There’s much to love about Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey, which premiered Series 2 for American audiences last night on PBS. The drama, the costumes, the wry British humor, the sibling rivalries, the romances that seemed doomed from the start: if you can watch this show without getting pulled back into Edwardian England, you’re stronger than I am.
The story revolves around the wealth Crawley family, which includes the Earl of Grantham, and his mother, wife, and three daughters, as well as the servants that work at their home, Downton Abbey. The first series took place between the sinking of the Titanic and England’s entrance into World War I; last night’s episode picked up two years later. Like its apparent inspiration Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired in the 1970s, the show has much to offer for a class analysis: the contrast between the lives of the Crawley family and the lives of the servants is profound, to be sure. But there is also a nuance to the show that is missing in other television representations of class. The characters’ moral compasses aren’t guided exclusively by their wealth—there are heroes and villains living in both the servants’ quarters and the opulent rooms of Downton Abbey. The stories from both upstairs and downstairs are equally compelling. Just as we want Mary, the Earl’s eldest daughter, to find love, we also want it for Anna, the head housemaid. When the servants sacrifice their own hopes and dreams to benefit the Crawleys (such as when the housekeeper passes an opportunity at love because she doesn’t want to leave Downton, or when the valet is blackmailed into leaving to protect the family’s honor), these losses are seen as tragic, rather than the matter of course. And when one housemaid teaches herself to type and searches for a job as a secretary, her success is celebrated; when her replacement also dreams of life beyond servitude, the lady’s maid who picks on her for aspirations is the villain.
Yet, what Downton Abbey also offers for the modern viewer is the idea that, today, class differences have been overcome. The stark separation between the lives of the family and the staff illustrate a segregation that is no longer overt in today’s society. Few people have lives in literal servitude, and even fewer have actual servants. We like to believe that now, a hundred years later, class is really something entirely different, something blurrier, more transmutable, and more easily overcome.
Last July, Fox News jumped on the idea that “poor people are not what they used to be,” citing a study showing that most poor people have amenities like refrigerators and microwaves, and a good number have cell phones, coffee makers, and cable television. Jon Stewart appropriately skewered them for this simultaneously dismissive and demonizing idea that, because people living in poverty might have some very basic appliances in their homes, we needn’t concern ourselves with their plight any longer.
There’s still the sense, in some places, that poverty should look like the children of Dickensian London: waifs asking for a bit more unpalatable food; seriously ill children who joyfully wish merry Christmases once their fathers are giving a living wage. But, actually, 14.5 percent of American households deal with food insecurity, including 16.2 million children. And 10.4 percent of children have no health insurance—a total of 8 million uninsured young people. We’ve come pretty far, but we really aren’t there yet.
On last night’s Downton Abbey, when the Irish socialist revolutionary chauffer, Tom, confesses his love to the Earl’s youngest daughter and nurse-in-training, Lady Sybil, he prophetically tells her that after the war, nothing will return to as it was. And he’s right. World War I marked a change in the way of life for the British aristocracy, a change that would be cemented half a generation later by the return to war. The wars seemed to remind people that they were more similar than different. Yet, there’s a reason that this fascination with class continues, and there’s a reason that Downton Abbey is popular now, at this historical moment. We know that the lives of the characters will be turned upside down, that the class divisions that separate them will slowly become less important. And I think that we want to believe that for ourselves, today.