A lot of people really like the PBS series Downton Abbey so I’ve been curious to know what all the fuss is about. Tonight we watched the first season on DVD. I was sorely disappointed when the rat poison didn’t make it to the dining room table in the first episode. They missed a great plot opportunity there. I’m also sorry to say I find the characters too well starched. And, I don’t buy the benevolent, all-wise Earl of Grantham bit – history shows the lord is more lech than liege.
You’ll never see this on Downton Abbey. Photo by Frank Kovalchek (thanks, Frank!)
As the story minces along we see the earl right wrongs and the menials learn from his example. Spare me. If the conceit were indeed true, the house staff would be a crew of entitled loafers by season’s end. Downton Abbey perpetuates the myth that the upper classes deserve their bastion of superiority and the rest of us who benefit from the philosophical wisdom, moral leadership, and puny wages dispensed from on high are meant to accept the status quo. There’s a scene in which Grantham tells Cawley letting the help wait on him is actually a kindness to them (“everyone has a role to play”), a self serving sentiment if ever there was one.
Every installation of privilege dispenses this propaganda to justify a lopsided state of affairs. We all know the reality: the 1% are more debauched and fraudulent than exemplary, and trickle down of anything is unlikely, except maybe syphilis.
The Help at Curraghmore House, 1905, National Library of Ireland
A more interesting set of characters than the Edwardian paper dolls at Downton Abbey are the flesh and blood Brontes of Haworth. I recently read Juliet Barker’s meticulous biography of the famous authors and their father. In addition to writing a compelling, multi-dimensional narrative and character study of creative genius, Ms. Barker provides social and political insight into the first half of 19th century England. We learn, for example, that in the 1830s the Haworth mill owners were in a twist when new laws were passed to prevent children 6 years old working more than 48 hours per week, and children 12 years old working more than 60 hours per week. (Now we know how the Granthams made their money.)
Oyster shuckers, Port Royal, South Carolina, or as today’s GOP would say “the good old days.” Photo by Lewis Hines
Having already read Emily and Charlotte’s wonderful books, I was inspired to pick up Anne Bronte’s novel “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” In contrast to Emily’s deep soul haunting and Charlotte’s feminist angst, Anne’s prose is charmingly domestic with delightful phrases such as “in correction for his impudence, [he] received a resounding whack over the sconce.”
So next Sunday will find me reading in my chair in front of the woodstove, instead of watching Downton Abbey.
The Bronte Sisters as painted by their brother, Branwell
Posted by Alice Gebura, Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved.