I HAVE LOST COUNT of the number of critical comparisons I have heard in which Parade’s End has been described as “the thinking man’s Downton Abbey” or the equivalent. Downton, set in the same period, is a TV soap opera in which no “arc,” except perhaps that of the stately home of the title, is visible all the way through. Instead there are scores of shorter stories of the kind that occupy the gossip-mongers then as now: Lady Sibyl’s running away with the chauffeur or Lady Mary’s pre-marital dalliance with the handsome Turk who dies in her bed. But there are also many examples of noble behavior on the part of these noblemen—a rebellious daughter forgiven, a temptation to sexual incontinence resisted—which I take it have something to do with the hostility that this very popular show has encountered from many critics.
In this sense, it is Downton Abbey that could be said to be the thinking man’s Parade’s End, since there is nothing in the latter beside its lonely hero to surprise us in its corrupt world, but much in the former that might alter our preconceptions about the past. Gossip and soap opera are traditionally about the things that people keep secret—the illegitimate children and the secret affairs—but in Downton they are just as often secret moments of goodness and charity, self-denial and humility. These are things not publicized to the world and that have not come down to us a century later, partly by their very nature and partly because they wouldn’t be believed by the cynical audience of today to which Parade’s End, for all its virtues, ultimately panders."