We Could Use a Little More Downton

So I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about; last week, I watched the first episode of ‘Downton Abbey.’ Today, I finished the second season. Yeah, it’s that good. The acting is excellent, the directing is fantastic, and it’s refreshing to finally see a TV series with some serious character development, but I think the rush of attention that Downtown has been getting recently has to do with more than all of that. Downton brings us back to a different time. It’s a time which is simultaneously near and far from our own. Near in that it was only a century ago, far in that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine living in it.

This should come as no surprise; the 20th century brought about the greatest social changes the Western world has ever known. Many of these changes, I dare not dispute, were for the good. And yet, I am confident that some of the well-intentioned reforms brought disastrous consequences with them. Make no mistake, I do not wish to live in the world of Downton Abbey; I am the son of a painter who will soon be pursuing a terminal degree in the liberal arts. Such social mobility would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. Indeed, I am quite happy with many of the social changes that were introduced in the last century;  I merely think that some of the reforms went overboard.

It seems to me that the reason behind the allure of “Downton Abbey” is that is shows us a world which contains many things that ours lacks. Let’s take a look at some of the (I think) good things found in the world of Downtown that are either absent from our own or are present in truncated form:

1) Gender Roles

Alas, for the first discussion I have chosen a topic that is sure to be the touchiest of them all. Nevertheless, I think it is important for a society to recognize that there are differences between men and women and to treat them accordingly. I don’t think that the Downton World does a perfect job of treating men and women properly, but it does treat them differently and that’s my point.

It is a simple fact that men and women are different. A woman is a member of the human species who has the potential to become a mother. A man is a member of the human species who has the potential to impregnate a woman. In different times and places, these essential facts will have different consequences, and men and woman will need to have the appropriate virtues formed for dealing with them. Accordingly, the social atmosphere of a certain time and place must be conducive to the development of those virtues.

2) Civility

Though the Downton World is certainly rife with examples of snark and backhanded nastiness, the politeness that the characters show for one another is quite refreshing. For example, in one scene, two families are to dinner, and a dispute arises within one of the families. The mother of the other family goes to make a comment, and her son stops her saying, “Mother, it is not our place to have an opinion.” What maturity! It would be wonderful to live in a world when people know when to keep their noses out of other people’s personal affairs.

3) Hierarchy

Before I continue, I’d like to point out something that I found interesting about the different social clases in the Downton World. The characters on the show express the opinion from time to time that the members of the upper class have more freedom than the lower classes. To me, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In several instances, a member of the upper class falls in love with a person of lower class. They are both equally unfree to marry each other. The members of the upper class have seriously high expectations for one another with regard to other things as well: where they live, the type of house they will have, how they are to dress, etc.

Now about hierarchy as such. I think it is quite obvious that human beings are naturally hierarchical; hierarchy seems to have arisen in every society with which I am familiar. I don’t think that this is just some quirky part of human nature that we should do away with; I think it’s a good thing. It’s good to know your place.

For example, I remember once being enrolled in a course taught by a professor who desperately wanted to be popular with his students. He told us (bad) jokes, had us call him by his first name, and even cut class short a few times to let us go home early. The problem with this, is that it fosters a sense of familiarity, and even friendship. This is great for equals, but it is not good for superiors and subordinates. In this example, it was difficult for the professor to grade our papers fairly. Wanting to please us, and also not wanting to violate the feeling of friendship that he had with some of us, it felt like betrayal to him to give us bad marks. The problem here is not only that students were getting away with shoddy work, but that they weren’t being forced to better themselves as students. The student-teacher relationship was inhibited, and the students suffered the consequences.

It is important to treat your superiors as superiors, otherwise you won’t be able to learn from them. After all, if we are all equally skilled and equally important, why on Earth would we take advice from one another?

4) Articulation

The Downton World is a place where people place a high value on the ability to speak well. Consider the following quotation:

Woman to her mother-in-law: Are we to be friends then?

Mother-in-law:  We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.

Cold as it might be, the mother-in-law is drawing a distinction between two different relationships. Being allies is similar to being friends, but because of its coldness, it can be more useful than friendship. The mother in law managed to convey that idea in one sentence. Imagine if we could all speak like that?

On that note:

5) Enduring through Difficulty

The people of Downton had apparently not forgotten that good can arise out of evil. More importantly, they recognized that enduring through difficulty was a very effective way of developing one’s character. In today’s world were the minutest amount of discomfort is to be avoided, we might do well to consider the words of Lady Sybil to her sister:

“You’re far nicer than you were before the war, you know.”

Apparently, having endured through the stress of World War I, Edith (Sybil’s sister) had gained a new perspective on things. Some things that used to bother her now no longer did, probably because she recognized how foolish it was to let such things annoy her.

6) Taking Pride in Your Work

I find it very gratifying to see how many of the characters in the Downton world take pride in their work, no matter what they do. In one scene, a butler chides a footman for serving dinner with a tear in his jacket:

Butler:  William, are you aware the seam at your shoulder is coming apart?
Footman:  I felt it go a bit earlier. I’ll mend it when we turn in.
Butler:  You will mend it now and you will never again appear in public in a similar state of undress.
Footman:  No, Mr Carson.
Butler:  To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.

In this and other scenes, the Butler has shown himself to take incredible pride in his position. It didn’t seem to matter to him that he was not the Lord of the house. He was the butler, and what mattered to him was that he did his job well. I sincerely wish that I could appreciate my work as much as he.

Again, there are many things about the Downton World that I’m happy to do without, but I think that we’d all be a bit better off if we rescued a few of the vestiges of this time that were thrown out in the name of progress.

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About mattd4488

My name is Matt. I am currently a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America. My specialization is in Christian Ethics / Moral Theology. My aspiration is essentially to be a "translator" who makes the ethical tradition of Catholicism accessible to the lay secular world.
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2 Responses to We Could Use a Little More Downton

  1. askthebigot says:

    Bah! I guess I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the primer. ;)

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