The Blog

Dru, Damnation and Downton

So Julian Fellowes raped Anna the housemaid from Downton Abbey (metaphorically speaking), the nation is up in arms and demands for his execution are being sent to the Tower?

Demands for my own execution will no doubt be next, because I think he did the right thing.

First of all, though, let me put firm caveats in place:

Anna is a fictional character. She does not exist. The rape was not real.

Real rape is a filthy degrading crime for which there is no defence in civilized society, and perhaps a chopping block at the Tower should indeed be reserved for the perpetrators.

So why defend this writer for his fictional rape?

Because I suspect what everyone is really up in arms about is the fact that what they perceived to be nice, safe, cosy and comfortable Sunday night viewing has just blown up in their faces.

Newsflash, people: Lark Rise To Candleford was that kind of soppy, saccharine-sweet, brain-softening excuse for a programme where nothing ever really happened, nothing much went wrong and nobody got hurt. Downton Abbey is not. Lady Mary's Turkish seducer died in her bed, Countess Cora miscarried, Lady Sybil expired of eclampsia and the Earl of Grantham nearly bonked one of the housemaids. Matthew was paralysed in World War I and died in a car crash shortly afterwards leaving Lady Mary broken-hearted and bereft. Bates' former wife also died in mysterious circumstances and he himself went down for her murder before being cleared.

Safe? Cosy? Comfortable? Who are you kidding?

Funnily enough, two quotes from the Radio Times of 19-25 October sum up the appalled reaction and the pragmatic truths which underlie real drama:

Cuppa in hand and a bit of Downton before bed. Like lavender on your pillow. But then ... someone was raped in Downton. And with that, they lost this viewer for ever.

(Sarah Millican, page 45)

From an article by Sophie Hannah about Agatha Christie (great writer - no relation, worse luck):

Christie's novels are in no way cosy or twee, though some of their village settings might be; she understands the depravity, ruthlessness and dangerous weakness of human beings. She knows all about warped minds, long-held grudges, agonising need; in each of her works, a familiarity with the dark parts of the human psyche underpins the narrative.

(Radio Times, page 21)

And there you have it. Any good auther knows that to write a good story you need comedy and tragedy, pathos and drams, love and loathing. Lavender twinned with larceny. That essential yin without which there is no yang.

I saw the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird again the other night. A story told through the fragile innocence of a child's eyes, but not glossing over the realities of lynching, death and bigotry in the small-town life of the Old South. What kind of tale would it have been if Tom Robinson had been acquitted, Bob Ewell not knifed by Boo Radley and young Jem Finch's arm never broken? Not one which won the Pulitzer Prize, of that you can be sure. Harper Lee's genius was gently to draw us into the South, but not then to flinch from depicting the cruel realities which were part and parcel of its way of life.

And just in case you think I'm getting hung up on literary criticism, take a good long look at what Joss Whedon has done to some of his most beloved characters...

So why am I so hot under the collar about this? Partly because of my unwilling exposure to far too long a diet of dreadful, gentle "comedies" like As Time Goes (Slowly) By and Last of the Summer Whine, but mainly because Joss, Julian and I have all done exactly the same thing. Julian had Anna raped, Joss set Spike on Buffy and about four years ago, when I was writing Drusilla's Roses (the tale of Dru which led to Dear Miss Landau), I came upon a pivotal scene in which drastic action was needed to (as I later put it) "knock Dru off the whole evil thing."

At first I was going to settle for a vicious beating, but as John Steinbeck once said in a letter to friends:

I shudder to tell you what I have strongly suspected - that you have a writer in the family. This is sad news, but I can't think of a thing you can do about it ... What you have ... to look forward to is life made intolerable by a mean, cantankerous, opinionated, moody, quarrelsome, unreasonable, nervous, flighty, irresponsible son. You will get no loyalty, little consideration and desperately little attention from him. In fact you will want to kill him. I'm sure my father and mother often must have considered poisoning me.

(Steinbeck: a life in letters, p. 550)

That unreasonable, quarrelsome, cantankerous, downright rotten part of my own personality without which I could not work successfully as a writer quietly but firmly told me that a beating just wouldn't do the job.

There are days when an author loves a character as if she were his wife or daughter. And Drusilla meant the world to me.

Realizing what I had to do was like a little death.

But I still wrote the scene:

This man was evil through and through. Bald, heavyset and brutish, with the mottled cheeks of the heavy drinker, he was the product of old mining camps in the Sierra Nevadas or rough bars on the San Francisco docks. He had been mean and vicious in life. In death, he was totally in thrall to his demon.

He smelled of week-old sweat and piss, and his fangs were very long. She couldn't stop looking at them.

Then she saw what he was going to do to her.

Even she shrank away in horror.

When it was over, he threw her out into the open. By pure blind chance, it was still night. She lay by a forest path for a while, whimpering softly, terribly hurt.

I don't think I was physically sick at the time, although I may have been. But the words had to be written, and without them there might have been no Drusilla's Roses, no trek across America and no Dear Miss Landau.

There's far too much mediocre, middle-of-the-road mulch on TV, designed by committee to offend nobody and close people's eyes to cruel reality. Far too few shows dare look at the dark side of the human condition, but rapes still take place (1372 in Scotland in 2012/2013) and I'd say it's far worse to turn our faces away from such ugly facts than to publicize and perhaps deter the evil that we do.

Would I have written Anna's rape?

Yes. After all, I wrote Dru's.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.