IN A RECENT article titled, “Why I Feel Guilty Watching Downton Abbey,” James Martin, SJ finds three legitimate sources of guilt in watching the celebrated BBC Masterpiece Theater production, which has captured American fans who have watched it on PBS. The show—its Second Season Finale aired on Sunday night—follows the story of life in an old aristocratic house named Downton Abbey, in Yorkshire, England, during the period of time right before and after World War I, before and after major changes to the class system in Britain.
The show’s success is due to a the overall excellence of its ensemble cast—featuring characters from every social rank and political persuasion—along with a couple of melodramatic romances, and the rapid-fire, caustic wit of the Dowager Countess, the matriarch of the manor. Fr. Martin is a big fan of the show, but he admits that his conscience has troubled him for three main reasons:
The income inequality on display in the show (which we overlook because everything is so interesting and pretty).
Noblesse oblige: the fact that we often feel moved when a social superior condescends to help a poor person. We think, “How great that Lord Grantham would give Mr. Bates a second chance.” In fact, all men should give all men a second chance—that is the challenge of charity and mercy.
Snottiness. See: Dowager Countess. We think she’s funny only because we don’t have to deal with her in real life.
But there is one special reason why this show should induce guilt in American audiences, and which Fr. Martin has missed. Downton Abbey is un-American.
Period Pieces, Beautiful Dreams
It has become almost a cliché to observe that the public fascination with period pieces like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Pan Am, is due in part to the fact that these shows allow us to indulge in guilty pleasures. They depict eras whose sins and injustices we learned by rote in high school, and which come to mind quickly when alluded to in their plot. But they also show us wealth, glamour, beauty, and a USA which was doing slightly better than it is now (or so we think). While we shake our heads in righteous disapproval, we dwell in an old, abandoned world, and we enjoy it.
Period pieces that take place in aristocratic settings only enhance the paradox. Greater moral indignation and more fantastical enjoyment: a higher degree of social inequality, with dizzying levels of glamour on the upper end. Six years ago, the culture critic Camille Paglia wrote an essay about the sudden popularity of Marie Antoinette, the beheaded Queen of France, among writers and filmmakers. Within the span of a year, the former Queen had become the subject of two historical novels, one scholarly study, two documentaries, and a film directed by Sofia Coppola.
Paglia has always been something of a catastrophist, but her conjecturing touches on something true. “Has representative democracy, paralyzed by rancorous partisanship and bureaucratic incompetence, become the waning ancien regime assailed by ‘hordes at the gates’?” she asks. “The Marie Antoinette story, with its premonitions of doom amid a giddy fatalism, seems to signal a pervasive guilt about near-intractable social inequities.”
But Paglia only tells part of the story. There are also positive reasons for seeking refuge in the glory of kings and queens. If nothing else, the primary virtue of the old aristocratic order lay in the fact that it preserved the pearls of civilized life: charm, manners, taste, and art. It’s easy to become seduced by that world, and the magic of television only enhances it. As the historian Johan Huizinga wrote in his classic study, The Autumn of the Middle Ages: “Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, the more intense the yearning.”
During the century that Huizinga is writing about, that desire expressed itself in refined pageantry, song, and dress. In ours, it satiates itself on televised images of the same.
For this reason I can’t help but see the specter of resignation and defeatism hiding behind the popularity of a show like Downton Abbey. The history of the United States is not the history of an aristocracy, neither a noble nor corrupt one. Yes, we once had the old WASP elites and Southern gentry; but their ancestors in Jamestown were bourgeois businessmen. Yes, Plymouth was settled by Puritans, not entrepreneurs; yet even they carried the kernel of egalitarianism within then. Why do we feel so attracted by the world that our ancestors escaped from? Why are we escaping the new world that they founded?
Of course, it’s interesting to follow the story of the decline of the aristocratic order, and to revel in the sophistication and manners of a bygone era. It is not surprising that Downton Abbey is popular in the age of the McGriddle and casual sweatpants. But if it is, then this is also a sign that we are living in an age which does not confront its own problems.
America today is more like a Little House on the Prairie than it is, or ever will be, like Downton Abbey. The men and women depicted in Little House dreamed, like the aristocrats of Europe, to preserve something of manners and of the cultural inheritance of the West. Yet circumstances forced them to do this in the middle of nowhere, in the face of loneliness and hunger and uncertainty, armed only with faith and each other. Sounds a lot like our own time.
These are the stories we should tell each other, once again. Enough already with palaces and kings; I want to see a log cabin and a Conestoga wagon.
Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, MA.