Us and Them: Class in Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey comes to American shores roughly four months or so after it is first telecast in Britain. For many of us used to the immediate gratification of messaging, texting, e-mails and other instants, this is a very long and very taxing wait. I am a period piece junkie and Downton is a favorite and the six day wait for one paltry hour of gratification is not fun. I’m not the only one who feels this way. The most common refrain I hear is ‘I can’t wait for next week’s episode– I’m going to die’.

The way time passes in Downtown might have been my death had I lived back then. On screen things move at a crazy pace (in fact one of Downton’s reasons for success is its fast pace– the camera lingers on bells and whistles but never for too long and seldom just for the sake of it)– visitors come and go, upstairs reverts to downstairs and downstairs goes upstairs in a blink of an eye, Matthew Crawley goes from the war front to dinner parties and back again at a dizzying rate (dizzying enough for even him to point how surreal this is war/party lifestyle is), Lady Mary is to travel to London and before we know it there she is, a phone is expected and in the next scene there it is. And so no excruciating journeys for us as we wait to arrive at our destinations, or waiting endlessly by the telephone waiting for it to ring, or waiting for a letter we’ve written to arrive or waiting for a letter in return; in the realm of Downton patience is a virtue: patience is the very essence of a life where waiting, waiting, and more waiting is the reality of every day. Even worse waiting without TV or cable or DVD; books sure, but not the cornucopia we are able to feast our eyes on today.

I love Downton Abbey; thank the Gods and Goddesses that I live in today.

I come from a country where reality looks a lot like Downton– there is a downstairs and there is an upstairs– for upstairs life is good, for downstairs not so good. As for the Lady and the Chauffeur, this might be the title of a novel the Lady might read, but it’s not going to happen, Never Ever. Even though traditionally it is easier for women to marry up, would a Grantham ever marry a housemaid, the cook, or the kitchen maid? And if such an event were to occur, it would take many generations for the awkwardness to be ‘forgotten’.  Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham exemplifies this in her remarks on ‘little people’ and ‘chimney sweeps’. Sure, she’s grown fond of Matthew, but she has not forgotten that he is not really ‘one of us’.

I suppose for our societies-in-social-flux one of the charms, if you will, of Downton is to watch a bunch of people who ‘know their place and, moreover, accept it’, but then, to excite our modern sensibilities, rebel against it too. Will they succeed in their aspirations, and if so, how well. Equally exciting is watching the Upstairs having to come to terms with the likes of Matthew’s Mum, Isobel Crawley. Isobel is a world which sees itself on equal terms and not lesser (of course Isobel and Matthew are ‘middle class’ and not really servants).

Britain is still class ridden (and classes exists in the U.S. as much as everyone would like to think that we’re all the same here. Yes, there is opportunity everywhere to make your money but the class your born into ‘helps’ here too. Being born to a doctor versus a house cleaner can make a world of difference even today.

This class consciousness is visible in British kid’s programs too. Watch any episode of Thomas the Tank  Engine and there will be mention of trains growing too big for their buffers, and trains have to be learn their proper place, and trains have to be kept in place for everything to work smoothly. Forgive my analogy but Downton is easily just another train station where the Steamies and the Diesels are beginning to butt buffers.

Judith Newman reviews three books for the New York Times about the ‘real’ Downton Abbey. one about all the (TV) people who lived there

 one about those in service,

one about those who required service

“We always called them ‘Them,’ ” Powell writes. “ ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them,’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil.”

From Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs

This quote reminds me of Pakistan. Although Powell says this about Upstairs, in Pakistan the gentle folk Upstairs also call Powell and her ilk ‘Them’. In Pakistan the gentle folk upstairs complain about how irritating Them are and how keeping Them on track is a full time job in itself. In Pakistan today, the two ‘Thems’ bristle at each other  across a great divide, and I’m sure this would have been the case at many a Downton Abbey were it not for the fact that in Downton’s time staying in one’s place was a matter of honor and not merely economics.

A society where the Upstairs bathrooms are bigger and better than the double/triple occupancy bedrooms of Downstairs is a society doomed; a completely equal society is a dreamer’s Utopia but societies with such glaring differences are an all too real Dystopia.
I suppose it is a paradox that a Downton Abbey set in today’s world would be unbearable to watch while a  Downton Abbey of yesteryear can’t be telecast soon enough.

The three books reviewed by Judith Newman are

Below the Stairs by Margaret Powell.   

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (Jessica Fellowes is the niece of Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. For an outstanding treat watch Gosford Park and then re-watch with Julian Fellowes’ commentary)  

(Published February 2012)