Commentary on Downton Abbey

by Nathan on February 21, 2012

A version of this essay was published in the Washington Examiner newspaper on Sunday, February 26th. You can view that here.

Downton Abbey is a British-produced television drama on PBS that revolves around the lives of the occupants of a fictitious estate (the Downton Abbey) in the English countryside during the reign of King George V in the early 20th Century. The show has been a big hit in the United States, with its second season’s finale concluding just this past Sunday.

The miniseries is a rich period piece – with beautiful, luxurious costumes and lush English backgrounds – that follows the Downton Abbey’s aristocratic family and their league of servants as they each go about the affairs of their particular social strata. It provides the viewer with a glimpse of a bygone era in English society where rigid social hierarchies and traditions were commonplace.

Robert, the Earl of Grantham and owner and heir of the estate, for instance, defers to a much younger duke merely because he was born higher on the social spectrum. Robert bends over back for the duke to make his arrival and welcome to the estate distinguished, and ultimately hopes that the duke will propose to his newly single daughter, Mary. She, on the other hand, has hesitations about the advances of Matthew Crawley, an upper-middle class attorney, because he is of a lower, working class than she. Such distinctions are important to the aristocracy.

Interestingly, there is even a strict hierarchy within the Abbey’s servant staff. Carson, Robert’s butler, is at the top of this class as the manager of the pantry, wine cellar, and dining room as well as all the male staff, which is composed of a valet, two footmen, and a driver. Mrs. Hughes is also at the top of staff as she oversees the general appearance of the house. Under her are several maids, a cook, and a cook’s assistant. The driver and the assistant are at the very bottom of this group.

The series’ portrayal of the classes of Edwardian society is striking in what it reveals about human nature. Though rigid in their structure and varied in their levels of refinement, the classes are comprised of human beings that are more-or-less the same at their core. The people in each class are capable of a wide spectrum of actions: they can noble yet revolting, decent yet selfish, and brave yet cowardly. It tells us that human nature is as universal as it was during the days of Thucydides, that it transcends social class. Human beings, whether clothed in silk gowns or stained aprons or born to someone famous or someone you’ve never heard, are all composed of the same flesh and blood and are all motivated by the same emotions and desires. They all face the same moral dilemmas and all have their own interests to look after.

That is one of the most fascinating aspects of Downton Abbey. The servants and the aristocrats are all equals when it comes to their behavior. Thomas, a young first footman, resents the arrival of Bates, a Boer War veteran with a pronounced limp, who is to be Robert’s new valet. Thomas had his eye on the valet spot, which, because of the proximity it offers to the earl, is more prestigious and higher up the social scale. So throughout the entire first season Thomas plots to sabotage Bates and get him removed from the staff. He exploits his limp, digs up questionable things from his past, and even tries to plant stolen property in his room. Bates, on the other hand, slowly reveals his qualities of magnanimity and loyalty.

Among the aristocrats, there is deep animosity between two of the sisters, Mary, the oldest and heir apparent to the estate, and Edith, the overlooked, yet intelligent, middle child. Mary has a deep secret that her chaste reputation relies upon, which is particularly important as she is accepting suitors for her hand in marriage. The rivalry between the two sisters eventually leads Edith to reveal Mary’s secret and sully her good name. But once Mary realizes Edith’s betrayal, she deters a man from proposing to Edith, completely crushing her sister.

The sibling rivalry takes on an additional degree of offensiveness because you expect that as refined and well-educated aristocrats they would have pristine manners. Alas, it is not so.

There is something Socratic in the parallel pettiness and nastiness of the aristocratic and servant classes. Virtue, it seems, is more a matter of individual character than superficial social construct.

***

There is an eerie calm-before-the-storm feeling you get when watching Downton Abbey. The family and servants go about their normal day-to-day lives, mucking about as if ‘this is the way things are and this is how they’ll be’. They are nonchalant and without any cares outside of their little bubbles. It is an ignorance afforded from the comfortable insulation (indeed, a splendid isolation) of the British Empire, of which, they know, the sun never sets. The Edwardian Era was arguably the pinnacle of British Empire. That society was built upon centuries of excellent custom and tradition and reinforced by the magnificent and ubiquitous Royal Navy and the vast rich colonies it protects. However, such a consummation of one’s society can lull a whole people – regardless of class – into a false and ultimately tragic sense of security.

As the show progresses you can see and feel the subtle intellectual, political, and social currents tugging at the very fabric of their society. One of Robert’s daughter’s, Sybil, independent and strong-willed, decides to engage in local political activity, despite his father’s severe objections. She strongly advocates that women should have the right to vote, for instance. Robert, disgusted, believes that the family’s driver, Branson, a passionate adherent to the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, is behind her newfound, and improper, activism. Indeed, he seems almost oblivious to the forces at play in his contemporary England and Europe.

It is revealed throughout the series that despite all of those customs, traditions and hierarchies, their (really, any) society is a truly fragile ecosystem. Just as a dispute between two small cities in Ancient Greece, seemingly unimportant to any other city, caused the great Peloponnesian War, which effectively ended the Athenian Empire after 27 years of fighting, the assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Serbian anarchist caused the whole of Europe to be embroiled in the bloodiest war the planet had hitherto seen. That something so seemingly unimportant, at least to the immediate interests and security of the British Empire, can completely disrupt and shatter an entire way of life is nothing but a testament to the fragility of social order and human civilization.

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