"Upstairs, Downton?"
Guest Writer: Cecily Garber

Friday, March 23, 2012

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) of Downton Abbey
[Below Cecily Garber, a grad student affiliate in English and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant last fall, writes about the representation of class politics in Downton Abbey.]

Upstairs, Downton?

Written by Cecily Garber (English)

While I am as much a fan of Downton Abbey as any other lover of costume drama laced with intrigue and social commentary, a brief dip into the 1970s British series Upstairs, Downstairs, from which Downton clearly takes many cues, has made me think twice about how much social commentary Downton really has, particularly on economic disparity and class differences. Granted, I have only seen the first season of both Downton and Upstairs, Downstairs, but that is enough for me to know that many strands of Downton’s plot are inspired by Upstairs, Downstairs (e.g., both feature gay footmen involved with aristocratic houseguests, daughters with radical political ideas at odds with family heritage, and butlers with an unshakeable sense of dignity and propriety who run the house impeccably). But more interesting than superficial similarities are the ways that parallel strands of Downton and Upstairs, Downstairs play out differently, revealing different attitudes toward the master-servant relationships that are at the heart of both series.

Downton’s first episode features a stranger’s arrival at the estate, a convention that promises to initiate the audience into the customs of the great house by showing how the stranger, in this case the new valet Bates, adjusts to a new way of life. But Bates does not ask the kind of questions that an audience unfamiliar with Downton’s well-oiled system of service would ask. Rather, he appears to be immediately at home and, in fact, relieved to have arrived in this new world. Upon seeing his small and spare room in the attic, containing a twin bed, small dresser, and nightstand all washed cream white, he says, “Oh, yes, I shall be very comfortable here.” Bates is an outsider at Downton, but mostly because he is lame, not because he finds its habits objectionable or unusual. When learning his new duties from the footman, Bates opens a case of snuffboxes, which the master collects; “Strange,” he says, “how we live with this pirate’s hoard within our reach, yet none of it’s ours.” When he does finally remark on the strangeness of master-servant relationships, he doesn’t criticize it and uses the pronoun “we” when voicing this thought; already on his first full day, Bates identifies himself with his fellow servants and his place at Downton so much that he can articulate its inequities as an unquestionable commonplace.

Sarah (Pauline Collins) and Rose (Jean Marsh) of Upstairs, Downstairs
Upstairs, Downstairs opens with the arrival of a stranger too, but one that is a much ruder awakening. The young Clémence is to be the new under housemaid, and she presents herself by knocking on the front door of 165 Eaton Place in central London, the setting of the show. She is shooed to the basement door (unlike Bates who knows to go there and is first seen inside the house below ground). Upon entering the house, she is re-clothed and re-named and thrust into a world that looks unfair and illogical to her. “Clémence” is thought not to be a servant’s name, so she is quickly rechristened the simpler “Sarah.” Sarah questions the butler's authority, asking, “What makes you my better, I just want to know?”

Over subsequent episodes Sarah continues to question the way things are done, pushing the audience to question the system of service too. When she wakes up, she complains about the cold room and floor and the ill fit of the second-hand uniform she has to wear. In Downton the servants’ rooms generally look quite pleasant, washed with light and marked with a shabby chic grace, whereas in Upstairs, Downstairs the rooms are much darker. Sarah complains repeatedly about being stuffed in the attic at night and relegated to the basement for much of the day. She ends up leaving, not because she has an injury like Bates, but of her own volition because she has great imagination and an irrepressible personality, and she wants to see more of the world.

An anonymous tweet takes up Downton Abbey as a text for our times. 
In Downton, it is the unlikeable characters who lack integrity--for example, the lady’s maid O’Brien and the footman Thomas--who most often express strong discontent with their place and bring to light the cold facts of the servant-master relationship. Characters like Branson the chauffer, who question the system from sounder moral grounds, are marginal compared to Sarah. Upstairs, Downstairs thoroughly questions rules that the good servants in Downton quietly accept. I won’t give away the punch line of a pivotal episode of Upstairs, Downstairs’ first season, "I Dies of Love," in case any reader cares to it dig up, but I will say that it makes a mockery of the masters’ “benevolence,” their efforts to improve their servants’ lives; it clearly underscores the dark consequences of the stark differences between opportunities open to different classes.

In light of the growing income disparity in this country and elsewhere, it seems that the forty-year old series Upstairs, Downstairs, at least its first season, is more critically engaged in social debates than the infectious but hagiographic Downton Abbey. Considering the turbulent political atmosphere of 1971, the year of Upstairs, Downstairs’ first season, the earlier show’s more radical outlook may come as no surprise; at a time when “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland were nearly at their peak and debates about immigration to Britain were stormy too, class politics might have seemed relatively tame and well-trod. But then as now unemployment was exceptionally high—in 1971 it reached a post-WWII peak in the U.K.—which is perhaps one reason the unlikely show became so popular (the first season did not air until almost a year after it had been shot, and then at the unpromising time of 10 PM on Sunday evenings, yet went on to run for four more seasons, and ended to its producers’ great dismay only by its creators’ firm decision to do so). Period drama fans today, like their counterparts in 1971, might well appreciate less glorification and more defamiliarization of class differences that speak to disparity experienced in their own lives.


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Sandy said...

A friend pointed out that Downton Abbey has a derivative relationship to MRS. MINIVER as well, even lifting dialog verbatim. Perhaps you might look at that film as well.

Unit for Criticism said...

That's an interesting connection, Sandy. I've always liked _Mrs. Miniver_ and can see why it might have been inspiring (I'm not sure if you've ever seen a great article on Mrs. M. published in ELH a decade or so ago which interprets it as about MGM).

It's been a while since I saw DA it (and I haven't seen Season 2): but the comparison that keeps coming to my mind (apart from Gosford Park which is so different b/c of its Altmanesque conception) is _Brideshead Revisited_. Now that was based on a novel and so still had a lot of Waugh in it. But I'm trying to calibrate in mind--not very successfully!--the relation between Brideshead and its 80s moment (in some ways similar to the present) and Downton and today.

Carl Lehnen said...

Thanks for this analysis, Cecily. I've also been a fan of the show who has occasionally cringed at its class politics. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the rhetorical function of the Crawleys, particularly Matthew, since he seems to be the only one in the show who fulfills a function equivalent to Sarah/Clemence as stand-in for the audience and mouthpiece for its assumed critique of/discomfort with aristocratic anachronism. But of course as heir he has considerable incentives incentive to get over his discomfort!

Cecily said...

All great food for thought, and a lot to watch (for me at least--on top of catching up with Mad Men!). Will be sure to check out Mrs. Miniver, Sandy; have only read about the British newspaper column (in Alison Light's book on conservative lit. in the interwar period), and never seen the film o read the ELH article either.

And I haven't seen the 1980s version of Brideshead, though I did see the 2008 film, which is naturally condensed and so perhaps not really comparable, not being serial and not as well received as the miniseries I think. But what stands out for me is Waugh's sense of humor about the decaying state of the great house--which perhaps is muted in the TV series? And is certainly muted even in Waugh in comparison to his earlier satire. Will have to see the 80s series to see how exactly the upstairs/downstairs dynamic is memorialized. Thank you for this too, Lauren.

And good point, Carl, about Matthew, who does question things at Downton somewhat like Sarah/Clemence does. Hadn't thought of that! Yet it seems that Matthew's criticisms are ultimately depicted as rather short sited and actually inconsiderate of the servants ("We all have our parts to play" etc.) and by the second season (which I just watched) he is fully adjusted to the system it seems--though perhaps if we ever see him assume the helm of Downton, things may change. The world in which Downton operates is sure to change, as the series has said itself!

Carl Lehnen said...

I really agree, Cecily. There's a scene early-ish in the first season that stands out to me, where Lord Grantham gives Matthew a tour of the estate, in part to justify their old fashioned and hierarchical, because it seems emblematic of the whole series as an apologia for a (reformed/enlightened) aristocracy.

Lauren said...

Cecily - the 1980s Brideshead was an incredible television phenomenon. In some ways I think you could argue that it invented "quality" television. I haven't seen it in years and expect that it would look very mannered. Did it mute the decadence? It's been so long I'm not sure but I'm tempted to say that it didn't do so. The whole idea was Charles painting the house which would be turned into flats: I suppose it may have been more elegiac and less ironic than Waugh. Perhaps someone else can give a better answer.

Tania Lown-Hecht said...

Hi Cecily--I am reading this with interest as I finish up my (gulp!) overdue post on Downton, as well. One interesting tidbit I found in my research is an interview with Julian Fellowes, the show's creator, who waxes poetic about Britain's past (he must have a fantastic selective memory). In this interview, he praises the estate's magnificence because it shows "the confidence of the late Victorians! The confidence of empire!" In many ways, his comments sums up what troubles me (and you and Carl, as well) about the show, which is that is starts from a position of nostalgia. The butler, Carson, persistently reminds me of Stevens from Ishiguro's _The Remains of the Day_ except without the ironic undertone.
I'm also very interested in a scene that you mentioned where Bates, examining Lord Grantham's things, remarks that "we live with this pirate's hoard within our reach, yet none of it's ours." I thought your reading of that line was very compelling, though of course I also see it in regards to the presentation of the house's interior space. The servants are not only supposed to be invisible (especially Daisy, the scullery/kitchen maid) but also to feel invisible, as Bates articulates. Though the servants may live among the "pirate's hoard" (and a pirate's hoard it is given that those snuffboxes may have been likely produced in Britain's colonies) they must always be at the margins.

Cecily said...

Carl, yes-- I have to admit the estate's enlightened despotism, the atmosphere of it, is one reason the show appeals to me; as the Dowager Countess says, it makes life seem simpler--everyone has their clear cut role on the Downton "ship" --whether they choose to accept it or not--which seems to be steered by a benevolent and morally grounded leader. It's all so contained and evenly keeled. But thank goodness for critical theory which helps us see beyond that!

And Lauren, yes, in Brideshead of course the estate is to be turned into flats which--the key point. As an American I can't help but think they'd still be pretty swanky...

And Tania, absolutely I have myself compared Downton's Carson to Ishiguro's Stevens. The joke in Downton is that the butler takes the order of the estate more seriously than the master does--yet this is a joke, not something that seriously questions the order of the estate or the order of society which will rapidly change and is so carefully depicted in the Remains of the Day. Have also noted the Carson / Mrs Hughes relationship isn't bristling like the Stevens/ Miss Kenton one. In Upstairs, Downstairs, incidentally, the butler proposes to marry the cook solely to give her a bit of grounding, not because they love each other necessarily, but because it seems the proper thing to do--