In the flurry of marriages and commitments at the end of Downton Abbey—Edith to her Marquess, Mary to her racing car driver (the week before), Daisy to Andy (prospective), Mrs. Crawley to Lord Merton (promised), and perhaps Mrs. Patmore to Mr. Mason—amid all the happiness that various characters exhibit, Thomas Barrows is notable for not getting married and for not even having a relationship with anybody. The under butler has already been let go and for months has been looking for a new position, and is preparing to leave for a new job as butler for Mark Stiles. He’s going alone. At the end, the people at Downton Abbey seem fairly happy with themselves and each other, but they are ambivalent about Barrows, not sure whether he’s the prodigal son who can now be welcomed home, all newly virtuous, or a man who’s basically a vicious person and is not going to change now, or, possibly, a man who never really was evil but who was talked about, lied to, disbelieved, physically abused, isolated, and subjected to malpractice since he first arrived at Downton Abbey and during all the years of the series Downton Abbey. It may be that we can never know whether this man is good or evil, but we can look at how we treated him. We can know that.
The story of Downton Abbey starts in the year 1912. This was the year before E. M. Forster wrote the manuscript of Maurice and sixty years before Maurice was published, in 1971, after Forster’s death. Even though many people think Maurice is as fine as any other book Forster wrote and may be a lot finer, it is about a gay life, and Forster knew, in 1913, that no publisher would publish a book about a gay man’s life. It was about Maurice, who gives up his job, his position in society, his birth family, and his past, everything, even his identity, in order to be happy with Alec Scudder, just a year before Barrows gives up personal happiness to be able to get a job at Downton Abbey. Forster’s years of writing Maurice, 1913-1914, were immediately before the start of the World War and were exactly the first years of Downton Abbey.
Maurice Hall and his Cambridge classmate, Clive Durham, both know a third man, Lord Risley, whose character seems to be based on Oscar Wilde. In the movie version of Maurice, by Merchant Ivory, Lord Risley is charged with indecency with a Guardsman and sentenced to hard labor. This is what happens to gay men in the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century. This introduction into the movie of a person based on Oscar Wilde serves the function of reminding the moviegoer that homosexuality is a very dangerous enterprise in 1913. Disgrace, prison, a life at hard labor. Maurice Hall falls in love with Alec Scudder and, at the end of the novel, since it is not possible to live in England as a decent, law-abiding gay citizen in 1913, escapes with him “into the greenwood.” In the world of these fictional works about gay men at the beginning of the twentieth century, you can’t have it all.
Oscar Wilde, fourteen years before the first years of Downton Abbey and thirteen years before Maurice and Scudder escape into the greenwood, was charged with gross indecency with men and convicted after two trials to two years at hard labor, after which he exiled himself to Paris and died there age 46 in 1900. In the two years after his first trial and before his death, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and De Profundis. Wilde’s two trials and his time in jail paralyzed British society. People were terrified of being tarred with the same brush as Lord Risley and as Oscar Wilde. Men into same-sex sex were vulnerable to blackmail and were helpless to defend themselves when others committed crimes against them.
After 1897, the Wilde trials isolated every gay man (the reference to homosexual women had been struck from the Act in Parliament by the Queen, who didn’t think it was possible for women to commit such acts). No homosexual man could tell of his sexuality to any man without making himself vulnerable to blackmail, disgrace, legal charges, trial, and prison. This turned homosexual men into isolated strangers. Julian Fellowes, the writer and producer of Downton Abbey knows all this. Barrow’s life is characterized by loneliness, by betrayal, by fear, by suspicion, by a constant longing for affection and respect, and by suicide attempts. To see more about the relationship between a character’s character and his historical context, see here, here, here, and here.
It’s hard to watch Barrows, to see him as anything but what he is, a hideously lonely homosexual man of the years 1912 to 1925. It is as if Fellowes ticked off every experience or characteristic of homosexual closeted men of that period. Repressed feelings? Check. Lying all the time, to everybody? Check. Miserably unhappy? Check. Alone? Check. Blames himself for everything that has happened to him? Check. At the end, he’s one of the walking wounded. And, at the end, Barrows has to listen to Daisy and Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes tell him to handle his new job better than he did the old one, so he can make more friends—not because he is homosexual and his whole culture is out to make his life as miserable as they could, but because the only reason he had no friends was that he personally had screwed it all up so badly.
In the end, Barrows is given Carson’s job. He becomes the new butler of Downton Abbey, and he smiles the way you do when you’ve just stepped on a broken piece of glass in your bare feet but don’t want anyone to know how much it hurts—and how much it’s bleeding. The man’s culture takes away his whole life, and, in return, they give him a job. Nobody at Downton Abbey says, I know how you must feel.
There’s nothing Barrows can do. It’s like the AIDS years, when it’s 1989, and people are dying, and George H.W. Bush is in the White House, and medicine hasn’t discovered anything yet, and there’s nothing to be done but suck it up. And that’s what that look on Barrows face means, there at the end, when they give him the job and he knows what else they are giving him. He’s sucking it up, and he knows that whatever release he is going to get is going to come after he’s dead.
At first, when I saw the conclusion on Sunday night, I was furious at what Fellowes had done. Give Barrows a promotion to butler! while everybody else is getting married? I thought, Doesn’t he know the history of gay people in the twentieth century? Of course he does. Julian Fellowes also knows that for much of the twentieth century, the only thing gay men could do was smile and suck it up. In that way, the finale was exactly right—passing trays of champagne to somebody else’s guests. Everybody is feeling fine about themselves except the gay guy with the tray, who is being fucked over because that is the way it is done, on New Year’s Eve, in 1925, at the marriage of Lady Edith and the fifth Marquess of Hexham, at Downton Abbey.