When American Anglophiles need a fix our drug of choice is Masterpiece Theatre, but the days of savoring Edwardian class hierarchies may be over. Our all-time favorite, Upstairs, Downstairs, needed Alistair Cooke to explain such delphic mysteries as titles of nobility and servants’ liveries, but the latest export gets right down to the staples of sex, greed, and murder in what the U.K.’s Telegraph called “a soap opera in starched collars.”
Welcome to Downton Abbey, which opens with the sinking of the Titanic. The cousin and heir of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is drowned along with the heir’s son, thus threatening the earldom with extinction. Robert has three daughters but they cannot inherit the title, nor the vast wealth that goes with it, because the property is “entailed,” i.e., it must pass in its entirety to the closest male relative. The plan had been for Robert’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary, to marry the heir’s son, become the next countess, and keep the title in the family, but now they need another bachelor Crawley.
Enter a distant cousin, a young and idealistic Manchester lawyer named Matthew Crawley. The good news is that he is not married. The bad news is that it is the end of the world as the aristocratic Crawleys know it, for Matthew is middle-class. Lady Mary is urged to charm him but they clash, and Mary rubs it in by flirting with a houseguest, a dashing young Turkish diplomat, Pamuk.
Mind you, there have been only four episodes, but here is just some of what happens next:
Thomas, a gay footman, makes a pass at Pamuk, who threatens to report him unless he takes the Turk to Lady Mary’s bedroom late that night. (Downton Abbey is much too big for him to find it by himself.) Pamuk makes love to Lady Mary and then inconsiderately dies in her bed. She, her lady’s maid, and her mother, Countess Cora, carry him back to his own room, but they are seen by a scullery maid who subsequently plunges into depression. Meanwhile, the butler is being blackmailed over his past as a music-hall performer; the cook is going blind; the chauffeur is a Socialist who secretly escorts the liberal Lady Sybil to suffragette meetings; Lady Sybil turns up at dinner corsetless and wearing bloomers; Lady Edith, who hates Lady Mary, pries the story of the corpse-moving out of the haunted scullery maid and writes an anonymous letter to the Turkish ambassador exposing her sister. Advised to marry soon to quash gossip, Lady Mary tries to make up with Matthew but just as he seems to come around, her mother, the 40ish Countess Cora, finds that she is pregnant. If it’s a boy, they won’t need middle-class Matthew anymore, so Lady Mary drops him.
But wait . . . Countess Cora’s lady’s maid, normally an expert eavesdropper, for once gets a story wrong and thinks that Countess Cora intends to discharge her. To get even, she places a bar of soap — soap! — on the wet bathroom floor so the Countess will slip on it and have a miscarriage. Which is exactly what happens. And of course the fetus was male.
That long arm of coincidence and the parodic inclusion of soap in a soap opera are surprising coming from screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park, but more disappointing are the casual borrowings. The Titanic, though central to Upstairs, Downstairs, at least is an actual historical event, but the same cannot be said for the rose contest in Mrs. Miniver. There the ranking chatelaine of the village wins the prize every year simply because she’s the ranking chatelaine, while the humble grower with a better rose obsequiously congratulates her. Fellowes uses the identical scene to illustrate aristocratic privilege and, when democratic objections finally triumph, the inevitability of change. To Fellowes’s credit, his ranking chatelaine is also his ranking scene-stealer: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, whose opinions and standards make Stonehenge seem fragile. (“An Englishman would never die in someone else’s house, especially someone he didn’t know.”)
Viewers who love to hate the English class system will learn something about our own. My favorite scene is the psychodrama between middle-class Matthew and the valet assigned to him. Used to dressing himself, he tells the earl, “I feel like a doll!” while the valet comes close to tears as he tells the butler, “I just stand there watching a man get dressed!” Matthew must be the one to yield and he does, first with cufflinks, then with coats, and finally with a compliment for the expert removal of a stain that leaves the valet suffused with pride. Matthew learns that to make fun of a person’s work is to make fun of the person, but ostensibly liberal Americans still chortle about “flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.”
Period miniseries like this one also hold out another lesson: A ruling class lifts all boats. When the Downton cook finally admits that she is almost blind, the earl calls her into the library. She thinks he’s going to give her her notice but instead he tells her that he is sending her to London for a cataract operation which he will pay for, and that she will recuperate in his townhouse and be looked after there by her best friend among the maids, whom he is sending with her.
The cook staggers back, steadies herself on a table, and gasps, “I’m afraid I have to sit down in your Lordship’s presence.”
He motions her to a chair. His words bespoke noblesse oblige, but hers had a gracefulness, an elegance even, that seemed to belie her station but actually sprang from it. She learned to talk that way by working all her life for the ruling class. For some two centuries domestic service was about the only job for ordinary people other than farm or factory work, and millions entered it. They saw and heard aristocrats up close and copied them, passing on what they learned until the whole world came to associate “good manners” with the English.
Equality has given us English soccer fans.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.