In case you were confused as to the interests and attitudes of the early 20th century British landed gentry, they were a benevolent feudal hangover, protecting those under their power with grace and empathy, and, in general, stiff-upper-lipping themselves into modernity. Noblesse oblige, whereby the rich and powerful assist the poor and marginalised to be content in their inequality, was practised by those ‘upstairs’ and uncritically accepted by those ‘downstairs’. Such are the historical pretensions (or rather, Tory wet dreams) maintained in Downton Abbey, a drama series regarding the inhabitants of the Abbey.
Although Downton is free of class conflict, it still touches upon the Big Issues of the time. Irish Revolutions, Spanish flus, Cockney union-thuggery, women’s rights and war all disturb the central characters’ tranquility. However, instead of meaningfully engaging with these social upheavals, Downton presents the artistic equivalent of public relations endorsed sound bites: the Spanish Flu comes and goes in a single episode, and the brief portrayal of the union movement depicts a truckload of drunk brawlers disrupting a local election. Downton rations these scenes amongst lingering shots of the estates immaculate lawns and the minutiae of interpersonal drama between characters. The resulting effect is to make suppliant some of the century’s most significant events before the twin altars of aesthetics and individualism.
Political discourse fares little better. The only Communist amongst the staff marries a daughter of the ruling Grantham family (the family’s outrage lasts, again, for a single episode), and fails to make any ideological impression on the rest of the staff. The arrival of a mischievous aunt brings a liberal reformist streak to the Abbey, but she is persistently marginalised by staff and family alike, and, at the conclusion of season two, is shuttled off to France by the relieved Grantham women, sick of her feminism and sense of civic duty. In conversation, whatever snippets of political commentary Downton’s denizens provide are invariably brief, and are bookended by a stern glare from the butler or the conservative witticisms of the Grantham matriarch. Cue the advertisement break, and the thought-crisis is averted. Phew.
More than any Big Issue, though, it is the scheming of two of the Abbey’s staff – Sarah and Thomas – that endangers the characters’ happy state of affairs. The shaky ethical ground of the Abbey aristocracy – which is quite content in the fact that its Lords and Ladies are thousands of times richer than their employees due only to the luck of being born into the right family – appears positively consecrated in light of Sarah and Thomas’ not-quite-irredeemable evil. That the only unlikeable characters are servants reinforces the series’ conservative slant, and directs the audience’s attention away from society’s structural ‘evils’ and prejudices, which arbitrarily allocates wealth, virtue and titles to the smallest minority of citizens. In Downton, the dastardly Sarah and Thomas are more of a threat than the Kaiser, the Communist, or the corpulence of their masters’ lifestyle.
It might be said that this criticism, in and of itself, carries with it only the weight of an
aesthetic preference: social realism above parlour romanticism. After all, it is no crime that Downton overplays its Austen and underplays its Dickens. Rather, the umbrage that I take with Downton is not so much that it fails to engage with the politics of the era, but that when it does offer commentary on these issue its ideological slant consistently endorses arch-conservativism or a tepid form of liberalism. I have little patience for a text that propagates these unappetising views.
The Grantham’s are portrayed as saintly for their occasional soup-kitchen volunteerism, whilst their endless cycle of spending on themselves is unaddressed. Their self-reflective moral capacity extends to critiquing how they behaved at dinner, not whether they should be having umpteen-course dinners whilst others starve. Downton never invites the audience to look upon this conservative state of affairs as noxious, and, by choosing not to do so, commends this situation to the audience as acceptable.
Where the aristocracy is cuffed for its conservatism – in its ideas about the role of women, and of marrying for money over love – the politics offered in opposition to the reactionary upper class mindset invariably disappoint. Despite being set it an age of radically progressive ethical systems – think of Catholic Action (a mix of Catholic and socialist activism), Communism, Anarchism, and the continuing impact of the last century’s republicanism and humanism – the progressive ‘voice’ is timid and short-sighted. The Grantham daughters’ feminism offers the pedestrian insight that rich women can and should do the hard labour – as farmhand or nurse – that poor women had been doing for millennia. A more mature feminist text would question why there is a division of family and labour responsibilities on gender lines at all. Similarly, the marriage of a Grantham daughter to her former chauffeur is a triumph of liberal Chivalric love over conservative financial prudence; but Downton fails to engage with the communalist ethos of the era’s progressive politics, which often criticised the institute of marriage as both an economic and social irrelevancy.
There is a contradiction then at the heart of Downton. It consciously eschews radical politics and presents itself as a depoliticised soap opera, however, it consistently endorses the beneficence of the upper class, and the merits of an unambitious, platitudinous liberalism. In doing so, Downton, ironically, is a political text. More embarrassingly though, it is a 21st century political text endorsing outmoded 19th century views. Were Downton’s narrative to be transplanted to modern Australia, it would be singing the virtues of John Howard and Clive Palmer, and ignoring the politics of the Occupy and Arab Spring movements.