The Duties of Downton Abbey

[Over at Blinded Trials, my co-blogger Rose wrote the following post about Downton Abbey, with further reflection on the duties of art.  Several commenters indicated it deserved a bit more attention, and would be a good addition to recent main-page conversations along similar lines.  As Rose does not yet enjoy front-page posting privileges, I am posting this on her behalf.]

by Rose Woodhouse

If you are currently a film studies scholar, writing a paper arguing for the artistic merits of a film is probably a non-starter. It is completely obvious (to most in the field) that aesthetic preferences are merely expressions of political power. So any kind of critique of a film is always ultimately a cultural critique. Films are discussed as cultural objects, not as aesthetic objects. A film’s value is discussed only in terms of whether it criticizes the dominant ideology (good!) or reinforces the dominant ideology (bad!).

Let’s set aside the question of whether aesthetic value only ever amounts to the preferences of those in charge. A topic for another post! The question I want to ask is this: are films and television only valuable insofar as they criticize culture?

This kind of view often trickles its way into the popular press. I just finished watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey and (full disclosure) I was quite fond of it. (Season 1 more than season 2, but still really good.) To some, however, the show is problematic. The aristocratic class is portrayed sympathetically. Many of the lower classes are depicted as being pretty much okay with their lot, and approving of the class structure. So it needs to be explained why a liberal could love it. Going one step further, Simon Schama considers the show “cultural necrophilia.” He relates his biases:

But this unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. They still knew how to put One in One’s Place. I’d barely crossed the threshold of one such establishment before its Carson had delicately knocked at the door of my room wondering when he could collect my trousers. He had not asked of course but assumed I’d want them Properly Pressed. I still remember the look on his face as he carried them off between thumb and forefinger as if removing a mysterious object in an advanced form of contaminated decay. Before “retiring,” I was asked by another servant whether I would prefer to be woken with tea or coffee. “Ah,” I said, “how nice. Tea if that’s all right.” “Milk or lemon?” he pressed on. “Oh, gosh, thanks, milk.” “The Jersey or the Guernsey herd, sir?”

I am indeed terribly sorry he had to go through that.

Then he goes on to argue the show is a disservice to the public.

In the current series, historical reality is supposed to bite at Downton in the form of the Great War. The abbey’s conversion into convalescent quarters did indeed happen in some of the statelies. But if Fellowes were really interested in the true drama attending the port and partridge classes—more accurately and brilliantly related in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Isabel Colegate’s wonderful The Shooting Party—the story on our TV would be quite different. Instead of being an occasional suffragette, Sibyl would have turned into a full-on militant, carving, while incarcerated in prison, a “V” for “votes” on her breast with a piece of broken glass. Lord Robert, whose income from land and rents would have collapsed with the long agricultural depression, would be unable to service his mortgage and, subject to the estate duties imposed to pay for old-age pensions, would have to sell the place to a wheat baron from Alberta. And Matthew would be one of the 750,000 dead.

Too much of a downer for Downton? Probably. Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance. But then that wouldn’t get the high ratings, would it?

This is the story of a specific family. Do you, or your family, exemplify your times in every way? Are you never an exception to your era, your class, your ethnic group? How dreary the fiction that always deals only with the generals, and not the particulars – always only with broad social movements, and never with the microsocial happenings in workplaces and families.

If you reject a film or show because it does not adequately critique its culture, you are basically saying that art should reflect your own social views. But why? You already have those views. You don’t need to be convinced. So art is…not for you? Really?

Art is then a lesson for those who don’t already agree with you. This strikes me as not only fundamentally condescending, but an proscribed understanding of art. Like so many wonders of life, like sex and love and marriage and children and friendship, it seems ridiculously limiting to claim that art serves only one function. And it seems especially to suck the joy out of art to insist it be only for educating others until they have as dark a view as can be mustered of rigid class structures and history.

I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with a system of landed gentry. Or that World War I was a walk in the park, or that women who wanted the vote did not go suffer to earn that right. I do question whether it is the sole job of every single work of fiction set in that time and place to educate people as to those facts. In addition to an education about broad social issues, art can also educate about interpersonal issues, about moral issues. And, dare I say it, some of the functions of art may not be educational at all.

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6 thoughts on “The Duties of Downton Abbey

  1. having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs

    This may be the key part of Schama’s article, it isn’t really about a TV show at all. It’s about a Jewish boy from the east end of London. who went to an independent school on a scholarship and felt like an outsider. Who knows what his time at Haberdashers’ was like but whatever he disliked it seems to have cast a long shadow.


    • It certainly looks that way.  But if I can come to Schama’s defense (by reading just a little between the lines), he seems to object that every aspect of those times is being sugarcoated as much as the market will bear.  I have no opinion on the matter, having seen season one — after which I had little desire to see season two.

      It might seem elitist to claim that Fellowes is no Tolstoy, so I’ll just say he’s no Charles Schultz.



  2. Though not everyone conforms to the stereotypes of his place and time within at least the first standard deviation, the bitter realities of the Great War stand in marked contrast to the Green and Pleasant Land wherein dwell these marvelous characters.

    Downton Abbey is a stagey paean to another Time Which Never Was.   Along with Schama, I’ve known toffs, both British and French and learned to hate them all. sauntering through life with the grotesqueries of the Entitled danging from their every appendage.

    Why do Americans just love this stuff?   I shall tell you plainly:   Americans really want a king.   They’ve always groveled before assorted nobility when it puts in an appearance on our shores.  They want nothing better than to obey.  It is the height of irony to see the descendants of the dispossessed, now kissing up to the descendants of those who ran off by their forebears in the Enclosures which created those lovely lawns.  Sheep were then more profitable than peasants and a nation of sheep we have become.


  3. “I do question whether it is the sole job of every single work of fiction set in that time and place to educate people as to those facts.”

    Probably depends on how well those facts are represented already in fiction. If every other show on TV represent the British aristocrats as nobler-than-thou like Lord Grantham, then yes, I think the representation in Downton Abbey would be very problematic, but I don’t really think that’s the case. To be honest, I only like it for the soap opera entertaiment value, it seems a bit churlish to look for greater truths from that kind of show.


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