With the release of Downton Abbey in the US comes a new tide of commentary about the British drama, which seems to be captivating audiences on both sides of the pond in addition to ushering a new era of class dramas on television. Upstairs, Downstairs has been revived while Boardwalk Empire plays with similar themes in the US, and Ripper Street takes US viewers to Whitechapel during a notorious era this weekend. Amongst all that nostalgia for a bygone age come some fascinating social attitudes, as Veronica Horwell discusses in a superb piece for Le Monde Diplomatique exploring the British obsession with class dramas.
She gives a detailed history of the genre in its social context, looking at the shifts in British society that moved communities as a whole from a reliance on a servant class to a service class, and the distinctions between the two. Further, she notes, in all the dewy-eyed reminiscing seen in shows like Downton, there is a certain lack of period accuracy as well as failure of personal awareness. In the critical class-based evaluations of the show, there are a few things that should stand out.
As she notes, ‘Fellowes does share the mid-19th century Tory fantasy that social harmony comes from devotion freely offered by lower-order servitors to their (wealthy) social betters, with both classes joined in love of a greater abstraction.’ It’s a comment worth a closer look, because she’s absolutely right; Downton presents a very specific model of the world for viewers, and it is one in which some people are in service, others are not, and this is very much the way of the world. Not just the way, but an entirely appropriate and even desirable way, one that makes the world right and good.
The show is, in many ways, aspirational. Looking at the majestic architecture and sweeping lawns at Downton, viewers are drawn into fantasies of a world where they live in a grand house, living in apparent idleness off income ‘earned’ from others. Few viewers would profess to dreams of sleeping in a narrow maid’s bed under the cold and sloping roofs; they want to be the ones waking up in luxurious sheets to a fire already lit by a maid who is trained to be utterly invisible.
In dreaming of the lifestyle depicted in Downton Abbey, viewers are inevitably also dreaming of a lifestyle in which extreme class divides are perpetuated. Houses like Downton do not exist without servants and a massive staff is required to run not just the house itself, but also the estate. Lord Grantham casually jokes that they own “half the village” and it’s true; they have total control over much of the village and the people who live in it, relying on the estate and the whims of the Granthams for survival. This is not exactly egalitarian (far from it) and it doesn’t even really fit the bill of an equal, fair, and just society, something many people claim to support.
For the world to have Downtons in it, it needs Daisies, Mrs. Patmores, Mr. Carsons, Mrs. Hugheses, Bransons, Annas, and more. These are members of a servant class, not just a service class; notably, in Fellowes’ other project, Gosford Park, there’s a discussion at the servants’ table about being born into service and service as a career and source of pride. The idea of moving out of service is viewed as alien and talking about such ideas is inappropriate; people like Tom are ostracised for daring to speak out of turn.
Yet, the servants of Downton are not necessarily true to the servants of the era: ‘Downton servants, though, are presented more as modern employees, especially when disgruntled or malevolent, as if Fellowes had based their attitudes on those in the service sector in a post-industrial economy, where jobs in tourism, catering and beauty have borrowed only superficial aspects of the personal obligations of downstairs.’
He has created a more palatable and humanised version of a life in service, perhaps rightly fearing that viewers might be discomfited with the realities. By focusing on the little details that people associate with ‘high class’ and glamour, like the lingering shot of precisely positioning the silverware in the opening credits, Fellowes creates a vision of a glittering, smooth, beautiful world, one where the wealthy are glorious to look up and their servants enable their lifestyle with perhaps some frustration at times, but overall good humour, as employees and partners rather than subjugates.
They are there, after all, for a mission; Downton is their mission every bit as much as it is Lord Grantham’s. Downton Abbey is all about social rituals and a dance of manners, but it doesn’t probe what life in the servant classes would have actually been like, to any great degree. We see male and female servants not just socialising but marrying, servants who talk back to their masters (such a harsh word, master!), servants expressing their opinions. The Granthams are benevolent and loving masters (that word again!) who take care of their servants, though of course they don’t think for a minute on what will happen when they plan vacate their estate and trim down the number of domestic staff they retain.
Being a servant was not a job in this era, Horwell stresses. It was a way of life. And is this necessarily something aspirational? Even as the service class fights for recognition, protection, and fair treatment with demands for paid sick days, a stop to abusive scheduling practices, and a fight for a better minimum wage in the US, people are tuning in to Downton Abbey and allowing themselves to be whisked away into a world in which service isn’t simply a way to make a living, but a way to live.