I confess, I like "Downton Abbey." It is not a refined taste -- it belongs in the class of bodice rippers and large boxes of cheap candy. But I enjoy the clothes and the hair. I like the soap opera plots involving dilemmas and medical dramas that couldn’t exist in a modern society. I even like most of the people.
One thing about it, however, drives me completely batty, so much so that I’ve considered swearing it off: the relationship between the servants and their employers.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad "Downton Abbey" focuses on the servants as well as the expensively dressed people mooning about in drawing rooms. Unfortunately, that focus has quite a lot of Vaseline smeared on the lens. The Earl of Grantham’s family frequently seems to care more about the welfare of their servants than they do about themselves, a position that seems out of touch with the actual attitude one finds in period literature. The servants reciprocate with a loyalty that borders on slavish.
If you want some idea of what life was actually like in one of these big expensive houses, you should turn to some of the books written by people who went into service during roughly the period that "Downton Abbey" covers. The best of them is "Below Stairs" by Margaret Powell, reportedly the book upon which the television series "Upstairs, Downstairs" was based. And I've written about another book, "The Maid’s Tale" by Rose Plummer. Here, she writes about her first day as a kitchen maid:
As soon as I finished eating I had to clean the pans and the plates and knives and forks from our dinner and from Mrs W’s breakfast. The pans -- and as I’ve said there were loads of them -- were sprinkled with what looked like brick dust. I believe it was special sort of sand, and then you tipped a bit of vinegar in. You rubbed it with your hands till the pans were scoured out nicely. There were no detergents.
I did it as if my life depended on it. I regretted this later when I noticed that I’d virtually skinned my fingers…
Many girls couldn’t -- their hands got so bad they had to leave and go home. There they weren’t always welcome because, if they didn’t work, they cost their families money to keep. Many girls didn’t have a home like mine where, though we were skint, my mum wouldn’t have dreamed of letting on that we were a burden. I met lots of girls terrified they’d be sacked and have to go home because their mums didn’t want them back or because they hated it at home.
This sort of work started before sunrise and ended after the employers had finished eating.
In fairness, most women in those days had hands calloused by rough work, because cleaning technology was still primitive. Nonetheless, there were, by the 1920s, better cleaning technologies than the caustics she describes using. Rubber gloves were first used in operating rooms in the late 19th century. The servants were reducing their hands to pulp because why should their employers care?
"Downton Abbey" shows next to none of this. The servants spend most of their time standing around chatting, rather than engaging in the brutal labor required to keep one of those houses running. They exhibit far too little resentment at the amount of their lives expended taking care of a handful of people -- indeed, many of them seem ecstatically grateful for the opportunity to serve their betters.
I’m sure there really were people like that. But every workplace I’ve ever been in contains people who complain about the boss. How come none of them appear at "Downton Abbey?
In a certain sense, Downton Abbey is quite realistic: It portrays the lives of the servants as the upper class imagined them. But I would almost rather they had ignored the servants entirely instead of erecting this Potemkin village of happy servitude.
And if that sort of gloss is annoying, there’s a certain strain of American nostalgia for this that is truly unforgivable. A recent column by George Will nails it:
Why, however, does a normally wise and lucid conservative such as Peter Augustine Lawler, professor of government at Berry College, celebrate the “astute nostalgia” of “Downton Abbey”? Writing in Intercollegiate Review, he interprets the Abbey as a welfare state conservatives can revere:
“Everyone -- aristocrat or servant -- knows his place, his relational responsibilities. . . . The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world. . . . Many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. . . .The nobility of living in service to a lord. . . . What aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”
Good grief. Americans do not call the freedom to figure out one’s place in the world a burden; they call it the pursuit of happiness. And to be “given” a “secure” place amid “unchangeable” relationships is not dignified, it is servitude.
One reason Thomas Jefferson, a child of Virginia’s gentry, preferred an agricultural society to one in which people are “piled upon one another in large cities” (“let our workshops remain in Europe”) is that he valued social stasis, as the privileged are wont to do. One reason his rival Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant striver thriving in Manhattan, wanted a restless market society of ample and volatile capital was as a solvent for the entrenched hierarchies that impede upward mobility.
Americans of all people ought to know better. After all, the reason most of us are here is that our ancestors were the sort of people who became servants, rather than employed them -- and they didn’t like it one bit.
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