Much about the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey, the hit British television show about a stately home, an aristocratic family, and their shadow kingdom of servants during the second decade of the 20th century, has come as a surprise. For one thing, the series is shown here on ITV, known to my grandmother’s generation, born around the time season one is set, as “the commercial channel.” (To understand the full impact of this descriptor, imagine it emerging in a splutter from the pursed lips of Downton’s grande dame, the Dowager Lady Grantham, played in a state of permanent quivering outrage by Dame Maggie Smith.) It is not that ITV has never been able to produce this kind of quality television— The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, and the original Upstairs, Downstairs all sailed triumphantly under its colors. But the once-sluggish station had been taken over in recent years by reality shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. So the appearance of Downton Abbey on ITV in September 2010 represented the moment at which millions of British fans of glossy costume drama tuned in to a channel that had been off their radar for at least a decade.
The show’s first season introduced the Grantham family, aristocratic owners of Downton Abbey (the house is based on Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the spectacularly gothic ancestral home of the real-life Lord Carnarvon). The paterfamilias, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is a gentleman of liberal conservative values, wedded to the land that has kept his family in a grand manner for centuries. His wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is a dollar princess—the era’s nickname for an American heiress. She’s an outsider, a shrewd bit of plotting that gives international audiences a way into a world that might otherwise seem thick with inheritance laws and minute gradations of social class.
The three daughters of the house, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), are elegant young women who can look forward to good marriages and many changes of lavish costume but not, alas, much else. For the motor powering Downton Abbey’s plot in the first season is the fact that the estate is entailed to the male line, a narrative device that can be traced back to Pride and Prejudice. The girls are obliged to welcome their cousin, the middle-class solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), as heir to their magnificent family home. No wonder Lady Sybil, the youngest sister, starts turning into a feminist on the sly.
In the great house’s basement lies the servant’s hall, arranged along equally hierarchical lines. Butler Carson (Jim Carter) watches over a cast of saints and villains that includes a conniving lady’s maid named O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and her comrade-in-spite, the closeted gay footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier). More heroic is the valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), a man of impeccable morals with a noble backstory of having served a prison sentence to save his thieving wife’s good name. Bates has known Lord Grantham since their army days together; it was back then that he sustained, as a kind of stigmata of suffering, a limp.
The first season established a mood of bittersweet elegy, the last gasp of a country—house culture of sun-dappled glory that we know, although the characters clearly do not, is about to unravel. Season two opens in 1916, with the full horror of the Great War upon us. Matthew Crawley, now an officer at the front, is decidedly thinner, and Lady Cora’s frocks are less fluttery—it wouldn’t do to look too fine just as the bloodbath of the Somme is getting under way. The Crawley girls have donned uniforms: a nurse’s for Lady Sybil, a farmhand’s for Lady Edith, who has taken to driving a tractor.
Only Lady Mary seems to have managed to hang on to her original wardrobe and her hauteur. Despite a few feverish comments she made in the first season about the vacuity of upper-class women’s lives, the eldest Crawley daughter is caught up in the London Season (her fourth, which means, says snippy Aunt Rosamund [Samantha Bond], that she is not so much a debutante as a survivor). She is pining for Matthew, who has gone and got himself engaged to the very middle-class Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle). The Dowager Countess of Grantham thinks Miss Swire is plain as a pikestaff, and Carson the butler can’t find her in Burke’s Peerage. As ever in Downton Abbey, the communities above and below stairs echo and riff in an ongoing counterpoint of social commentary.
NO RECESSIONARY PERIOD and its compensatory make-believe are exactly like another. In the 1970s, the original Upstairs, Downstairs soothed anxieties about the power of the trades union and the disruptive capacity of “women’s lib” by showing a deferential working class and a set of women, both above and below stairs, who lived within the status quo. In 2011, our anxieties are more concerned with ethics than political justice, in particular with what might be described as social connection.
After a few days this summer when flash mobs surged through London, Manchester, and Birmingham, looting with apparent impunity, it can be soothing to be shown a world where even a little light pilfering is enough to ruin your life chances. (Thomas-the-evil-footman was a hair’s breadth from being sacked in season one for filching some wine.) So, too, at a time of public conversation around the fact that new drugs are being withheld from Britain’s National Health Service due to cost concerns, it is cheering to watch Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), mother to the heir Matthew, insist that the life of a farmhand suffering dropsy is worth saving, no matter how expensive the newfangled cure.
The show’s values of cohesion and cooperation promise to be challenged by the war’s fallout. But they remain Downton Abbey’s guiding ethos. There may be disruptions looming (socialism, feminism, the small matter of international carnage), but if the classes just pull together, total breakdown may be avoided. The creator and chief writer of this careful and approving dramatization of a social unity that depends, paradoxically, on social separation is Julian Fellowes, who was recently made a Life Peer—which means he becomes Lord Fellowes, although his son will not inherit the title—and sits on the Conservative side of the House of Lords. Fellowes is too canny an operator to say out loud that he wishes we could return to the good old days in which the story is set. But as season two approached its close in Britain, there was no getting around an increasing sense of the show’s nostalgic longing for an age of what we might call consensual paternalism. Which is all very well, of course, as long as you’re the one on the right side of the social divide, the side that decides whether it feels like being benign to those less favored than itself.
Yet as the current craze for family history has revealed, most of us are descended not from the aristocracy but from people whose lives were precarious, often difficult. Identifying with that vulnerability is a hard mental trick to pull off—mostly, we like to imagine ourselves in the drawing room taking tea with Lady Cora, plush and serene. But for those of us able to hold the identification with Daisy the kitchen maid (Sophie McShera) or her boyfriend William-the-good-footman (Thomas Howes) for long enough, the experience of watching Downton Abbey is a chastening one.
For as we ourselves travel further into a period of economic decline that has already involved the partial dismantling of such engines of social equality as the National Health Service, old-age pensions, and free higher education, we realize that it is not out of the realm of possibility that harder and faster divisions could open up once more. The thought of being dependent on someone else’s goodwill, kind heart, and strict conscience does not seem quite so benign after all.