It’s becoming increasingly apparent that “Downton Abbey,” once lauded as an incisive depiction of the British class system, has largely abandoned class-based storylines in favor of sexual politics.
This is no surprise. Historical fiction usually reflects the preoccupations of the era in which it is composed, and identity politics (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion) has displaced class conflict as the primary source of divisiveness in the 21stcentury. Consider how hard it’s been for President Obama to promote his campaign on income inequality. If the President of the United States can’t get people to care about class, how can Julian Fellowes?
I have no idea whether series creator and exec producer Fellowes relies on market research, but with women “Downton’s” principal audience, it’s only natural that he would double down on storylines that appeal to the ladies. And in any event, sexual politics — the examination of how patriarchal practices are perpetuated — has been at the center of the show since its beginning. The initial storyline could have been written by Jane Austen herself. With three unmarried daughters, the aristocratic Crawleys are in a pickle: their massive estate is entailed to the closest male heir, a cousin who has just gone down on the Titanic. Like the Bennett daughters in “Pride and Prejudice,” the Crawley girls need to find suitable husbands. If no appropriate aristocrat can be located, the Dowager Countess muses, they will have to marry off at least one daughter to some “Italian who is not too picky.”
Downstairs in the servants’ quarters, it’s not much different. Mr. Carson, the deeply conservative butler, runs the house with an iron hand, and the women are restricted to cleaning, cooking and dressing the upstairs ladies.
What’s interesting is that over the course of the past four seasons, the women upstairs have gained considerable power while the women downstairs remain under the thumb of the patriarchy. This allows the show to have its cake and eat it, too. It continues to make gender inequality a primary focus while simultaneously giving female viewers the satisfaction of vicariously winning many victories in the battle of the sexes.
Consider the progress upstairs: two daughters took jobs over their father’s objections, and the third is co-managing the estate with him. Like Tevye’s daughters in “Fiddler on the Roof,” they marry or become engaged to whomever they like — even an Irish chauffeur. The women in the family are usually united in female solidarity. Even the Dowager Countess is more loyal to her gender than to aristocratic tradition, urging her son Lord Grantham to break the entail so her granddaughter can inherit the estate. There’s also a telling scene in season three when the Crawleys have lunch at a private home where the serving girl is a former maid who, in desperation, once engaged in prostitution. Outraged at the impropriety of having his mother, wife and daughters invited into the presence of a one-time streetwalker, Lord Grantham bursts in and insists they all leave. But no one stirs. All the women side with their former maid and Lord Grantham is left to stew, leaving his wife to observe, “Robert makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore.”
The well-born Crawley women gain the upper hand not only through solidarity but through the general fecklessness of their male relations. Matthew Crawley, one son-in-law, is a good guy but bad driver and finds himself DOA in a car crash the day his son is born. Tom Branson, another son-in-law, is weak and insecure of his social status. And the big guy, Robert Crawley, the lord of the manner, is an outright dolt: he loses the fortune of his American heiress wife in the stock market, has to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern estate management, and insists on retaining a society doctor whose negligence kills his daughter during childbirth.
But if the upper-class women are gaining some power, their servants are not so lucky. The only female servant who seems to have any influence is the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, who uses guile and moral suasion to undo some of the wrongs in the house. But even she’s realistic about the gender imbalance and can’t overturn the double standard. Over the course of the series, two maids have been exiled for flirting with their masters. Another got pregnant, was forced to leave — and, in a heartbreaking episode, had to give up her toddler son. Edna, a lady’s maid, was sent packing after she seduced the son-in-law Tom in a futile attempt to get him to marry her. Worst of all, Anna, another lady’s maid, was brutally raped by a visiting valet to whom she was polite despite her husband’s warnings.
Is any of this historically accurate? My guess is that conditions for women were even worse than depicted on the show, especially for the female servants who had to clean endlessly and in anonymity. And even with the looser standards of the Roaring Twenties, I doubt that upper-class women had the influence they do on “Downton.” One thing I’m sure about, though, is that class conflict did not recede during the real 1920s, a time of profound labor unrest. But that issue will have to wait for a different series. After all, the soapier and more female-friendly “Downton” trends, the higher its ratings.