Denial of class in Downton Abbey’s dream world

Ah, Downton Abbey. Who wouldn’t want to live there? Crises arise, but they are almost always resolved with human kindness. It’s a comforting world; maybe that’s why, despite its blithe ignorance or studied denial of most facts about working-class life, I still watch it. We all need some wish fulfillment, and the wish fulfilled by Downton Abbey is the wish for class harmony.

It was my husband who pointed out that there are no crimes in the big rooms upstairs. All the bad behavior happens downstairs. True, characters of extreme virtue reside downstairs too, the stellar and seriously unlucky Anna and John, yet even they end up, for example, killing people (for good reason, of course, but still), while the upstairs folks do nothing worse than hide a naturally-dead body to cover up premarital sex, or make snobby remarks (the Duchess) which they later make up for in a variety of kindly ways.

The areas where Downton Abbey staggers the imagination all have to do with class interaction both what the show includes and what it excludes. First, it includes amazing class fluidity, not just in the society at large where in real life, clever and wealthy people might manage to “pass” among those gentry who didn’t know them, but in Downton Abbey-land, right at home in a village, yesterday’s chauffeur (and a socialist!) becomes today’s son-in-law. Really? I don’t think so. A marriage between such extremes was stunningly rare—many middle-and upper-class British opposed Edward VIII marrying Wallis Simpson even as late as 1936, and she was rich and a movie star, not a servant. The true comparison would be a slave marrying Scarlet O’Hara. In fact, slavery would be a closer analogy to the actual life of servants than what Downton Abbey shows us.

At Downton Abbey, hierarchy exists among the servants, but not the typical amount historians describe. The servants all sit at the same table and resemble a family. Even the scullery maid, lowest of all on the household totem pole, someone who literally slept in the ashes in many households and might not have shoes, interacts in quite a saucy way with the upper servants. Not likely.

In the biggest duck-and-cover of the series so far, a visiting manservant rapes a maid. Far, far more likely from that day to our own, was that a powerful man upstairs would do as he liked with the servant girls. True, he might be scolded and the family might have to pay off a maid, but marry one? Two words: Strom Thurmond.

History, bitter history, doesn’t pass in an instant. Though (mostly middle class) scholars question the extent of the droit du seigneur— the right of a nobleman to sleep with his peasant/servant girls on their wedding night!—in research on the Iranian revolution, I discovered Iranian scholars who said that right was still being claimed in remote parts of Iran as late as the last Shah’s reign.

For a bracing television contrast to Downton Abbey, take a look at the first episode of the 1970s series, Upstairs, Downstairs. There two female servants share a crappy bed in a chilly, ill-equipped garret, and wake at 5 after working until nearly midnight the night before. A new maid with an unusual French name, enters the drawing room to meet the lady of the house (which occasions plenty of curtseys and an insistence that the servant always reply “my lady” at the end of each sentence). Lady Bellamy promptly cancels the servant’s unusual name and gives her a servant name: Peggy or Kate, something easy for the lady to remember. And that’s that. Does anyone remember that slaves too always had to be called Jim or Joe or Tom? Where did the model for American slavery come from? It wasn’t a brand new invention.

Another worthwhile BBC production, Cranford, based on a book by Elizabeth Gaskell looks realistically at a little town some fifty or so years earlier, and finds a noblewoman fighting the railroad coming to town because it “encourages the lower orders to move about.” That same lady actively and successfully opposes any village school because the lower orders should not get above themselves. No matter how much potential they might have, they will be needed to shovel manure from her barns, and they don’t need an education for that.

It’s true that by the end of World War I, profound changes occurred in British society. One of the biggest was the departure of servants from manor houses to almost any other kind of work. We might ask why factory work and living in a tiny apartment or downright slum was so much more desired than the supposed prestige and togetherness of the manor house. Some of it was the pay—servants made shockingly low wages for extremely long hours and the pay was often in kind and not spendable, like uniforms and a place to sleep and food. The rest had to be freedom and dignity.

The fact is, even here in the U.S. in our own day and age, sociologists have found that people marry outside race lines more often than across class lines. And a 2005 New York Times article suggests that interclass marriages are declining. A 2012 Guardian article asserts that the trend of same-class marriage is deepening in the U.K.

It’s troubling that today television denies the pain and difficulty of socio-economic extremes. We don’t need to pretend everything is fine. We need to learn more about other classes and actively work for greater fairness which in the end would benefit all classes—all could live surrounded by people reaching their full potential. There are many benefits to cross-class alliances; one could argue they are as needed as interracial ones. And of those alliances, intimate relationships offer the best hope of reducing prejudice and enhancing empathy. Not only that, but the offspring of those relationships bear a much-needed double-vision, based on a deep look at two realities, and the potential to serve as a bridge between two very distant and very unequal worlds.


2 Responses

  1. Moon Smith

    Always good to be reminded of the constant glossing over of class inequities both past and present, that we take in daily from our culture.

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