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A Man Could Stand Up: On Downton Abbey’s Second Season

When I first wrote about Downton Abbey, a little over a year ago, I assumed that most readers didn’t know or care about Lady Mary, Cousin Matthew, and the Dead Turk, saintly Anna, evil Thomas, and the zingers of the Dowager Countess (“Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class.”) This season, however, it seems as though all of America has been lulled into Sunday night behind a gently swaying labrador’s butt and an urgently plinking piano. There are recaps and reviews of every episode of the show on the websites of Time, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, and Vanity Fair. Any article written now will be be a drop in the ocean of DA criticism and creativity, which includes Tumblr mashups of the show’s stills with quotes from (take your pick) Beyoncé lyrics, Arrested Development or the blog ‘Texts from Last Night.’ The Dallas-based artist Chad Thomas created brilliant cartoon Valentine’s Day cards based on the show, and was commissioned by Vanity Fair to follow up with a full set of trading cards. Not to be outdone, New York magazine’s Vulture blog offered up Kyle Hilton’s downloadable paper dolls as visual representations of all the show’s in-jokes, from Lady Sybil’s nascent feminism, the evil schemes of Thomas and O’Brien, and Matthew and Mary’s torturous love affair. The decomposing Turk is a favorite cartoon motif, proving that the character’s in flagrante expiration early in Season One was a risk that paid off both comically and dramatically (the gradual revelation of Lady Mary’s secret is one of season two’s better-handled plotlines.)

Amid all the affectionate laughter there are of course more doom-laden commentaries, looming like Mr. Bates’s murder trial over the servants’ Christmas ball. Simon Schama at the Daily Beast starts bold, linking Downton fandom to the Tea Party’s nostalgia for a fantasy world of tricorn hats and freedom from ‘Monster Government,’ and ends bolder, damning the show’s appeal as ‘cultural necrophilia’ and excoriating the ‘unassuageable American craving for the British country house.’ But in attacking Americans for falling in love with the gussied-up corpse that Julian Fellowes is pimping, Schama reveals the equally unassuageable British craving for Americans (or “the Republic” as he puts it) to crash in among the tea service and laugh us out of our snobbish absurdities. He misses the point, however, that the limitations of this mutual fantasy, and its blunt economic core (dollars for dowagers) are part of the show’s basic premise: the House of Grantham is quite openly propped up by American money. Admittedly Elizabeth McGovern’s Cora was underserved by the plotlines of season two, but the promise of Shirley MacLaine playing her mother next season promises to put a spark in the transatlantic tensions.

James Fenton in the New York Review of Books also focuses on the country-house setting of Downton Abbey, in an article mustered under the tired, drooping banner of ‘jumping the shark’ (the phrase’s Wikipedia entry is employed as epigraph, which fairly begs to be read with Maggie Smith’s sneer.) Fenton does point out its exceptional Englishness: the estates nestled in Welsh valleys and Scottish hills aren’t freighted with literary and nationalist significance, nor are the villas of Italy or the châteaux of France. The closest analogue he suggests is the Russian dacha of Chekhov, laced with ennui and doomed to obsolescence. Fenton thus displays a Lord Grantham-like ignorance of Ireland, the other place in Europe where the ‘big house’ was a major literary site and, in Downton Abbey’s era, the target of revolutionary violence (275 such estates were burned out or blown up between 1920 and 1923.) The show’s clumsy handling of still-uncomfortable Anglo-Irish history is most obvious in the story of Tom Branson, the Earl’s Irish chauffeur, whose legitimate and personal anti-English grievance is subsumed in his class-boundary-defying romance with Lady Sybil. A plotline that suggests he’s prepared to poison a visiting general at dinner is resolved when the weapon is revealed to be nothing but a pot of stinking black slop—no harm, just foul. Yet the servants’ jumpy fears and willingness to leap to a murderous conclusion suggest subtly that Ireland could still erupt as an immediate danger.

In addition to ignoring the political strain to the country-house story and focusing on its comic incarnations, such as the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P.G. Wodehouse, ‘whose spirit haunts the corridors of Downton,’ Fenton also overlooks the fact that Downton Abbey belongs to a widespread recent resurgence of country-house novels in British fiction. In an article for The Guardian in June 2011, Blake Morrison offers a taxonomy of the genre stretching backwards from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, through Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Wodehouse, back to the Brontës, Fielding and Austen. These novels can be counted on, in their different ways, to explore questions of English identity, ownership and inheritance, and the upstairs/downstairs divide. They are also likely to feature illicit sex in one of the innumerable bedrooms, and to be haunted by ghosts, murderers, or wealthy Americans who threaten to buy into and disrupt the feudal fantasy.

These stories are not necessarily silly in themselves—it is possible to make most stories sound silly by stripping them back to their naked plots—but they become silly if they are no longer treated as serious. It is a problem of execution that makes a character’s death from Spanish flu feel less important than a power struggle over prize-winning roses. Mr. Bates may or may not be a murderer, and it might be his demonic late wife or Matthew’s saintly late fiancée Lavinia communicating with the servants by Ouija board. While there are no sexual transgressions to rival “poor Mr. Pamuk”, there’s the undoing of flighty new maid Ethel at the hands of a caddish officer recuperating in the house (the moustache should have warned her), and there’s the slightly uncomfortable consummation of Bates’ and Anna’s long-delayed marriage, as arranged by Lady Mary. There is also, finally, in the season finale, the resolution of the Matthew-Mary dance, by which union (if it actually works out) the survival of the estate within the family is assured, and Fellowes can maybe throw poor Edith a narrative bone.

The critical slur most often cast at Downton Abbey in Season Two is that it is ‘soapy,’ or, in Fenton’s words, the ‘lowest of the low soap operas.’ This is quite a different claim in Britain and the US. While on both sides of the Atlantic the implication is that stories are sensationalist, shallow, and too easily resolved, British soap operas are deeply unglamorous affairs, and they lack the supernatural campiness that defines the vanishing American daytime drama. There are no beaches, bikinis, or evil twins on Coronation Street, or Emmerdale (the rurally-set show from whose vales several of the ‘downstairs’ cast of Downton Abbey were plucked—most prominently Ethel, the flame-haired maid-turned-unwed mother.) On the strength of its beautiful lighting alone, Downton Abbey offers a far richer aesthetic pleasure than the fluorescent-lit pubs and cafes of British soapland (or the garish tans and highlights of its American counterpart). The appeal of soap, however, is that nothing ever changes: characters grow up, marry, divorce, die (or do they?!) and no fundamental social evolution takes place. What defines the modern historical drama is not stasis but change, and what makes it addictive, whether it’s Downton Abbey or Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, is spotting those tiny but rippling changes that are going to get us from there to here.

Simon Schama complains, rather unfairly, that Downton Abbey does a disservice to the history of World War One by not killing Matthew, dispossessing Lord Grantham, and scattering the servants to factories. (It is tempting to point out to Professor Schama—paraphrasing Elizabeth Bennet’s response when her sister Mary complains that balls would be much more sensible affairs if reading, not dancing, were the order of the evening—that this would not be nearly so much like a Sunday-evening television show.) Yet he is right that the risk posed by the show’s wish-fulfilling plots is that they neutralize the lesson that they set out to teach about the profound cultural change of the First World War: the ‘bruise’ that D. H. Lawrence described as festering under the surface of the postwar years. To avoid trapping Matthew and Mary in the soapy plot of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Matthew’s lower-body paralysis is cured by a little time and hope, and Mary is not left with the gamekeeper. Complex central characters—Cora, Matthew—are threatened with death, and more simply drawn minor characters—William, Lavinia—are killed: this is how drama lets us look at loss without having to feel it.

The portrayal of the First World War throughout Season Two teeters between history and histrionics. The show is always better in the quiet moments between Major Events, when the actors are given some breathing room between gasping and rushing from the room, and when the day-to-day tension of life in wartime is allowed to seep through. When the war bangs and crashes in, it feels about as subtle as the peerless 1989 British comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, which gleefully seized on all the clichés of First World War literature and movies and apparently dumped them out for good. Yet Downton Abbey revives those washed-out colors and diorama landscape in its trench scenes (the war didn’t actually turn people sepia-colored), and the show doesn’t have the budget to overwhelm the pastiche with a stab at epic scale.

If only the show had kept the focus entirely on the home front. Far more is revealed about the war in Sybil’s single line, sharp and wistful at once, that ‘sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.’ It is a line directed at her mother and grandmother as members of a generation that can’t feel what she feels, because her loss is not personal but makes a mockery of everything she’s been raised and trained for, and everything for which the grand house was built. It’s one of those quiet moments when the future of that house and thousands like it becomes inevitable: its candles will go out, its survivors disperse, and its hallways fall silent, to survive only as a film set or a public monument, open in the afternoons for tours and teas.

It is easy to laugh at nostalgia, and to decry the fantasies that television spins about how history happens. But the show is also very good—sometimes even in spite of itself—at showing up the fantasies upon which a wildly unjust class system relies, and why change is so haltingly hard. When even Matthew’s earnest do-gooder mother commiserates with Cora and the Dowager Countess that “servants are always more conservative than their masters,” the moment offers a glimpse of how complacent the rich have become, confident that the lower classes are complicit in their own oppression. In a moment of economic inequality unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1920s, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that even freedom-loving Americans have embraced a show in which the purely arbitrary distribution of power and privilege is flaunted in lavish style. It might prompt us to think more critically about whether it’s really the servants who are to blame.

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Joanna Scutts teaches literature – from the Greeks to Virginia Woolf – to unsuspecting freshmen at Columbia University. Originally a Londoner, she now lives in Astoria, New York, and is working on a book about modernism and memorialization after the First World War.

2 Comments »

  • S.T.Vitas PhD says:

    Is it not merely possible that we are endlessly hypnotised by the finest acting from the most refined actors declaiming the sumptuous dialogue

    Is it not merely possible that we are hypnotised by the finest acting from the most refined actors declaiming the most ambrosial dialogue which that sceptered isle never ceases to contribute to our mundane existence?

  • Tamaz says:

    Good balanced essay, an excellent piece of work.

    One day somebody will deep-dive into an exploration of what it is about this type of programme which was so ‘right’ for a Western society late-capitalist(?) audience on a Sunday night. Ms Scutts may be very well qualified for the task.

    Nobody can deny that Mr Fellowes and his producers have a profound understanding of that audience; of its needs, dreams, wants and half-asked questions, all of us eeking out a few more moments suspended in this luscious production, on the cusp of the working week, just before we all plunge back into the often dizzy frenzy of daily life in our strange modern world.

    Needless to say, I’m hooked on Downton Abbey!

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