One might wonder why, at the precise moment that we are condemning class divides in this country, so many of us would develop a passion for a show like Downton Abbey; why suddenly lawyers, unemployed artists, stay-at-home moms, and assorted liberals find themselves glued to a drama about an English country estate a hundred a years ago where the entire staff of footmen and ladies’ maids lines up outside to greet a titled guest (aside from the fact that it is a good story, which it is).
But is a misplaced nostalgia for a bygone nobility really the reason we’re glued to the Downton denizens’ travails?
I’m sure that for a lot of people, that’s the primary reason. I posit that what attracts us to DA is not necessarily the wealth, noblesse oblige, or secret envy of the nobility. My theory is that we’re looking for refuge from the constant vulgarity that defines our era. From Congressmen tweeting their schlongs to startlets’ yen for vajazzling (a hobby that I’m sure never came to my parents’ minds when they bought me a Bedazzler for Hannukah), we’re under a constant barrage of TMI. Money is no indication of class. After all, even the 1% are hopelessly vulgar these days.
If anything, I could argue that the height of vulgarity is spending $90,000 on a bottle of champagne, or millions on a birthday party while the rest of us fight to pay the mortgage. Excess is always tacky. Some of us have overdosed on the schadenfreude of witnessing adults humiliate themselves on reality TV; instead, we may be in the throes of pena ajena, the Spanish phrase that denotes that squirmy feeling of empathising with someone else’s debasement as if it were our own.
Fellowes has yet to regale us with a scene in which Lady Mary catfights Lady Edith while on a shopping spree in London. Yes, the Crawleys have money and live in beautiful surroundings, but I’ve caught Lady Mary wearing the same black outfit to dinner several times, and her trip to London, which could’ve been the perfect opportunity to present us with scenes of overspending, largely took place off-screen.
In an age in which profanity is common, I think we long for the civility, and the sophistication of good manners. After all, is there a better weapon than Lady Vi’s barbed comebacks? She manages to hit the target AND keep within the bounds of decorum. Is there a better trick than to deflate the enemy while keeping one’s dignity? The Crawley ladies do this so deftly, sometimes all they need deploy is an arched brow, and a well-timed pause. If that’s not a heady blend of power and politesse, I don’t know what is.
DA’s civility is refreshing, palate-cleansing even. Few of us may ever be able to afford a castle with an attendant staff of full-time servants. Fortunately, you don’t need money in the bank to have class, just well-groomed eyebrows, a barbed tongue, and exquisite manners.