Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Downton Abbey

Like many, I've watched Downton Abbey, partially to engage in a cultural phenomenon, partially because I enjoy looking at it, and partially to follow the unfolding story.

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?


Ellen said...

Extraordinarily good and important blog It's important because DA has become a wide-spread sociological event.

I have only two things I want to add. The first is to answer your why? it's seductive because it reinforces the incessant propaganda we have here in the capitalist "developed" countries and probably in many of their client states. The US gov't does everything it can to squash all socialist movements, punish all rebels (increasingly harshly and lawlessly of late) and leaves the reactionary movements with their violent tactics alone to grow. Schools never assign any socialist-leaning book. No _Les Miserables_ allowed among the classics. Economics classes ignore labor history.

Violent tactics. My second is to add something super important you don't point to explicitly though with all your references to Nazis, it's there. DA is non-violent. We see no forcing. The only violence allowed is in hunting (controlled) and cricket -- and both reinforced the hierarchies. You are right about Tom being reduced to a sniveler. He is despised and excoriated for resorting to violence. We see no police officers do we? No armed forces anywhere. What upholds this order is violence; the obedience comes from the violence. The only person we see commit violence is Bates and it's presented very queasily and as a product of his class and desperate circumstances. We are made to wonder about him when he pulls a knife to the other man's throat.

Capital punishment, hanging, solitary confinement for decades for people who have committed no crime or not one which did any harm. The state was going to put away Aaron Swartz for a kind of prank JStor the concerned company declined to sue over. And now torture is justified in two movies studded with awards. The president can assassinate people at will.

Downton Abbey had a couple of protesting ironic voices. One was given Miss Obrien but the actress knew she played a "contemptible" role and has had it now. Tom is forced into assimilation (as you note) and so silenced.

People really don't think. If they were given Zinn to read, and constantly presented with movies with good social feelings and group activities as they were in the 1930s and 40s they would "think" differently. All they can do in the present regime is vote their fears. They do want community and so accept this meretricious dream -- also seen on other BBC 21st century adaptations, like the Cranford Chronicles. They feared Romney (rightly) very much. Poor Seamus. We did know of his cruel death.

Jane S. Gabin said...

What a beautiful and thoughtful commentary! When I watched DA I was annoyed with myself for becoming caught up in the individual personal struggles of the characters -- because, after all, I have no sympathy for the class system that basically lived to oppress. This is why, when I travel, I do not visit restored plantation houses, British "great houses," or French chateaux. They exist now only because generations of slaves/peasants/oppressed workers supported them. And where are the houses of those people, displayed so that visitors can appreciate their efforts?

On another note, I am proud to report that at the high school my own children attended in North Carolina, they read Howard Zinn's alternate history of the US. And today they are adults who vote for social change.

Diane said...

Thanks Ellen and Jane.

Jane, as I mentioned elsewhere, I too enjoy aspects of the series, though it does disturb me so much. It helps to know there are others in the universe who feel the same way. Jane, I'm glad your children were exposed to Zinn. He's such a human, the kind of voice we need to hear more of, from real people with real lives who understand they would have been nothing without a hand up from the GI bill or the New Deal.

Diane said...

As I commented elsewhere, Ellen is exactly right to point out the lack of violence, a distortion that feeds the illusion people willing acquiesced to gross inequalities. The system was sustained by violence.

Cliff said...

You are right to state that the estate system of Downton Abbey is sustained by violence, but that is true of every social system since the dawn of civilization. Overcoming violence is a systemic issue, not just a personal one.

The question at issue in this blog is whether the script of Downton Abbey should have been written primarily from the perspective of the working class. I think it would fail as art if it offered the kind of "socialist realism" (actually melodrama, not realism) that socialist states have produced. (Zinn's history has some of that melodramatic character, perhaps necessary as a counterweight to American triumphalism, but still lacking as a result.)

I'm grateful for a production that both shows the emotional appeal of a self-contained, inward-looking life-world and also shows the cracks in the facade. Within that world, it is highly realistic that most servants would have helped to preserve a system that gave others power and privilege. For even a few to resist took enormous courage. In any case, I have a better idea from DA about the subjective experience of the transition from feudalism to capitalism than any prior work of fiction.

Every social system has ways of restoring its normative order. The present order, dominated by commercial interests, also has many ways of encouraging voluntary compliance with oppressive rules. In a way it is easier to see how those norms and perceptions capture us when presented in the context of a now dead social system. We are unlikely to notice the ones that lock us into conformity. So a show like Downton Abbey does a great service by presenting an elitist view of the world and also showing that it was a prison to both its beneficiaries and to those who did the work that sustained it. It succeeds in causing many of us to identify momentarily with its characters and thereby to understand their turmoil when challenged by changes taking place in the world. Do the novels of Jane Austen accomplish the same goal of showing us both an elegant life-world and the cracks in its facade? No. It takes more distance than Austen had to recognize the deeper flaws in the system. That is not a reason to stop admiring her works for their psychological insights.

In closing, I want to suggest that Downton Abbey serves the aim of reflecting on social change far more effectively than a weaker drama might have done that simply portrayed class conflict. Unless we can account for the complex and contradictory motives of humans, we will not be able to create more egalitarian societies.