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The 99%: "But look how far we’ve come!" Downton Abbey and Historical Representations of Social Class

the giant old fancy house from Downton Abbey with the entire cast, about 20 white people in various stages of fancy dress, standing in frontThere's much to love about Masterpiece Theatre's Downton Abbey, which premiered Series 2 for American audiences last night on PBS. The drama, the costumes, the wry British humor, the sibling rivalries, the romances that seemed doomed from the start: if you can watch this show without getting pulled back into Edwardian England, you're stronger than I am.

The story revolves around the wealth Crawley family, which includes the Earl of Grantham, and his mother, wife, and three daughters, as well as the servants that work at their home, Downton Abbey.  The first series took place between the sinking of the Titanic and England's entrance into World War I; last night's episode picked up two years later.  Like its apparent inspiration Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired in the 1970s, the show has much to offer for a class analysis: the contrast between the lives of the Crawley family and the lives of the servants is profound, to be sure. But there is also a nuance to the show that is missing in other television representations of class.  The characters' moral compasses aren't guided exclusively by their wealth—there are heroes and villains living in both the servants' quarters and the opulent rooms of Downton Abbey.  The stories from both upstairs and downstairs are equally compelling.  Just as we want Mary, the Earl's eldest daughter, to find love, we also want it for Anna, the head housemaid.  When the servants sacrifice their own hopes and dreams to benefit the Crawleys (such as when the housekeeper passes an opportunity at love because she doesn't want to leave Downton, or when the valet is blackmailed into leaving to protect the family's honor), these losses are seen as tragic, rather than the matter of course.  And when one housemaid teaches herself to type and searches for a job as a secretary, her success is celebrated; when her replacement also dreams of life beyond servitude, the lady's maid who picks on her for aspirations is the villain.

Yet, what Downton Abbey also offers for the modern viewer is the idea that, today, class differences have been overcome.  The stark separation between the lives of the family and the staff illustrate a segregation that is no longer overt in today's society.  Few people have lives in literal servitude, and even fewer have actual servants.  We like to believe that now, a hundred years later, class is really something entirely different, something blurrier, more transmutable, and more easily overcome.

Last July, Fox News jumped on the idea that "poor people are not what they used to be," citing a study showing that most poor people have amenities like refrigerators and microwaves, and a good number have cell phones, coffee makers, and cable television. Jon Stewart appropriately skewered them for this simultaneously dismissive and demonizing idea that, because people living in poverty might have some very basic appliances in their homes, we needn't concern ourselves with their plight any longer.

There's still the sense, in some places, that poverty should look like the children of Dickensian London: waifs asking for a bit more unpalatable food; seriously ill children who joyfully wish merry Christmases once their fathers are giving a living wage. But, actually, 14.5 percent of American households deal with food insecurity, including 16.2 million children.  And 10.4 percent of children have no health insurance—a total of 8 million uninsured young people.  We've come pretty far, but we really aren't there yet.

On last night's Downton Abbey, when the Irish socialist revolutionary chauffer, Tom, confesses his love to the Earl's youngest daughter and nurse-in-training, Lady Sybil, he prophetically tells her that after the war, nothing will return to as it was.  And he's right.  World War I marked a change in the way of life for the British aristocracy, a change that would be cemented half a generation later by the return to war.  The wars seemed to remind people that they were more similar than different.  Yet, there's a reason that this fascination with class continues, and there's a reason that Downton Abbey is popular now, at this historical moment.  We know that the lives of the characters will be turned upside down, that the class divisions that separate them will slowly become less important.  And I think that we want to believe that for ourselves, today.

Previously: Class Warfare and the Privileged Politics of Mitt Romney, Money Can't Buy You Love (and it Might Get in the Way)

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9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Class Portrayal in "DOWNTON ABBEY"

"The characters’ moral compasses aren’t guided exclusively by their wealth—there are heroes and villains living in both the servants’ quarters and the opulent rooms of Downton Abbey."

That's not quite true. Most of the villains in "DOWNTON ABBEY" are either working class or members of the noveau riche, like Mary Crawley's suitor, Sir Richard Carlise. Julian Fellowes is only capable of portraying the aristocratic Crawleys with any semblance of real moral ambuguity.

Lady Edith is enough of a

Lady Edith is enough of a villain for the entire family. Her jealously drove her to unveiling Lady Mary's indescrepancy with Mister Pamuk. She betrayed her only family's name when, on the other side, Bates sacrificed a chance at a beautiful life with Anna for the family he works for. There is a mutual respect between the classes, a need for each which most understand.

Edith Is No Villain

Lady Edith Crawley was no villain. She was an insecure woman who was more or less dismissed by her family - especially her parents, who seemed determined to ignore her. At least Edith's decision to reveal Mary's secret about Parmuk was established and not treated as an act of one-note villainy. Can you say the same about Thomas, O'Brien and Sir Richard Carlise? I can't. And Mary responded to Edith's act by taking an equally low road, when she spitefully broke up the former's relationship with Sir Anthony. All Mary did was prove she was as much a "villain" as Edith.

Aristocratic Responsibility

One thing I've been struck by as I watched the show is the sense of responsibility the aristocracy generally feels toward the lower classes. I've only seen the first few episodes so far (catching up on this one on Netflix at the moment), but there are numerous times in which the responsibility to the lower classes has come up, including Lord Crawley's retention of Bates and Carson and Crawley's instructions to Matthew regarding the way Matthew dismisses the aid of his valet, when Crawley points out that they have something of a responsibility to the aid lower classes by employing them.

Yes, it's paternalistic. And yes, there are situations in which the opposite is also true (the farmer with dropsy who the Dowager is willing to let die is certainly deplorable, to say the least). However, this overall concept of responsibility to the "lower classes" is completely missing from American culture, where it seems the only thought of the wealthy is how they can exploit more money from those beneath them.

I'm certainly not arguing that we return to this extremely rigid class structure (what we have is bad enough), but it seems to me that the concept from the wealthy end of society that they have a responsibility to the people that hold them up is almost entirely gone, evidenced nicely by partisan whining about health care and Social Security in the United States. If there are going to be classes, it would be nice if the wealthy would at least step up to the plate and accept the responsibilities of their wealth rather than sitting on their piles of money like impudent assholes.

Anybody else feel like borrowing my soap box? I think I'm done with it for the time being.

The Wealthy and the Working Class

["However, this overall concept of responsibility to the "lower classes" is completely missing from American culture, where it seems the only thought of the wealthy is how they can exploit more money from those beneath them."]

Oh please! Give me a break! I can't believe you are buying this noblesse oblige crap that is in "DOWNTON ABBEY". The British aristocracy - at least those with money - are no better or worse than the aristocrats of the U.S. and the self-made rich around the world. If you want a more honest look at the aristocracy, watch "GOSFORD PARK". It's written by the same author . . . when he was less reactionary.

Downton Abbey Fan in Chicago

I really enjoy "Downton Abbey" for its historical details and drama. My favorite character is the youngest daughter Sibyl, who risks a riot to go to a suffragette rally, helps her housemaid friend apply for a secretarial job and wants to become a nurse. As the second season opens with World War I, I'm both scared to see the casualties and excited to see how the culture will change and provide more opportunities for women and the lower classes.

I think about how lucky I am to live in a time and place when I can vote in every election and apply for any type of job. I do take it for granted that Americans have social mobility, although I know that class divisions still exist and see them daily in Chicago. A person born in a dangerous neighborhood with bad schools who can never afford health care is at a major disadvantage. I worry about living-wage factory jobs disappearing and that the cost of a college education will keep graduates in debt for most of their lives.

Among people I know who have been laid off, some have had high-profile jobs: doctor, computer programmer, architect and others had lower-paying white collar sales, retail and office work. All income levels have been affected by the recession and need to work together to create living wage jobs here and insure that mortgage and bank fraud like this never happen again, that those who have used investments to rob others are punished.

I totally reject the stereotype of recipients of any type of government aid (unemployment, food stamps, temporary aid to needy families) as lazy because many people I know have now had to get this assistance for the first time in their lives. Today I read that 40% of non-student American adults age 18-39 live with their parents, which really surprised me. *From a poll for the National Endowment for Financial Education conducted by Harris Interactive

I think I gravitate toward history because it shows people surviving difficult times. It makes me feel like my generation is not alone, not the first people who have faced a war and economic chaos and tried to help one another with protest, volunteer work and reform.

Downton Abbey

You might also be interested to know that the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, has regularly run a series called Downturn Abbey since the UK election in 2010. That the popularity of Downton Abbey happens to coincide with a government dominated by old Etonians and millionnaires whilst the country is up shit creek financially has not been lost on people.

Nice one, Cazz...I've been

Nice one, Cazz...I've been reading the Eye for the past 27 years, and they've got it by the tail - taking the mick out of the populist black-tops in the UK (Daily Mail/Daily Express) who are almost falling in love with the Americans who are purring over it. See 'Upstairs Downstairs' is mentioned - 1971-75; the Tories breaking up, with Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher snarling at each other whilst out of power and Labour - once they returned to power equally being booted by the unions. The only people who smiled where - as you type were the old school Etonian/Oxbridge lot.

it's not historical

Hello, I'm from Europe, from a kingdom, and here in europe it's not only historical, it's still like that. We have a kingdom and the people pay for the royal family's expensese, weddings etc, and they have staff etc that work for them, and everything is inherited.
I guess the "royals" in the US are the celebrities, ut here in Europe it's pretty much still like in Downton Abbey. (Although the rich are better at keeping it secret!)