Occupy Downton Abbey

"Highclere Castle", "Downton Abbey"
Highclere Castle, the setting for "Downton Abbey." Photo by JB+UK_Planet.

Last week I had the worst cold I’ve had in years, and spent several days curled up in bed with my laptop, streaming BBC miniseries and period films from Netflix.

I started with “Mrs. Brown,” the 1997 BBC Scotland production starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as her devoted Scottish servant; moved on to two adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell novels—“North and South” (2004) and “Wives and Daughters” (1999); then spent one sleepless night indulging in all seven episodes of the first season of “Downton Abbey,” the Julian Fellowes creation that follows the ups and downs of masters and servants on an English estate in the early 20th century.

It was great fun, of course—the language, the settings, the costumes, oh my!

But it was also sort of gross. By the time I was done with “Downton Abbey,” I felt like I needed a shower. This was no doubt in part because I’d been lolling about in bed for two or three days and actually did need a shower. But I also had the icky sense that I’d been wallowing in period nostalgia pornography.

Not that all of these films are the same, of course. “North and South” is fascinating for its frank depiction of the costs of industrialization and the good, bad, and ugly of labor movements and strife. And all four productions address the ways in which people—women especially—are fettered by the strictures of social class.

In the end, however, characters are rewarded for maintaining the status quo. In “North and South,” the pure-hearted Margaret Hale doesn’t just win the heart of textile industrialist John Thornton; she saves his factory and his economic position. I kept wanting her to get it on with Nicholas Higgins, the union leader played with brusque, burly charm by Brendan Coyle. But the story quite literally tames Higgins: the strike he leads is an abject failure, his daughter dies of a lung disease caused by her work in the mills, and he gets a job with Thornton after promising not to make waves.

In other words, he ends up the faithful servant who’s held up for admiration in story after story and film after film about the “good old days,” when people knew their place.

What is it about the faithful servant figure that we like so much?

None of us wants to be that character, but we like to watch that kind of selfless devotion; it’s a staple of the genre. Like the obsessively loyal and protective John Brown, who tolerates the queen’s petulance and snits in “Mrs. Brown.” Or the comforting, steadfast Dixon in “North and South.” Or the army of hardworking servants in “Downton Abbey” (including, again, Brendan Coyle, this time as the long-suffering Bates).

The only exceptions are O’Brien and Thomas, the lady’s maid and footman in Downton Abbey who are forever plotting against other people in the house. They’re fun to watch. And they’re clearly meant to be villains.

The obverse of the admirable faithful servant, of course, is the lovable, cantankerous member of the upper classes.

We love these people: Dame Judi Dench’s starchy, testy Queen Victoria; Sir Michael Gambon’s hot-tempered but ultimately affectionate Squire Hamley in “Wives and Daughters”; and—oh, perfection—Dame Maggie Smith’s deliciously sarcastic Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in “Downton Abbey.”

But why? These people are monstrous.

Queen Victoria was certainly impressive in her way. Indeed, she oversaw the most violent expansion of empire in the history of the world. In the film, she ignores her public duties and luxuriates in grief as only the very rich and leisured can. In “Wives and Daughters,” Squire Hamley applies so much class pressure to his eldest son that he drives him to an early grave, completely ignores his more capable second son until the first one’s dead, and plans to raise his young grandson and heir while sending the child’s inconveniently French mother packing.

As for the Dowager Countess, it’s certainly very funny that the notion of having a job is so alien to her that she doesn’t know the word “week-end.” But it’s 1913. (According to my OED, “week-end” has been around since the 17th century.) Okay, so she’s an over-dressed dinosaur whose asperity and defiant refusal to get with the times are mostly played for laughs. Less funny is the scene where her struggle for supremacy over the running of a local charity hospital nearly kills a young farm worker on the estate.

I had seen the first episode of “Downton Abbey” when it aired on PBS here and found it a bit trashy. But “trashy” sounded perfect in the throes of my cold last week. And I’ll admit that it was great entertainment. I’m not immune to the pleasures of watching beautiful people in beautiful clothes going to and fro through beautiful rooms.

But—well, maybe I wasn’t quite sick enough because I kept rasping out at the screen, “Oh, please” and “Give me a break.”

One scene in particular stands out in this regard: Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, the shining incarnation of noblesse oblige, played with genial ease by the marvelous Hugh Bonneville, is standing before his grandly unnecessary home (the real-life Highclere Castle) and says, “I see my life’s work.”

“Maybe it’s meant to be ironic,” my husband suggested when I told him about this scene and how it made me want to spit.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

In a later scene, the earl’s heir, a distant cousin who’s lived a middle-class life in Manchester until heirdom is foist upon him, asks the earl if it would be all right to dispense with the services of his valet. He can’t understand why a grown man needs another grown man to dress him, “like a doll.”

The earl quickly sets him straight. “Is that quite fair, to deprive a man of his livelihood…?” he asks. He goes on to wonder if the young heir, once he is master, plans to let go of all the people who depend on the estate for work. “We all have different parts to play, Matthew,” he says. “And we must all be allowed to play them.”

The obscenely wealthy as “job creators.” Where have I heard this before?

The next time we see Matthew, he’s graciously allowing his surprised and delighted valet to select his cuff links for him, and we’re supposed to understand this as a moment of personal growth for the character.

Just one more thing about Downton Abbey that I can’t help but put out there: There are three sexually aggressive characters in Season One. Two are gay and the third is Turkish. The two gay characters are also venal and corrupt. The Turkish character ends up dead in the wrong woman’s bed and the butt of a cheap joke, an exotic prop for the Anglo characters’ drama.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t judge people for enjoying these programs. I enjoy them—in my cranky way.

I just hope “Downton Abbey” lasts long enough that we get to see the whole social order collapse around these characters. Maybe the new Earl of Grantham will be forced to rent out his castle to film companies to make ends meet. Oh, the horror!

11 thoughts on “Occupy Downton Abbey

  1. Ha! Love this, Naomi. I’m a late convert to the series. Watched Season One and could barely get through it for many of the reasons you mention. But find myself more drawn in during Season Two, even though it’s still quite soapy. I think it’s the acting and also that they make some of the mean characters more nuanced. (It’s already showing over here). Anyway, let me know what you think!

    Delia Lloyd

  2. I hate to admit that I loved Downton Abbey, but reading your post made me wonder if I should? Thing is, I agree with what you say, but I still sort of love it, in an old-school comfort-food period-porn kind of way. I too was a little irked that the gay characters were the creeps. But also loved that they were the creeps, ya know? We’re not ALL victims, or pious saints. The creator is also, it turns out, sort of a right-wing rich blowhard jerk (see profile in NYT Magazine from a few weeks back). and yet….yet, I still loved it! Maybe it’s our American inferiority complex, or our fascination with this weird, rarefied world. but the acting is top notch, and maybe that’s what redeems it. I can never get tired of Maggie Smith doing the same role, so well. if that’s wrong, I don’t wanna be right. 😉 but great post, my friend! very smart….

  3. I hear you, Martin! That’s why it’s called “guilty” pleasure, right? I have to confess I’m looking forward to Season 2, which starts here in the U.S. in January, I think. Stay tuned for another rant!

  4. This is so right on target, and brilliant, as befits the author. I haven’t seen Downton Abbey, but I have spent many a night streaming BBC versions of Jane Austen’s works on Netflix, all of which end with the girl getting happily married. I love them unabashedly, but I always ask myself – really? why do I continue to love these stories so, where the ultimate success of the heroine is to marry a rich man?

  5. Hi Naomi. I rarely watch television, except for the news on CNN and stock market reports. You make me feel like I’m missing out. Yet, I don’t have enough time to do all I want to do as it is. Maybe I need to get sick and be confined to bed for a few days. Great post.

  6. For a a period film which undermines the reification of ruling class power, see The Madness of King George. But it’s capital “R” Romantic, too. I draw a pretty big distinction between Romantic and Victorian period pieces for that reason: the former tend to revolutionize power structures, while the latter like to rebuild them.

    Also, Julian Fellowes was recently made a peer and sits on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords. I hate biographical criticism, but there you go.

  7. Very enjoyable post, Naomi! You gave us a preview of the argument in person, but now that we finally finished Season 1 I was able to read this without risk of spoilers.

    I still stand by what I said in person, that I enjoy that these period pieces can often portray a class mindset that we find unfathomable today. The whole system was sustained not just by the iron, moneyed fist of the upper class, but also by the willing participation of the rest of the masses. I roll my eyes at modern films which portray the uneducated working class as sophisticated and enlightened far beyond what was realistic for the time.

    In that period, it seemed that the rejection of “service” as a social class/caste was considered equivalent to rejection of the servants themselves. Maybe in the spirit of the Japanese proverb, “The nail which stands up gets beaten down,” working class folk didn’t much appreciate those who tried to extract themselves from the system. We saw that in Downton with the maid who aspires to be a secretary, much to the visible disgust of the other staff.

    But having said that, I do agree that DA portrays the upper class as so near sainthood that they practically have noblesse oblige shooting out of every orifice of their bodies. The father especially is so pure of heart, his character is frankly boring. That’s actually probably the greater sin than historical inaccuracy.

    One point that I thought you could have pushed a little further is the fact that the two villainous servants are both gay stereotypes. One is actively gay, but the other (the maid) is subtly marked as lesbian (although not expressly identified as such). The fact that she ends up (spoiler alert!) causing the death of the baby is almost too comically metaphorical to be taken seriously.

  8. Thanks for reading, and for your long & thoughtful response! I appreciate your last paragraph in particular. I have to confess I hadn’t read O’Brien that way, but it totally makes sense. Are you on to Season Two? There are some efforts made to complicate the characters (especially O’Brien and the Earl himself), but my original take remains basically unchanged: It’s delicious good fun in its way, but the show quite uncritically conflates nobility of spirit with nobility of rank. Season Three is coming too! Maybe we should have a Downton party. I’ll come as a rabble-rousing suffragist union organizer. 🙂

  9. No, we haven’t started Season 2 yet. I had heard that it isn’t as good, so I’m keeping my expectations low. But I am looking forward to it, after a small hiatus.

    I’m all for a Downton Abbey party, although I think we’d all need to invest in some good foundation garments before then!

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