Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Primarily, however, I've watched it because it troubles me.
Downton presents a false worldview and sticks to it unwaveringly, no matter what the twists and turns of the plot. It's the worldview of the southern plantation, the aesthetic of the Nazi. As the photograph shows, it's a society of rigid hierarchy, with a visible gulf between rich and poor, a world that promises harmonious--in fact beautiful-- functioning as long as everyone knows and accepts his or her place. Masters are masters, servants are servants, and never should the worlds mix outside of their ritualized and circumscribed boundaries.
Much--arguably most--of the plot revolves around challenges to the hierarchy, but such threats are always deflected: the moral righteousness of the plantation system always triumphs; the logic and aesthetic of its order are ever on display. Transgressors, nay, sinners--defined as those who bring confusion into the hierarchy--are justly punished and the rightful order always restored.
The examples of the validation of this plantation worldview are almost too numerous to list, but I will offer a few:
Early on, Matthew Crawley, the middle-class son of a doctor, finds he is heir to the Downton estate. A great climatic moment arrives when he allows a valet to dress him. He has provided a job to a suitably grateful underling. That the money spent employing this person might be better used supporting a job with social utility--say another teacher in the village-- never crosses the consciousness of the Downton ruling class.
Disruption occurs when Lady Sybil, the earl's youngest daughter, elopes with the "socialist" Irish chauffeur. He naturally must be humiliated in some way to atone for the deadly sin of socialism--the idea of leveling the social classes. He's unmanned by his inability to "protect" his wife, reduced to crying, sniveling and taking unsolicited advice from a servant. Any "socialism"--which seems to manifest chiefly as his initial refusal to dress for dinner--quickly crumbles in face of the logic of the plantation--in fact, too, his vague socialist mutterings early on morph into an equally vague Irish nationalism. Socialism and nationalism might be at odds, but why quibble? The salient point is that he must be brought to heel and he is, for after all, such an emasculated child-man only needs firm guidance.
Early on, the servants O'Brien, the lady's maid, and Thomas, a footman, are a disgruntled twosome, bitter and questioning of the Downton social order. Each wonders why it is that they must grovel and labor while others, by the mere accident of birth, live in luxury and leisure. Both, naturally, get their comeuppance. Thomas decides after the war to leave Downton and go into business speculating on black market foodstuffs. He sinks his savings into bad merchandise and must creep back to Downton for a job. He had the audacity to try to rise above himself; how much happier he would have been if he'd simply accepted his place as a servant in the great chain of being. Likewise, O'Brien, overcome with remorse for her malice when "her ladyship" Lady Cora gets sick, repents of having thought ill of her betters. Both servants are devious, dishonest operators, underscoring by their character flaws the immorality inherent in questioning the social order--those of evil, impure character challenge the system; pure characters, like the maid Anna and her valet husband (not coincidentally a manly-man), accept it without murmur.
When, during the war, the maid Ethel crosses class lines to have an affair with a major, not only is she fired, she gets pregnant, has a baby and resorts to prostitution to survive. She is redeemed, but at the cost of her child, for, when finally broken, she sees the wisdom of allowing the upper class grandparents of the boy (the major is killed in the war) raise him.
When Lady Mary Crawley sleeps, under the very roof of Downton Abbey, with a Turk (shades of Princess Diana), he dies in her bed, and worse, her sister finds out. To keep her secret, Mary betroths herself to a self-made newspaper magnate she despises, punished by the purgatory of an ill-suited male. Happiness arrives when she eventually marries the Downton heir.
Lady Edith, the second sister, throws herself at older man, desperate to marry. In doing so, she doubly offends the social order. First, it violates the Downton code for the young and healthy to mix with the old and/or infirm, a morality constantly reinforced by her grandmother, Lady Violet. Second, as is underscored by Anna, the maid who represents the moral center of Downton--blond, pretty, exemplary as a servant in her ever competent, wise, deeply respectful and loving care of her masters, as well as perfect in her understanding of her female role--a woman should never, as she tells the scullery maid, Daisy, throw herself at a man. Lady Edith's punishment is the humiliation of being left at the altar. Afterwards, she emphasizes her renewed understanding and acceptance of the social order when she insists on getting up and going downstairs for breakfast--breakfast in bed, she says, is for married women, not spinsters.
One might argue that the series merely mirrors the social mores of the period. Perhaps true but problem is that the show, in fact, reinforces rather than critiques these values. Downton might allow the window-dressing of challenges to the social system: a woman in bloomers! a socialist chauffeur! but in the end the power and the rectitude of the traditional order triumphs.
I believe the show appeals because our hearts long for an ordered universe. In a rightly ordered world, hunger, violence and unnecessary suffering would disappear. Yet what these various ideologies of hierarchy-of plantation, Aryan race or manor-- offer is a distortion of an order that emerges most perfectly when people are treated as equals. The Southern plantation system, for example, exemplifies, in the nostalgic retrospective of some white southerners, an idealized social order. If only people would have accepted their places in the hierarchy, what a beautiful world it would still be. If only the black slaves would have devoted themselves with pure hearts to serving their masters, the system would run have smoothly and benignly. The fault was not in the system or the superiors, but in the uppity underlings. The problem is that this story is untrue. Likewise, in the Nazi aesthetic, if only the lesser races (at least those not exterminated) would have accepted and served Aryan superiority, the world would have run as a well-ordered machine. The brutality of both systems might be obscured, hidden under the loveliness of flowing hoopskirts and beautiful blonds in slinky silk gowns but nonetheless was real and possible because of the almost unlimited power of one group over another. (A rule of thumb: the real brutality of a world is proportional to the beauty and luxury its upper classes display.)
Thus, beautiful Downton troubles me because it too depicts a highly unequal hierarchy based on birthright as fundamentally right and good. Servants who accept their God-given places have good lives in this world. For all the talk of hard work, we never see a servant worked to exhaustion; in fact, the lives of the staff seem a veritable smorgasbord of community, abundance and treats. Under the benign eyes of their "parents," the butler and housekeeper, they are, as children would be, indulged with goodies like a day at the fair--provided their chores are complete. And who would not want to be of the suave, adult upper classes, waited on hand and foot, floating through life in beautiful clothes and gracious surroundings, secure in the knowledge that one's privilege is both deserved and positively contributing to the good of the universe? I am reminded of Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst," about another "rightly ordered" country house in which the fish eagerly jump out of the stream in their rush to be served on the dinner table, and the fruit falls effortlessly from the tree. The realities of toil are eradicated in favor of a myth that serves the interest of those on top.
We know, of course, that the great country houses often did offer the most comfortable terms of employment, and hence skimmed off the most qualified servants. We know, too, that the lives of the staff in lesser homes could be much rougher. Were there any question that the life of a servant was often harsh, we need only look at the "servant problem:" given a choice, working people flocked to the factories and offices. In Downton, one servant does this; however, this is quickly glossed over and forgotten. In Downton, the real cruelties and abuses of servitude simply don't exist, just as in the movie Gone With the Wind's Tara and Twelve Oaks, the laughter of the happy slaves fills the air.
Downton makes its plot decisions in service of a ruling class ideology that validates and adulates the class system. Yes, Sybil's death may have arisen from the desire of the actress playing her to leave the show, but that didn't necessitate her dying as a result of childbirth. What if she had died bravely standing up for genuinely oppressed workers, perhaps as part of a coal miner's strike? She would be just as dead, but the series would have complexified the happy plantation mythology--and added historical realism--by showing how the ruling class often did behave abusively and cruelly in order to maintain their luxuries. What if Matthew Crawley had insisted on using his valet budget for a schoolteacher and housed him at the abbey? What if the Crawleys really had lost their money without a deus ex machina salvation?
Quakers have challenged this mirage of social order from their earliest days. Against the myth of the happy plantation, Quakers continue to provide a counter narrative of a society built on principles of equality. Yet I am troubled that the discredited worldview of Downton Abbey remains so seductive. Why is this so?
Posted by Diane at 5:39 AM