Downton Crabby

Simon Schama
Simon Schama - Creative Commons (David Shankbone)

Earlier this month the popular British historian Simon Schama took to the pages of Newsweek to write a withering attack on the British TV series Downton Abbey — and even more, on Americans’ obsession with it — as its second series began to air on PBS.

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T BEEN WATCHING

I mentioned this last Saturday in my links post, but how can I possibly pass up the chance to write a longer post in which I get to (a) defend the honour of my current favorite British costume drama and (b) recycle a thirteen year old pun from Friends?

Let’s start with a sampler platter of Schama’s insults: (and remember, America, he’s less upset with Julian Fellowes for writing Downton Abbey and the cast for acting in it than with you for watching it!)

…folks who might have better ways to pass their time have been falling like grouse to the gun before the mighty edifice of Downton Abbey. Deprived of a wallow in the dry-martini and bullet-bra world of Mad Men? Not to worry, Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery. It’s a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps….

Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia. So the series is fabulously frocked, and acted, and overacted, and hyper-overacted by all the Usual Suspects in keeping with their allotted roles….

Julian Fellowes has gotten this stuff down pat since writing Gosford Park, though all the main plot lines were anticipated a long time ago by Upstairs, Downstairs.

But this unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. They still knew how to put One in One’s Place….

In the current series, historical reality is supposed to bite at Downton in the form of the Great War. The abbey’s conversion into convalescent quarters did indeed happen in some of the statelies. But if Fellowes were really interested in the true drama attending the port and partridge classes—more accurately and brilliantly related in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Isabel Colegate’s wonderful The Shooting Party—the story on our TV would be quite different.

Whew! That’s a lot of invective, deliciously delivered with the hyper-literate brand of insult that the British still do better than anyone in the English-speaking world. Bad as “servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia” sounds for Julian Fellowes, it might pale in comparison with the grievous sin of not being Evelyn Waugh.

Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle, the location where Downton Abbey has been filmed - Creative Commons (JB+UK_Planet)

I don’t feel all that qualified to evaluate either insult, though I’m sure there’s at least some truth to the charge that we Colonists are engaging with Downton as a kind of escapism (Here we are now, Mother Country, entertain us!), to the point that the proprietors of the estate where the series was filmed apparently think that delirious tourists will shell out £7900 for a day’s tour. (That’s about $12,400 as I write this. Apparently Marx was wrong and the aristocracy was perfectly capable of adapting to capitalism. As is PBS, which irked the show’s British producers by trying to cash in with a line of Downton-inspired jewelry!)

And I haven’t read Brideshead or watched its adaptations, which is indeed a serious failing on my part.

As a historian who enjoys Downton Abbey, however, I do feel like I ought to respond to Schama’s argument that Fellowes et al. show no serious interest in the history of Britain during the second decade of the 20th century. If they did, Schama writes, then

Instead of being an occasional suffragette, Sibyl would have turned into a full-on militant, carving, while incarcerated in prison, a “V” for “votes” on her breast with a piece of broken glass. Lord Robert, whose income from land and rents would have collapsed with the long agricultural depression, would be unable to service his mortgage and, subject to the estate duties imposed to pay for old-age pensions, would have to sell the place to a wheat baron from Alberta. And Matthew would be one of the 750,000 dead.

Too much of a downer for Downton? Probably. Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance. But then that wouldn’t get the high ratings, would it?

Now, Schama is certainly right that Fellowes pulls his punches. Time and again in both series of Downton Abbey, the crises of the Edwardian era (series 1) and the turmoils of World War I (series 2) bubble up, but never to the degree that they’re allowed to interfere with the melodrama. Series one hints at the economic woes that befell aristocrats like Lord Grantham, but that crisis simply became a device to explain why American actress Elizabeth McGovern is in the cast (she plays a New World heiress whose money saved the estate from going to someone like Schama’s Canadian interloper). Likewise, Irish nationalism and socialism get a moment or two in the person of the same character, the ambitious chauffeur Branson, though at this point in series 2 (for UK readers: we’ve only seen the first three episodes), it’s Branson’s as-yet unrequited passion for someone above his social class that dominates his piece of the story.

Women’s rights, as Schama hints, are raised and perhaps too easily dismissed. In addition to the youngest daughter’s flirtation with suffragism, we get the following exchange in the second series, between the maid Anna and her would-be lover, the valet Bates, who hopes to divorce his conniving, cheating wife. Bates quite correctly points out a disparity in English law at the time:

BATES: For her to divorce me she needs something beyond adultery: cruelty, or some sort. For a husband adultery is enough.
ANNA: That doesn't seem very fair to women.
BATES: I don't care about fairness! I care about you.

So much for that.

But if Schama is right that Fellowes can’t always be bothered with the messiness of history, I think he’s off on his criticism of the handling of WWI in series 2. To my mind, it would have been a serious mistake — for plotting a romantic melodrama and for capturing the impact of the Great War — to make its young male lead “one of the 750,000 dead.” Terrible as that number was for a relatively small country like Britain (and it would seem positively unfathomable today), it means that 82% of mobilized men and 93-94% of all military-aged men survived the war. To dramatize the death of a heroic young man would be to recycle the too-popular British myth of “The Lost Generation”: that the best and brightest (to mix national-tragic metaphors) of the British Isles all perished at Ypres and the Somme and so Britain’s fate was left to older and lesser leaders after 1918. Frenchmen between the ages of 18-40 were twice as likely to die in WWI as their counterparts across the Channel; for Serbia, almost twice again the French figure.

Now, what the series does very well is to capture the reality that, if Britain suffered relatively less death than other combatants, few soldiers who served on the Western Front escaped without terrible physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual damage. In the series the shellshocked veteran-turned-servant Lang stands in for the hundreds of thousands of walking wounded who populated wartime and postwar Britain.

And then there’s the problem that Downton Abbey makes too much of WWI as a decisive event. Watching the first three episodes, it’s occurred to me that a fun Downton drinking game for series 2 would involve hoisting a sherry or shandy every time a character declares that “The world is changing” or “Things will never be the same again.”

C.R.W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917)
C.R.W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917) - Imperial War Museum

Indeed, the Great War did serve as a break in modern history in important ways (women getting the vote, for example). But in other ways social and cultural changes were put off until after World War II or later, and there’s even an argument to be made that WWI prompted (for some) a return to older forms and ideas. I happened to run into our resident art historian yesterday; in his opinion, 1914-1918 was more notable for the phenomenon of artists reining in their ambition to be in the avant-garde and seeking out older, perhaps more comfortable forms. (He suggested Picasso as an example of that trend; I’ve already written about it happening within the war itself to C.R.W. Nevinson, who abandoned Futurism for Realism mid-war.)

In any event, where Schama comes off sounding crabbiest is when he proclaims that “history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.”

Maybe so, but of course, Downton Abbey is not a work of history. I wish the members of my profession would cease this criticism: filmmakers and other artists may use the past as their canvas (understandably: it’s fascinating), but that doesn’t mean they’re “doing history.” Schama and Fellowes have different vocations; one can’t be judged according to the standards of the other.

While both historian and filmmaker no doubt have an obligation (I hope) to seek and speak truth, Fellowes is not trying to present an episode of Schama’s A History of Britain. He is producing a soap opera. And a supremely entertaining one.


One thought on “Downton Crabby

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.