"Downton Abbey’s Sinking Ship"
Guest Writer: Tania Lown-Hecht

Friday, April 6, 2012

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[Below, Tania Lown-Hecht, a grad student affiliate in English and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant last fall, writes about the representation of the estate house in Downton Abbey.]

Downton Abbey’s Sinking Ship

Written by Tania Lown-Hecht (English)

Downton Abbey, Masterpiece Theater/PBS’s dishy new drama about an early twentieth-century English estate, presents a sanitized view of England’s country house despite its engagement with scandal, gossip, and politics. Of course, the show’s rose-colored depiction of a “great house,” and the inter-class relations that entails, is partly what makes it such a hit with audiences. Stripped of the complexities of history, Downton Abbey’s country house is sunny and spacious, and viewers are more worried about who will kiss whom than they are about the class inequalities upon which the show and the aristocracy were built.

The show’s worshipful perspective on the country house should be no surprise to anyone who has heard Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, speak about the program. In an interview about Highclere Castle (the estate where the fictional Downton is filmed), Fellowes marvels that the house’s size and style shows “the confidence of the late Victorians! The confidence of high empire!” This fascination with England’s landed estates seems to lack utterly any historical awareness that these houses were built and maintained by an oppressive class hierarchy and an expanding empire. The show’s representation of Downton’s interior space aligns with Fellowes’ historic amnesia and fantasies about life in an English country home. Fellowes, a self-described former “outsider,” now owns a manor house in Dorset and is a member of the House of Lords.

Title shot for Downton Abbey
The show’s representation of interior life takes liberties with historical reality: Downton’s basement has windows that let light stream in; the servants’ quarters in the attics, as Cecily Garber pointed out in an earlier post, are spacious and bright; the servants happily mend clothes and shine shoes at a scrubbed table in the basement during their time off; and the back-breaking work of washing sheets and hauling boiling water to the bath is notably absent from the diegesis. Long-shots of the house cater to historical fantasies about English country houses: the Earl of Grantham strides purposefully across the grounds with an obedient dog at his side. Back-lit at night, Downton appears to be a gothic castle; filmed from a low angle on a sunny day, it is an imposing fortress. In the title shot for the program, Downton Abbey rises powerfully over what seems to be a body of water, which reflects a darkened mirror image of the house below it. The double image of the house suggests two intertwined possibilities: the mirrored second house we see is both the basement and the reflection of the house above ground.

The relationships we view between the underclasses and the English aristocracy seem to take their cue from the title shot, presenting the two worlds as mirror images of one another. Episodes frequently alternate between scenes of the upstairs dining room, where the family gossips about the servants, and the basement kitchens, where the servants gossip about the family. The show juxtaposes the Earl’s daughters waking up in their sunny bedrooms with scenes of the servants waking up under crisp white covers (albeit several hours before the leisured family). As viewers, we are equally interested in the romance between the Earl’s daughter and the new heir to the house, as we are in the romance between the new valet and the head housemaid—creating a narrative equality that overtakes the material inequalities so seldom explored.

In the world of Downton, boundaries between the servants and the family are rarely contentious. The few scenes that show potential violations of the boundaries between servant-space and family-space are expurgated of political potential. When the Countess of Grantham steps into the servants’ quarters unannounced and overhears O’Brien (the lady’s maid) maligning the new heir to Downton, she chastises the servants. After she leaves, Thomas (the footman) complains, “this is our space, we can say what we like down here.” The scene opens up the possibility for the viewer to consider the experience of servants who live in a household that affords them almost no privacy or ownership over their personal space. However, the show blunts the potential political force of Thomas’s objection. Although modern viewers are likely to recognize the Countess’s intrusion as a violation of today’s norms of privacy, they are also likely to sympathize with her rather than O’Brien and Thomas--characters frequently portrayed as deceitful and manipulative.

To an attentive audience, Fellowes’s fantasy house unwittingly has something in common with the Titanic, which sinks on the day of the show’s premiere episode. When the Earl of Grantham reads the news of the Titanic, he laments the deaths of the third class passengers aboard— “the poor fellows below deck.” Yet neither he nor some other aspect of the show acknowledges the suffering of those “below deck” at Downton. Nor—so far—does the show give much indication of how tenuous the future of the English country house really is at this point in history. I have yet to watch the second season, but I can’t help wondering if Downton Abbey, like the English country house, is another sinking ship.


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Lauren said...

I wish that everyone who watches Downton--whether they love or hate it--would read H.G. Wells's Tono Bungay. This is the most entertaining (fictional) criticism of the country house world-- what Wells calls the Bladesover system after the house in the novel-- that I know of. (Wells knew this from the inside since his mother had been a servant.) Though it's also a criticism of the world that is replacing the Bladesover system of the hero's youth in favor of crass plutocrats who, among other things, will buy great houses like Bladesover and learn to act as if they were to the manner born. Sound familiar? ;)

Claire said...

Tania, I really like your attention to the title image of Downton Abbey. It does seem like the black water represents the darker possibilities of life below stairs that are largely absent from the show. Like Lauren, I might throw another contrasting cultural object into the fray: the PBS series "Manor House." I watched this series last year just after the first season of Downton, and it does seem to show more clearly the ways in which downstairs life contrasts with the sunnier image that Downton presents. And also, the difficulties that people today have adapting to such an un-private lifestyle. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about it.

Lauren said...

How interesting Claire. I too like that part of Tania's post especially. And as I said in a comment on Cecily's Downton post, I am really intrigued by the sudden popularity of this show. I think we should have a group viewing of Season 2 accompanied by live blogging!

Cecily said...

I too like the attention to the title image--hadn't thought of it that way. Perhaps as well the reflection of the upstairs space onto the downstairs space effaces the difference of life below stairs; I mean the space upstairs is completely projected over the space downstairs.

Anyhow, I remember, Tania, you mentioned in conversation a while back something about Mary and the Duke's exploration of the servant's attic rooms--how does that incident play into your thoughts here? Also in the second series, which I just saw, Downton is turned into a convalescent home, which is supposed shake up class distinctions through this different use of the space. Would be curious to hear your thoughts on this if you see it.