I recently watched Winter’s Bone, a long and depressing movie about an Ozark family struggling through poverty, cold, and inbred mountain family jealousies. This was no Eugene O’Neill country – the brutal terrain of Mourning Becomes Electra where the Mannon family destroys itself in a melodramatic grand guignol and explores the dynamics of greed, jealousy, spite, and power – but a slog through the mud and cold. Each character was backward, ignorant, and dumb; and their attempt to find some kind of reconciliation and meaning was implausible and impossible.
I switched the channel and began to watch The Tudors, series about the life and times of Henry VIII. It had everything – opulence, elegance, manners, and majesty. It was engaging, sumptuous, and dramatic. Nothing could have been farther from the Ozark trailer trash of Winter’s Bone than the court of King Henry. The women were all beautiful, the men dashing and confident. Cardinal Wolsey, always concerned about pomp and appearance as well as power, dressed to the nines – crimson cape, gold chain, ceremonial cap, satin slippers. He rustled through the chambers of power. He had an air of sanctity and authority.
The young King, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was a handsome, young, alluring version of the original. All of the real Henry’s bombast and Falstaffian robust appetites were gone, and in their place was a feline grace and sexuality. Women glided in and out of court. Advisors whispered and plotted, rose to power, and went to the gallows, but they were all aristocrats – educated, well-schooled and well-heeled, and all compelling in their villainy. The court was rife with intrigue and ambition, but on the surface was all good manners and breeding. I watched the entire series.
Chrystia Freeland writing in the New York Times (1.30.14) about the popularity of Downton Abbey says that in addition to the costumes, the opulence, and the décor, Americans are drawn to the series for another, more important reason:
Another source of the show’s appeal is the profound similarity between the vast economic, social and political changes that drive the action in “Downton Abbey” and our own time.
Then, as now, new technologies were creating vast fortunes, but causing some, like Mrs. Patmore, the cook at Downton, to worry that their jobs will become redundant. Then, as now, income inequality was surging. Then, as now, these changes were shattering social restrictions and liberating individuals from the old constraints of gender, class and even sometimes race, but also made many feel insecure.
Another view through the lens of race, class, and gender. Another graduate course at Duke (Literary Praxis Beyond the Melodramas of Commitment: Edward Upward, Soviet Aesthetics, and Leftist Self-Fashioning). Another foray into academic history-babble. Nonsense. We tune in to Downton Abbey because we like to watch the super-rich, the English aristocracy, and lives of quiet elegance. In other words, all that we will never have.
Victorian England has always had a hold on America. Empire, Churchillian values, confidence, reverence for God, King, and Country, the discipline of Eton and Harrow that made leaders of men; and above all, pomp and ceremony.
In all PBS Edwardian soap operas, like Upstairs, Downstairs, we may have rooted for the scullery maid or the footman, enjoyed the camaraderie and earthy enjoyment of the staff, but we cared only for the toffs.
Victorian and Edwardian England seems remote, but the images of an even earlier England, that of the imperial King George who ruled us in the 1700s, are American emblems. Our Founding Fathers looked like Englishmen, dressed like them, behaved as aristocratically as their forefathers, built English-style homes as graceful and elegant as the country manors of England.
Montpelier, country estate of James Madison
Our Eastern city neighborhoods are English. Georgetown, Beacon Hill, and Rittenhouse Square are like South Kensington or Holland Park.
We Americans idolize our movie stars. Although their glitzy, glamorous lives are far beyond our reach, they are not that far. Thousands of women have looked in the mirror and seen a face as classically beautiful as Angelina Jolie or as pouting and sexy like Scarlett Johansson. With a little luck and a few connections, I might be in Hollywood too, they say.
Aristocratic England is all the more appealing because it is remote and impossibly unattainable. We would fumble and drop our forks at Downton Abbey or trip over the Persian carpet at Montpelier. English Lords and their estates, fox hunting, understatement, and chauffeurs are way beyond us. We can imagine having a beer with Matthew McConaughey, but not the Third Earl of Hereford.
There is much more to Downton Abbey, of course, than just displays of wealth and privilege. It is set in Edwardian England before World War I, a period of political and social change which would culminate in the War to End All Wars. The war did no such thing, but did change English and European society forever. The growing storm of war and its threat to the English aristocracy are perfect backdrops to the unfolding family drama.
There is a wonderful scene in the film Russian Ark in which Tsar Nicholas and his family sit down to an elegant meal as the Bolsheviks are rampaging only a few miles away. They have no clue about what horrors are coming.
The Crawley family of Downton Abbey do know what a world war will bring, but they can only hope that it doesn’t happen and are just as powerless as Nicholas to do anything about it.
The impending political and social chaos provides an added element to the family drama, and gives their plight a particular poignancy. Viewers are fearful for the fate of the Crawleys along with them and for the same reason. No one wants to see the old aristocratic order threatened. Although we may be democratic to the bone, we will always side with the aristocrats – at least on screen – shed a tear at their fall, but conclude they had it coming.
There has always been an expressed distrust if not hatred for the rich.in the American ‘progressive’ community The rich are monopolists, Wall Street manipulators, and venture capitalists who buy and sell people like slaves. Yet this antipathy is in the abstract – an intellectual conclusion based on a populist, socialist view of history. Equality is the goal, they say – not just raising the lot of the poor, but lowering the standards of the rich.
Northern intellectuals hate the South and would like to finish the job that Sherman started – burn all vestiges of plantation life. The very existence of manors and estates is anathema and a constant reminder of the evil history of the South.
Yet few of these Northerners can look at the architectural beauty, impeccably tasteful interiors, long, live oak-lined allées, formal gardens, and sweeping lawns without some envy. Image and romance trump political philosophy any day of the year.
The genius of Downton Abbey is that it allows good, democratic-minded Americans, salt-of-the-earth and intellectuals alike to enjoy themselves. They can admire, desire, and romanticize about the lives of the rich and famous, and revel in their fall.
Downton Abbey” is today’s “Gone With the Wind.” We enjoy the excesses it depicts partly because we know that the elite cavorting on our screens has had its real-life comeuppance.
Better still, when it comes to class, privilege and wealth, “Downton Abbey” lets us have our cake and eat it, too. The show gives us a voyeuristic peek at the pleasures of being an Edwardian aristocrat, but it also allows us to feel smarter and better than the blue bloods of that period. We delight in their fancy table settings — so much so that you can learn how to sew your own Downton-style table runner on the show’s Facebook page and question Lisa Heathcote, the show’s food stylist, on Twitter — but we know that their way of life is ending, and that that is pretty much a good thing.