Jan 202012

In today’s Slate, Katie Roiphe discusses the paradoxical popularity of Downton Abbey given the current economic meltdown and the subsequent discontent of the 99%:

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.


  15 Responses to “Downton Abbey Love: Nostalgia for a Bygone Class System? Or Refuge from TMI?”

  1. I’m with you. I’ve given up explaining to ppl that I do not have an ounce of nostalgia for the class system. Katie Roiphe is wrong. But once the meme got going, good luck trying to stop it. Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks, Susan. Well, you can send them a link. Hah! No, seriously, I also think another big draw is the fact that the 1910s were still a part of the 19th Century, in a way. Notice the huge cultural shift from between the Edwardian era and the 1920s. There’s a historical aspect as well, I think. We’re watching these guys knowing what’s coming next, that their world — the entire world, in fact — is going to go to shambles. I know that sounds crazy, but maybe it reflects some of the fears we all have about the current situation world-wide.

      • Also: In Downton we’re seeing those 19th century class — and gender — strictures begin to bend and crack.

        That’s what the 20th century will be about (throw in sexual orientation, and race and ethnicity in the U.S.) and at Downton we’re in on the start.

        Period pieces often work best as subtle commentary on the current time and place.

        • Totally agree. Some of us are rooting for Branson.

        • I agree with freelancewoman as well: much of the appeal of Downton Abbey is that it shows an opulent (segment of) society in decline. In this respect, it’s like Mad Men. We get to admire the prettiness of it while at the same time taking the morally comfortable position of disapproving of it, and sympathizing with the characters who are trying to change things.

  2. I’d never seen DA, though I kept hearing of it in conversations with friends, even ones my age (22 y/o). So when I was setting up a new computer+TV for a friend last week, she persuaded me to watch the first episode with her.

    (Thanks PBS for putting all of Season 1 and the current episodes of Season 2 online.)

    I was strangely hooked, like many others, and proceeded to watch the rest of S1 and S2 as I recovered from the flu while at home this week.

    Like you, I think the contrast between the vulgarities of the various social classes of our age and the well-mannered dignity of the highest social classes of the Edwardian age makes it easy for us to long for (as MarlyK says) an earlier age–one to which (thankfully) we can never return.

    For it requires a concentrated effort to bring back to mind the unbridgeable chasm that separated the classes of the Edwardian era, and the utter misery of the lives of many of the lower classes.

    But DA as a show isn’t at all unique in showing the glamorous life of high class Englishmen. Many earlier period dramas, notably Upstairs, Downstairs (also on PBS) showed much of the same charm–and gained hardy followings as a result.

    If you have a chance to watch Robert Altman’s (may he rest in peace) Gosford Park (written by DA’s Julian Fellowes), you’ll see many echoes (even down to some of the lines in the script) of DA, plus you’ll see Dame Maggie Smith in a role _very_ similar to her DA role of Dowager Countess.

    And Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower provides for the casual reader a neat portrait of English life before WW1.

    • Thanks, Derrick. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on Barbara Tuchman’s books for years. I loved Gosford Park and after seeing DA, I definitely see Robert Altman’s hand in the script. Fellowes has a tendency to gloss over some of the conflicts and go for the pat on the hand instead of the jugular. (Apologies for the tortured metaphor). Gosford Park is definitely a darker view on the upper classes, you get a much deeper sense of the rot below the civilized veneer.

    • I beg to differ that Upstairs, Downstairs wasn’t as popular as DA.

      Much more static, mostly filmed on soundstages, but outrageously popular on both the BBC and PBS in the U.S.

      But I agree about Gosford having more of an edge, and a darker view of the upstairs class, I get fairly tired of the Lord of the Manor on Downton consisently coming off less of a snob then those downstairs.

      • I also get tired of the fact that the servants who long to have lives of their own and who resent their lot in life are usually the evil ones like Thomas or O’Brien. Gwen was the only exception.

        Some years ago there was a reality show that recreated the estate life. Some people were cast as servants and others as the nobility. The people who were the servants remarked on how exhausting it was to work 14 hour days. Before the advent of technology, housekeeping was back-breaking work (particularly doing laundry!), and the leisure class enjoyed its leisure at the expense of the less fortunate. Like always, really.

        • The Manor House Series. Yes. A fantastic lesson in sociology. All the “House” series were great, but to me, Manor House was outstanding. It really illustrated that stratified class system and how people’s lives were affected by it. It was fascinating to see how those people’s personalities morphed as a result of their privilege or lack thereof. For example, when we first meet the “lord of the manor,” he seems fair, approachable, slightly aloof, but human…and humane. By the end of the series he’d become this pompous, entitled snob, with little interest or care for anything or anyone outside his immediate circle, of which he was the center. Perhaps that’s how he always was, but it became more pronounced by the series end. And that was only after a period of three months. Can you imagine how much worse his entitlement issues would have been after years, decades, or even generations of indisputable privilege?

          Although I love Downton Abbey, I think that’s the one element that’s amiss — the upper class is portrayed as mostly good. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what I’m talking about, mostly because it’s intangible, and also when you attempt to dramatize that kind of attitude and the feelings that result from that kind of privilege, it becomes one-note and makes the characters seem less dimensional, less complex. How do you make privilege palpable or tangible, when most people, in general, don’t seem to know that privilege even exists?

          • Hullaballoo!!!! Where have you been, baby doll? I’ve missed you so!

            Such great comments. I now want to stream Manor house. A back to back viewing of it and DA might inspire a discussion like the one about DA on Slate.

            “How do you make privilege palpable or tangible, when most people, in general, don’t seem to know that privilege even exists?”

            Hmm. What’s interesting about your comment is that the whole Manor house experiment illustrated how insidious and subtle the whole system was, and how it kept perpetuated that sense of entitlement in such a way that people might not be aware that they were being changed. Isn’t it the same with race, to a degree?

      • I think, this season, Lord Grantham comes off really badly: Spoiled, vain, angry, and demanding.

        • Good point, Deborah. The only one we forgive for being self-serving and self-absorbed is Lady Vi.

          I’d like to see Branson get really politicized. On the other hand, part of the reason that I like the show is that a lot of times I’m afraid for the characters and then things end fairly well for them, like the time that Bates almost lost his job. Fellowes soft-pedaling is part of the attraction, even if it weakens his writing (imo).

  3. We view DA though early 21st century eyes, with the knowledge that the people depicted as being at the top are doomed. Their society and way of life will come crumbling down around them beginning in a few years. The fact that equal time is given to the servants plays into our desire to root for the (proletarian) underdog.

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