So I have finished watching the first season of Downton Abbey. And I did enjoy it. It is beautifully cast and filmed and the sets and outdoor locations are beautiful. So are the costumes. The scripts are strong and the performances good and it is not overly melodramatic. In fact it captures a certain, stereotypically English, emotional stoicism and repression. But I think there are elements of it which are worth considering, because it is such a romanticised, nostalgic, and, ultimately I think, conservative interpretation of an imaginary history.
The central themes of Downton seem to be about loyalty and betrayal, family and the challenge of finding one’s way in the world. It is also about class. When I have written previously about soap opera, in an academic space, I discussed the class based nature of much British soap opera and the fact that class mobility was highly restricted and unusual. It is interesting that two television series of the past which focused closely on class mobility were comedies – Keeping up Appearances where the central joke of the show was that Hyacinth could never quite cut it as a class milieu beyond her working class roots; and To The Manor Born where the class-climbing Richard will never be an aristcrat and Audrey will always be one, no matter how poor.
In Downton we seem the same challenges with Matthew. He is not to be allowed to inherit the title and the money without his absorption in the aristocratic society. He has to become one of them in order to be worthy, and the dynamic of the plot sees us applaud his conversion from middle class lawyer to budding aristocrat-with-no-job. He is scolded when he objects to his butler helping him dress, and made to see that he is in the wrong – the man is a butler and should be allowed to do his work. As Matthew allows Molesley to help him dress, we celebrate that he is assisting this man with his self-worth, inducting himself into the aristocracy and reinforcing the class divide. Matthew is liked and respected for the way he comes to accept and absorb the aristocratic culture and it is then that he becomes an acceptable potential husband to Mary. It is not only Mary and her relatives who have doubts about whether she should marry him when his inheritance comes into doubt, as audience members many of us do too. The wife of a suburban lawyer?!?
The importance of the static nature of class is also reinforced by the lauding of the loyalty of servants who serve and give their lives, essentially, for a family which, as Thomas says, “hardly know their names.” But Downton demonstrates that this is all fine, even good, because they are such great people who will look after them in return. Sack the cook who is going blind? Of course not – we’ll pay for expensive surgery for her because We Are Noble People. Overlook a possible shady past – of course – because we are fair and just and happy to give people a second chance. The depth of the betrayal that O’Brien has enacted upon the family is palpable and we shake our heads at her saying How Could You Have Doubted Them. O’Brien’s doubt and betrayal is indicative of her unpleasant nature – had she been a better person she would not have doubted, nor acted, so. On the other hand, Mrs Hughes is shown to have twice sacrificed the opportunity for love for service, and this sacrifice is viewed as noble, with only the barest nod to the kind o yearning lonely emptiness it may result in – something captured so well in The Remains of the Day. The depiction of aristocracy as noble, as benevolent, and that loyalty to them is similarly noble, is laid on with a trowel, and a prime contributor to this romanticised fantasy of history that we see here.
The benevolent aristocrat trope is also reinforced with Lady Sybil and her quest to help Gwen find a job as a secretary. Sybil is the most thoroughly likeable of the sisters, and it is interesting how the show gives her space to be a bit radical, but the stomps down hard on her for disobeying her father or lying to her family. It is totally fine for her to have a radical choice of “dress” but when she sneaks Gwen off to an interview, her horse ends up throwing a shoe and she and Gwen must tramp home enduring all manner of hardship. And yet this is nothing to what she faces when she dares to step out to a political rally, in direction defiance of her father. Defying her father and following her own very slightly radical intentions end her up knocked unconscious. She has to be saved by Matthew, the heir apparent (that socialist chauffeur isn’t able to protect her). Here we see that radical intent is all very well, as long as it is displayed in only socially acceptable ways, approved by one’s father. It is telling that is only when Gwen is interviewed under the roof of Downton that she gets offered the job. And of course Sybil isn’t crazy enough to miss the season and being introduced at Court – a season where of course she is a great success. Our radical ladies aren’t that radical.
With Lady Mary there is also a tilt toward changing roles for women, as she bemoans the fact that really there isn’t much for her to do in her life, that her role is to wait for a husband. She doesn’t seem particularly motivated to change this though and her lack of much to do can be see contrasted with Matthew’s surprise when he learns that the Earl has never had any job “except Downton.” The lack of anything as mundane as a job is a class issue, and one that is not depicted as such a terribly bad thing. The family’s job is to keep Downton and tradition and life going, to ride the horses and ensure the flower show goes off fairly. The fact that the show rarely depicts anything of the world outside the estate and the village works to ensure that this comfortable depiction is not challenged or disrupted, and it will be very interesting to see how the advent of World War I might impact, as it seems likely to draw characters out into a wider world.
I also find the depiction of Lady Edith highly problematic. She is characterised as petty and jealous, a sneak who reads her sister’s mail and goes behind her back. By the end of the season her mother and grandmother and even the sainted Earl are all essentially referring to how plain she is and how unlikely to find a husband – “beggars can’t be chosers” and she then calls her sister a slut. I think we are not meant to sympathise with her, but to understand the shaken heads and looks of resignation the elder members of her family adopt when speaking of her. What Mary does to her in the final episode is cruel, but the logic of the script seems to be that she, at least in part, deserves it, and we are given almost no chance to sympathise with her. Her plain-ness makes her mean, and we should like her less for it.
Finally we come to Thomas. There is nothing subtle about the way in which Thomas is portrayed. Thomas is gay, a blackmailer, scheming, disloyal, grasping, gay, a thief, a backstabber, heartless, manipulative, gay, disrespectful and coldly calculating. There is absolutely no reason why Thomas has to be gay, even if an early plot point utilises it. His character is utterly one-dimensional and the lack of a wider social milieu means that the difficulties and challenges of being gay in the period are barely even touched on. And it isn’t like it is a secret – even blind Mrs Patmore can see it. Such an unnuanced villain whose speech in the kitchen in the last episode is so openly reviled by his fellow staff members seems like an odd dramatic mis-step, almost vaudevillian (which Mr Carson could relate to).
It is interesting how Downton Abbey has captured such a giant audience for a show which is relatively slow-moving and, like the lives of most of its characters, fairly uneventful. It does clearly tap straight into the vein of beautiful nostalgia though, and a yearning for a time which was better, and simpler, and when the frocks were fabulous. I wonder how many of us see ourself as Anna though, if that nostalgic dream came true. Then again, the servants always seem to be hanging out in the kitchen or heading off to fun fairs, so maybe a servant’s life was not that bad after all.