Downton Abbey and the conservation of civilization

In a column published January 7, 2014, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times pours a cold glass of historical realism on ‘Downton Abbey’ fervor. Noting the disparity between the show’s portrayal of early nineteenth-century class interaction and reality, Dowd describes the show’s popularity as ‘a gushing embrace of class snobbery’, before ultimately endorsing her Times colleague Allesandra Stanley’s theory that the attraction (perhaps particularly for Americans) is the ‘subversive fantasy’ that, in truth, ‘The servants rule the masters.’ And there might be some truth in this: Downton’s world is one in which just desserts (with a few glaring, and, in general, externally mandated exceptions) are usually served. Carson the butler’s wisdom and kind heart almost always win out, while Barrow the underbutler’s intelligent but mean-spirited scheming is recognized for the talent behind it, and more often than not thwarted because of the use to which it’s put. Even the fundament on which the European aristocracy once rested — birth — is portrayed as surmountable, as the chauffeur, Tom Branson, woos Earl Grantham’s youngest daughter, carries her off to Ireland, returns after having married and impregnated her, and proceeds to win over the family until even the dowager countess thinks of him as one of their own. In all, Julian Fellowes makes sure his creation retains just enough noble condescension to remind the viewer that things weren’t completely saccharine.

And while the fantasy is certainly there, and supplies some of the best storylines for the series, I would contend that Downton’s appeal goes beyond class snobbery or its utopian retelling of the not-too-distant past. Rather, it seems to me that Downton’s greatest appeal is its unabashed trumpeting of the core values of civilization: honor, duty, hard work, and loyalty, to name a few. These are values indifferent to whether they are instantiated by upstairs or downstairs characters. And while the Downton writers consistently allude to a certain ‘keep-them-in-their-place’ ethos among the older generation (including older servants and townspeople), the class and career mobility that were beginning to be real possibilities in the era portrayed are shown, in those characters with a kind of pure ambition (i.e., that which doesn’t involve treading on the heads of their competition), to be compatible with virtue.

Downton strikes an at least nostalgic note among its well-educated viewers who can remember, or have been taught about, a time when things — anything, really — mattered. When there was a right way and and wrong way to go about any task, and all of life, and doing things the right way was worthwhile in itself, and not because of some advantage that could accrue to oneself. In short, Downton reminds us of a time when every person was part of something bigger, when all contributed value to a meaningful cosmos, albeit a hierarchical one. The best Downton characters stand guardian over that way of life and outlook. They say, as the guardians of civilization always do, there is something worthwhile here, and we will not let the twinned forces of egoism and nihilism encroach on that something.

So yes, Downton may not be historically accurate in every detail, but I think the history it does convey makes it worth watching, and makes it a perfect show for our cultural moment.

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