Anachronism stalks every corridor of Downton

Polly Toynbee pointed out last December that everybody’s favorite soap opera Downton Abbey is staggeringly dishonest about the reality of servants’ lives in the early 20th century.

To control history by rewriting the past subtly influences present attitudes too: every dictator knows that. Downton rewrites class division, rendering it anodyne, civilised and quaintly cosy. Those upstairs do nothing unspeakably horrible to their servants, while those downstairs are remarkably content with their lot. The brutality of servants’ lives is bleached out, the brutishness of upper-class attitudes, manners and behaviour to their servants ironed away. There are token glimpses of resentments between the classes, but the main characters are nice, in a nice world. The truth would be impossible without turning the Earl of Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, into villains, with the below-stairs denizens their wretched victims – a very different story, and not one Julian Fellowes would ever write.

Yup. I’ve been grumbling about that all along. The Crawleys are way too interested in their servants, and way too friendly toward them. It wasn’t like that. It was programatically the opposite of that.

Much attention is paid to detail. Place settings are measured to perfection with a ruler, the footmen’s buttons absolutely correct, yet everything important is absolutely wrong. Start with the labour: what we see is pleasant work by well-manicured maids in fetching uniforms, healthy and wholesome, doing a little feather-dusting of the chandeliers, some silver polishing, some eavesdropping while serving at table and some pleasant cooking with Mrs Patmore. There is even time for scullery maid Daisy to sit at the kitchen table improving herself with home education. In Downton the hierarchical bullying of servants by one another is replaced by the housekeeper and butler’s benevolent paternalism: what a nice place to work.

Except for Thomas and O’Brien. But still, she’s right – it’s all very prettied up and sentimentalized. (I wasn’t there, but I have read a good deal on the subject, and I’m familiar with the way the upper classes talked about servants.)

What we never see is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5.30am; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda. We never dwell on the hardship of scrubbing floors, or scrubbing clothes, or scouring grease; in pre-detergent days, they were up to their elbows all day long. And yet they had virtually no water or time for washing themselves. Servants were often sooty and dirty. They smelled strongly of sweat, with few clean clothes, says Dr Lucy Delap, author of Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain.

Of course they did. They couldn’t nip off to Boots for deodorant and lavender soap.

Downton’s conservative aristocrats would have been far more abusive – verbally and actually: mocking, sneering and complaining about their servants was standard Edwardian and inter-war conversation. Instead we see the Crawleys’ deep concern for their staff’s welfare, compassionate when one is charged with murder and another revealed as jailed for jewellery theft. In life, they would have been turfed out without references at any whisper of scandal.

Definitely…although I can perhaps just buy it that Bates is an exception because he was with the Earl in the Boer War. But all that friendly chat and confiding between Anna and Mary, as if they were buds? Please.

Anachronism stalks every corridor of Downton, polishing up history to make the class divide less savage. The Crawleys’ prejudices and snobberies exposed in the raw would be as unbearable to the modern ear as if they were speaking in authentic 1920s accents. Then, as now, upward mobility is a necessary part of the myth, to hide the reality of class rigidity. So the Crawleys see their daughter marry their chauffeur, only for him to ascend upstairs with barely a ripple in the social fabric. Another Crawley daughter bears an illegitimate child, but is befriended by her starchy grandmother, the child accepted by his lordship who divines the truth with hardly a blench. Rose marries into a rich Jewish family, but only one absurd relative expresses the antisemitism that was so rife – and still is, in upper-class circles.

On the other hand Cora is based on an actual Rothschild, so that complicates the picture. On the other other hand would the Crawleys have allowed an American Jew into the family if they hadn’t been desperate for her money?

History is important: it was funny when a plastic water bottle was left on Downton’s mantelpiece, but Downton’s plastic social history is misleading whitewash.

Does it matter? Isn’t it just a bit of fun? Well, what would we think of a prettified series about British colonialism, whose heroes were cleansed of racism, violence, oppression or imperial snobbery? The implanting of falsely comforting memories of a better bygone era disguises fundamental things about the way we live now.

As it is, there is still a widespread misperception of the nature of class and destiny. Inequality is rising on an ever upward trajectory, yet people are easily deceived by a veneer of modern classlessness: the end of deference and forelock-tugging makes class less obvious and more insidious, though every statistic shows how deeply entrenched it remains.

Give me Poplar any day.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Give me Poplar any day.

    Yeah, but even Call the Midwife (the TV show) left out some of the meaner stories from the book, such as the one where the white father sees the newborn black baby, tries to beat his wife but is prevented by the priest who waited for just such a possibility, and then the father forces the mother to give the baby up for adoption. Or, the details of the young Irish girl’s experience with forced prostitution.

  2. ZugTheMegasaurus says

    I’ve never seen the show, but exactly none of this surprises me. Is there any historical drama that doesn’t whitewash the past to make it seem better than it actually was? When I was getting my undergrad degree in history, I focused on prebellum African American history. I’m pretty sure I’ve never come across anything close to a realistic portrayal of those issues and events in that period. There are the super evil sadistic racist slaveholders, but fortunately, they’re outnumbered by kindly humble white folk who understand the injustice of it all and see black slaves as moral equals.

    It’s all a bunch of ridiculous nonsense, but frankly, if these characters were portrayed accurately, it would upset the majority of the intended viewing audience. I say that’s a bullshit reason, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. What really bothers me about it is that it seems like people who aren’t well-versed in a particular area of history take what’s in these fictional stories as a true representation of the way things were. That on its own isn’t a major problem, but it colors how people view modern issues, and that is a major problem. Just look at how many hard right wingers seem to believe that “Leave it to Beaver” was a documentary and attempt to develop public policy around a world that never actually existed.

  3. says

    @1: I was thinking that some of the TV episodes (including that one) seem to tie up a little *too* neatly. As I said on the other thread: much though I enjoy the series, I realize that it’s been translated from life to memory to book to television, and I’m not trusting the real history to have survived that process unscathed.

    (Another reason we’re enjoying it is that we were in London in August, rode the DLR through that general area a few times, and also did a bit of a walking tour at Isle of Dogs. Of course the place is now full of gleaming condo and office towers, but there’s enough of the old construction left to get the sense of how it used to be 55 years ago.)

  4. says

    Ya. I’m reading Eric Foner’s Trial by Fire right now and it is among other things an excellent reminder of just how pervasive and accepted and part of the wallpaper racism was. Vanishingly few white people rejected racism root and branch, and they were considered Dangerous Radicals.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    My family only seems to want to watch British TV these days, so Downton, Sherlock, and Dr. Who are the only TV series I’ve seen in the last few years. I want to defend Downton a bit.

    I can see why it’s easy to look at the series as nothing but Tory escapism. But at least in my viewing of the show, the entire thing is just a long dissertation on why the destruction of the aristocracy that the show chronicles was both inevitable and a Good Thing. It’s no accident that the series opens with the sinking of the Titanic – Fellowes keeps reminding us every step of the way that the beautiful ship we’re watching is on its way down. He wants to answer the question of Why it went down, and was there anything that could have saved it? And the answer is no, there wasn’t. Despite the fact that Lloyd George is looked upon with open loathing by Violet and subtle loathing by everyone else, I think he comes across as the hero. Because every season is all about Lord Grantham’s desperate attempt to justify himself as having some purpose or use in society, and his failure in every case to do so.

    In the second season we see him all decked out in his WWI uniform, eager to serve the original, medieval purpose of the aristocracy and lead troops, maybe in combat. And we see him get the polite brush-off – no use for him there. So after the Middle Ages, the next justification for aristocratic privilege was that they had a monopoly on the best education, and were thus the best fit to Run Things. But it becomes clear in season 3 that Grantham is a bit of a dim bulb, and isn’t fit to manage his own affairs, let alone run the country (“I’ve heard about great investment opportunities with this Ponzi fellow from America.”) So then he goes around justifying himself for a season or so with the rationalization that at least he’s providing employment for all of these people. Then we see that rationalization crumble too, as the 20s start providing much better jobs in the cities, and nobody wants the shitty servant jobs anymore. He likes to think of himself as a Leader in the Community, but that balloon gets pricked too when the local monuments committee doesn’t ask him to be their chairman, and goes to his butler instead. Finally, in the last two seasons, we’ve seen Mary’s dawning awareness that the only way the aristocracy can possibly have any relevance in the modern world is if they refashion themselves into farmers. If that means they have to shed their fancy clothes and go diving into the muck to rescue pigs, then that’s what they’ll have to do. And if that doesn’t defeat the whole point of the aristocracy, what does? Maybe there’s a glimmer of a suggestion that they might also serve some function as some sort of conservationists, but that’s only if they aren’t destitute, which is looking like an increasingly likely eventuality.

    Yes, the linked article does have a good point that the Crawleys seem impossibly modern in many of their attitudes. But I think they’ve been doing a good job in recent seasons of also bringing in plenty of specimens of the more loathsome breed aristocrats, as well. I don’t think all aristocrats were loathsome – or all of any group, for that matter.

    But all that friendly chat and confiding between Anna and Mary, as if they were buds? Please.

    A fascinating series that was on PBS a few years ago was “Manor House,” where a group of moderns attempted to recreate life in a manor house from Edwardian times. It does a good job of showing how wretched conditions were for the servants. They couldn’t find anyone today who was willing to put up with what a scullery maid how to do, for instance. But I remember the woman playing the wife saying, “I was growing more and more distant from my husband and children. If I’d had to live this way for the rest of my life, my best friend would have been my lady’s maid, because she was the only person I could talk to.” Also, note that while Mary confides in Anna all the time, Anna virtually never says anything to Mary (unless she needs Mary to do something for her). I’ve seen interviews with the actresses where they say that’s deliberate on the writer’s part – Mary constantly forgets that she is Anna’s employer, but Anna never forgets.

  6. Anne Fenwick says

    Worse, I’m convinced that this and several other recent British TV successes are made for America and don’t in any way speak to (much of) the British population. A really nasty slice of our history is being Disneyfied for the benefit of residents of the country most responsible for tearing apart our economic equality and social safety nets by example. I loathe and detest Downton Abbey, but I know far too many Americans who think I’m very, very strange. And also, unfortunately, far too many American who justify their own underpaid ‘help’ by pointing to the same idyllic values we see promoted in Downton Abbey.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    Really? Downton’s not a documentary? Who knew? Naughty Brits, rewriting history like that. Why, the USA would never turn out anything so egregiously inaccurate. Not the lads who won the war by breaking the Enigma code, as shown in the totally accurate movie U-571.

    Obviously I could go on, but if you’re going to talk about rewriting history, erasing Alan Turing, Bletchley Park and the Polish mathematicians responsible for the original Bombe and making it into a flag-wavin’ hymn to the US beggars belief. Soap-opera-fying master-servant relations in the 1920s is small-fry by comparison.

    And does it matter? Well, yes, I agree, it does. It’s the cultural background we all operate against. But there is much, much worse. Railing against this when TV schedules and movie listings are wallpapered with far worse seems… misguided. But hey, clickz – and I really don’t want this to sound like a “Dear Muslima”. Criticising Downton’s perfectly valid. It just seems like the wrong target among precisely as-easy-to-address targets.

  8. says

    And yet, it not only sounds like a Dear Muslima, it is a dear Muslima – except for the nature of the subject. It’s a completely, absurdly, obnoxiously gratuitous “WHY DON’T YOU TALK ABOUT THIS OTHER THING INSTEAD THAT’S SO MUCH WORSE?”

    You have no reason whatsoever to think I think British tv-makers are any worse than US ones. It’s not as if I never say anything critical about US pop culture, is it.

    As a matter of fact I think I have linked to something about the bullshit about giving the Yanks credit for breaking the code – but I haven’t talked directly about it myself for the simple and compelling reason that I haven’t seen the fucking movie. I have seen Downton Abbey.

    And “hey, clickz”? Fuck you.

  9. enkidu says

    “what would we think of a prettified series about British colonialism, whose heroes were cleansed of racism, violence, oppression or imperial snobbery?”

    We would think it was bog standard history.

  10. dorkness says

    @ enkidu, post 9
    Maybe they could film some period popular fiction, like ‘Sanders of the River’. Might be uncomfortable to watch the hero and not some minor, exceptionally nasty, character flog, shoot and hang ‘natives’ whenever they get out of line, but that would get the period attitudes right.

  11. Bluntnose says

    “As a matter of fact I think I have linked to something about the bullshit about giving the Yanks credit for breaking the code ”

    I remember that movie, it was a bit irritating, but only part of the whole ‘USA won the war’ movie movement designed to disguise the fact they only really held Russia’s coat.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    And “hey, clickz”? Fuck you.

    Fair enough. I apologise, that was uncalled for. I come here and occasionally comment here because, while I don’t necessarily agree 100% with everything you post or that your other contributors say, your posts are almost without exception stimulating and enlightening and on subjects that on some level “matter”, for a given value of that word. I usually feel like I’m better for having read stuff here. And then you do bloody “Downton”. Sorry again.

  13. says

    🙂 Thank you. Accepted.

    I sometimes do talk about stuff that doesn’t “matter” for a given value of that word. That’s part of the fun of having a blog: it can be about anything. By far the most annoying thing to me about Downton is the absurd cult of it here in the US, and the pompous way PBS presents it as if it were Serious Art as opposed to the poppest of pop culture. It’s sort of the opposite of pointing out a badness of UK culture while ignoring a badness of US culture. I think in the UK pretty much everyone recognizes it as a soap; here not so much.

  14. sigurd jorsalfar says

    I watch Downton and I enjoy it, but I very much recognize it as a soap. How can anyone not see that’s what it is? And yes I enjoy it even though it is England’s version of “Gone With The Wind”.

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