Downton Abbey addiction has arrived here, if a bit belatedly. I missed the first season since I normally never watch television and hadn’t gotten the word of its pleasures. But with the help of my TV/DVD competent granddaughter I am now up to speed. What a treat! It’s equal to eating mountains of almond joys and riding a sugar high over the rainbow.
How much fun to view the scenery, the houses, the clothes, the jewels, the furnishings, the dinners and formal goings on! The precise diction and elegant manners of the upstairs set remind us what articulate speech sounds like, with its range of subtle maneuver and veiled insult. Of course the plot and characterizations are completely familiar but as in all soap operas, this lack of intellectual challenge is part of the appeal. Familiarity breeds affection and comforting identification. Oh Dame Maggie Smith, we could watch you forever. Only Dame Judi Dench is your equal.
Yet before last Sunday’s episode I met a dissenter dinner guest. A bright high school senior observed that she finds the episodes boring and the characters unengaging. Was this a generational difference? Or perhaps the addictive appeal of the Upstairs Downstairs genre is engendered by reading hundreds of 19th century English novels during your formative years. The characters’ dilemmas became your own, you identified with aristocrats, middle class strivers, yeomen farmers, servants, orphans and the destitute. In a word, we compulsive readers became saturated with class consciousness and the way a class system operates.
America too produced its classic novels depicting its own class distinctions and confrontations. Fiction depicted real life hierarchies operating well into the 20th century. My southern military family inculcated us with a curious class mix of yeoman populism and elite values. You must uphold your family’s good name, behave with honor, display charm and wit, but without pretension. Be a gentleman like our idol, Robert E. Lee. Display noblesse oblige to those “beneath” you while acknowledging that rank has its privileges or RHIP.
This indoctrination in subtle class snobbishness took years to get over. Ivy League academic circles reinforces it. But once your eyes are fully opened you see the hidden power of class: how it perpetuates privilege while inflicting psychic wounds and cultural deprivation. Can it be that a new generation like my young friend has managed to say good bye to all that?
Unfortunately, as the economic plight of the 99% becomes clearer, the problems of class inequality will dominate the country’s agenda. It could be curtains for class- drenched entertainments that require no serious analysis. In the meantime, with nothing at stake, ‘viewers like us’ can succumb to the series’ charm. Or have I got this Downton Abbey thing all wrong?