April Fooligan: “What’s Left?” April 2013, MRR #359

I’m secretly a Downton Abbey fan.

I’m really hooked on this upstairs/downstairs period drama set at the beginning of the 20th century in a fictional Yorkshire manor house. The Lord and Lady Grantham, head of the Crawley clan, and their plethora of servants are engaged, by turns, in soap opera, melodrama, intrigue, conspiracy, and the occasional actual tragedy set amidst the backdrop of a continent plunged into one of the bloodiest, most brutal wars that leaves Europe politically enervated, economically in crisis, and socially demoralized.

The stunning loss of life as a consequence of the war, in particular that of able-bodied young males, was followed by a devastating influenza pandemic which killed something like 1 in 3 people worldwide. The loss of meaning, the feeling of absurdity, the growing defection to hedonism, even nihilism, increasingly characterized individual behavior and collective relationships. Needless to say, the social trauma was both deep and broad. The bipolar post-war economy that brought, first, incredible heights of wealth, prosperity and ostentatious spending, particularly for the rich, followed by a global depression of mass unemployment, misery, poverty and often starvation, gave credence to the notion that capitalism was on its last legs. Interminable class warfare versus virulent nationalism appeared to be the result of capitalism’s inevitable demise. And the political consequences were equally apparent, from the dissolution of longstanding entities such as the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires to the rise of international Communism through the Bolshevik revolution, not to mention the emergence of revolutionary fascism in Italy and Germany. Indeed, the profound radicalization of Left and Right during the interwar era belied the posture of standing pat defended by France and the United Kingdom, even as these great powers barely trod water.

Alas, the commie pinko conceit of the old “Lefty” Hooligan is passe.

The bucolic reverie invoked in Downton Abbey is downright soothing to this retired class warrior. Most comforting is the downplaying of class warfare by the series. England’s combative industrial, urban working class is nowhere to be found, and the estate’s tenant farmers and rural workers are not introduced until season three as the Crawley/Branson owners attempt to modernize the estate’s agricultural system to produce a profit. Tom Branson, the chauffeur who scandalously marries Lady Sybil Crawley, declares himself a socialist, but it is clear that he is a socialist entirely wedded to the cause of Irish nationalism, and little more. This provincialism leaves the laborers and servants of Downton an insular, hierarchical, thoroughly parochial lot of workers embroiled, indeed, completely self-involved in the petty plots, mean machinations, and cheap connivances of their station in life. Various amorous adventures swirl around the kitchen maid, and later assistant cook, Daisy Mason. John Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet, after a period of unjust imprisonment, must struggle to retain his position in the staff. And Thomas Barrow rises through the ranks, first as footman, then valet, and finally underbutler, all the while exhibiting a bit of black marketeering here and cowardice under fire there, as he battles issues with his own closeted homosexuality.

Yes, Downton’s tale of labor’s strivings and aristocratic manners resides within a world that is changing, but not too abruptly or too violently or too immoderately. Lady Edith Crawley’s decision to pursue a career in journalism as a newspaper columnist indicates how the role of women in society was modernizing, though gradually of course. Lady Sybil Branson’s tortured death after giving birth evinces the dangers that all women are confronted over child bearing. The havoc of war and influenza have hardly touched the estate. An ad hoc hospital is set up to care for wounded veterans on the grounds, but only one of the estate’s staff, a footman named Private William Mason, dies as a consequence of wounds from fighting, whereas heir apparent Captain Matthew Crawley is temporarily paralyzed, ultimately and fully to recover. Matthew’s middle-class fiancee, Lavinia Swire, succumbs to the influenza. Tragic, but hardly the mass stacking, burning and burial of corpses that was the pandemic’s historical reality.

The hectic toil of Downton Abbey maintained an archaic, antiquated, and certainly moribund British aristocracy that, nevertheless, demonstrated many virtues. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, unsuccessfully attempted to serve in the officer elite that nearly cost Matthew Crawley his legs, if not his life, and that did display a sense of discipline, courage and honor which insured that an officer’s average life expectancy was just six weeks. One in seven were killed in the first year, and one in five were wounded. Around 33,000 were left disabled at the war’s end. As a result of war, pestilence and economic turbulence, many of the British noble houses were driven to the wall, evidenced by the subplot for Downton’s fiscal viability. The efforts of Robert and Matthew Crawley, with the help of Tom Barrow, to take care of everybody on the estate, not just the house’s servants but the tenant farmers and rural workers and the various villagers as well, work toward the dual goals of social complementarity and economic self-sufficiency. Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mother, takes issue with the conservative mores of both the village and the estate in order to champion Ethel Parks, her errant maid, a “fallen woman” who has a child out of wedlock, becomes a prostitute, then gives her youngster up for adoption and becomes a proper maid once again. The most interesting character of the show, by far, is the septagenarian Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley. At times wise, funny, humane, snarky, intolerant, practical, judgmental, high handed, irascible, overwhelmed, the Countess epitomizes certain qualities of the British aristocracy, from a liberal paternalism that takes care of those less fortunate to an organicism which insists on a place for every individual and each individual in their place.

The sixth episode of the third season concludes with a good natured cricket match involving the Crawleys and their servants against the villagers. The complementarity, reciprocity and holism that is the essence of Downton Abbey can be expressed in the metaphor of cricket. Or, to quote CLR James: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

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