Writing in the Daily Beast early in 2012, British historian Simon Schama lamented that Americans were “gripped by the clammy delirium of nostalgia”: Not only were tea partiers yearning for a mythical past of laissez-faire capitalism, the public at large was cock-a-hoop over “a servile soap opera” that offered “a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.” How to explain the monster success in the United States of the British series Downton Abbey? Schama, who is best known for scripting and narrating the 15-part BBC documentary A History of Britain, pointed to our collective appetite for “cultural necrophilia,” which would naturally lead us to devour an Edwardian costume drama that is “fabulously frocked, and acted, and overacted, and hyper-overacted.”
An estimated 24 million viewers watched Season 3 of Downton on PBS, with 12.3 million tuning in for the February 17 finale. Michelle Obama is said to be a huge fan, and two of the show’s stars were invited to attend the March 2012 White House state dinner for British prime minister David Cameron. (Nor is the show’s appeal limited to the Anglosphere. It is enormously popular everywhere from Denmark and Sweden, to Israel and Russia, to Singapore and South Korea. According to the New York Times, the Downton actor who plays Mr. Carson, the loyal butler, was visiting ancient Hindu temples in rural Cambodia when he was “swarmed by a group of Asian tourists screaming, ‘Mr. Carson!’”)
Centered on the fictional Crawley family and their sprawling country estate, Downton Abbey, in Yorkshire, the show commences in April 1912, with Lord Grantham, the family patriarch, receiving news of the sinking of the Titanic. Among the deceased passengers is his presumed heir; since none of Grantham’s three daughters can legally inherit his title, he is forced to contact a distant male cousin. The cousin is a middle-class lawyer from Manchester, and his arrival at Downton Abbey catalyzes the main storyline of Season 1. Season 2 is dominated by the ghastly carnage of World War I, and it also covers the postwar influenza pandemic. Season 3 deals with the financial challenges that faced many British estates in the early 1920s. Throughout it all runs a steady stream of intrigue, romance, tragedy, and cocktails.
Like any good escapist drama, Downton offers a portrait of history that is somewhat sanitized. It provides a glimpse at all the pomp and splendor of the Edwardian age — the lavish dinners, the garden parties, the foxhunts, the shooting lunches — but very few of the warts. Thus, we see handsome servants wearing white tie, but we don’t see penniless children wearing rags and choking on hideous London smog. We see happy villagers attending carnivals and flower shows, but we don’t see them struggling to cope with rising prices, cramped living conditions, and inadequate nutrition. We get a clear sense that the Downton household staff are putting in very long hours for very modest wages, but we don’t get a clear sense of just how “nasty, brutish, and short” life could be for the British working classes.
It was inevitable that Downton would be compared to Upstairs, Downstairs, the legendary British costume drama that captivated Americans (and many others) during the early 1970s. It has also been likened to the movie version of Gone with the Wind, both because of the composition of the Crawley family (like the O’Haras, they have three daughters) and because of complaints that it serves up a sugarcoated picture of the past.
Downton does occasionally veer into fairy-tale land, and its mawkish moments are cringeworthy. Critics don’t have to search long to find unrealistic plot devices. Most servants in that era did not have fashion-model looks or perfect white teeth. In fact, the upper classes of Edwardian Britain were, on balance, taller and heavier than the lower classes. As historian Peter Clarke has written, the young men who attended elite secondary schools such as Eton and Harrow “were already as tall as nowadays by the end of the nineteenth century.” They were significantly bigger than, say, Lancashire cotton workers, whose growth “was stunted by a combination of child labor and a diet which later generations would regard as meager.”
So, no, life was not as comfortable for the working classes as it often seems on Downton, nor was the Edwardian age a “simple” time of peace and social stability. Its apparent harmony was disrupted by labor strife, the suffragette movement, and, above all, simmering unrest in British-ruled Ireland. Just weeks before World War I erupted, the Times of London said that Ireland had triggered “one of the great crises in the history of the British race.” In his fascinating 2012 book, The Lost History of 1914, Jack Beatty makes a persuasive argument that World War I “saved the United Kingdom from civil war.”
#page#But fairness requires us to point out that Downton does explore the themes of social inequality, women’s suffrage, and Ireland. The family chauffeur is a revolutionary Irish socialist who is constantly bemoaning the travails of his homeland. To the consternation of Lord Grantham, the chauffeur eventually marries his youngest daughter, who is eager to trade a life of leisure for a life of purpose. Meanwhile, one of the other Crawley daughters winds up landing a newspaper column after she pens a letter in support of the suffragettes.
Pace Simon Schama, Downton does not celebrate snobbery: What it does is demonstrate that the paternalism of the Edwardian aristocracy had a benevolent side. Lord Grantham subscribes to a concept of noblesse oblige that is utterly foreign to his accidental heir (the middle-class lawyer). For example, when the heir inquires about the possibility of firing his new valet — having deemed the valet’s services unnecessary — he earns himself a lecture on the responsibilities of privilege. “We all have different parts to play,” Lord Grantham explains. “And we must all be allowed to play them.”
One of the show’s overarching themes is that neither the “upstairs” crowd nor the “downstairs” crowd has a monopoly on wisdom and morality. Downton creator Julian Fellowes made this point in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. “All the characters are taken seriously,” he said. “I don’t think we patronize the servants, we don’t make them comedic. Nor do we automatically hate the family or regard them as selfish and mendacious and so on.” A lifelong Tory and member of the House of Lords, Fellowes believes that Downton functions as a rebuke to British class warfare. “We’ve had a century of being encouraged to dislike each other. And I suppose Downton is in a different position to that.”
Ultimately, the show’s chief appeal derives not from the political subtext but from deft storytelling, compelling characters, and superb acting from the likes of Dame Maggie Smith, whose portrayal of the snooty dowager countess (Lord Grantham’s mother) gives the series its biggest laugh lines. (Okay, the clothes don’t hurt either.) For Americans, Downton also confirms our selective Anglophilia. The Britain of our imagination is the Britain of royal weddings, afternoon tea, and Masterpiece Theater. We spend less time dwelling on the Britain of soccer hooliganism, binge drinking, and Trainspotting. We happily roused ourselves in the pre-dawn hours to watch the April 2011 nuptials of William and Kate. We were less inclined to follow coverage of the August 2011 London riots.
A melancholy aspect of Downton is that it illustrates why the Edwardian social order was unsustainable, both morally and practically: The ancien régime is shown to be incompatible with burgeoning demands for greater mobility and equality, and also with postwar economic realities. But the series also reminds us that, amid the rigid class system, the pervasive sexism, the staggering wealth disparities, and the desperate poverty, there were certain shared values that forged a common British identity. Over the past century, the blurring of class distinctions, the empowerment of women, the rise of the meritocracy, and the eradication of extreme indigence have all made the United Kingdom a better place. And yet, the erosion of those Edwardian values — and that common identity — has contributed to the fragmentation of British society and the loss of cultural cohesion.
It is easy to understand why Americans would relate to a show that (1) highlights shared values during an age of stark inequality and (2) depicts a once-mighty empire whose long-term decline has already begun (even if few people realize it at the time). The economic and social inequality of 2013 America is small beer when compared with the inequality of 1913 Britain. On the other hand, the divergence in basic cultural mores between the upper and lower classes — especially regarding marriage, divorce, and parenting — is far more pronounced in Obama-era America than it was in Downton-era Britain.
Indeed, the cultural inequality of modern America — the type of inequality documented by Charles Murray, Kay Hymowitz, Heather Mac Donald, and others — becomes more alarming by the day. Downton Abbey allows us to gawk at a world in which, as Theodore Dalrymple has observed, “butlers and footmen appear far better dressed than today’s billionaires.” No wonder so many Americans find it irresistible.
– Rachel DiCarlo Currie, a former speechwriter for the U.S. Senate leadership, is a writer in Washington, D.C.