart later in the episode, she praises Edith’s “unimpeachable honesty” which, in combination with Bertie’s obvious love for Edith, outweigh Edith’s illegitimate child. In an earlier year (or season), she might not have relented, Bertie might not have resisted her, Edith might have waivered.
In both cases, families with long-established and rigid standards are challenged by modernity and current events.
In Fiddler, anti-Semitism, violence, a coming revolution and shifting moral standards upset a way of life. In Downton Abbey, the breakdown of the class system, the declining economics of estates, and the evolving place of women signal the twilight of an era. If the family hasn’t moved out of the Abbey at the end of the series, they have reduced staff, modernized estate management and witnessed various neighbors selling their houses and possessions or eliminating as luxuries what had been unquestioned necessities – like footmen – in the past.
As parents, we hope to pass along to our children our values and our way of life. Those values we accept as comfortable and appropriate should be – we think or hope – normal and desirable for our children. Sometimes norms change out of necessity because they cannot be maintained. Other times they change because the social strictures which helped maintain or enforce them erode. As individuals, we cling to the norms we know because they help us understand the world and manage our lives.
As Tevye and Goldie and Robert and Cora all demonstrate, we are all balancing constancy and change, the past and the future. The roofs are different sizes and the urgency of change may be more or less obvious and more or less urgent, but they, and we, are all fiddlers on the roof.
Our children need not our norms, our rules nor our practices. Rather, they need our values…and a good sense of balance.