Downton Abbey’s Astute Nostalgia
By Peter Augustine Lawler
Last issue, I began my conservative tour of Sunday night TV with an appreciation of the somewhat covert moral message of the HBO series Girls. We can now look to PBS to find a Sunday evening show that has also won critical acclaim, is much more obviously edifying, and caters to the “selective nostalgia” that animates most conservative imaginations: Downton Abbey.
Downton, about the gentle decline that marked the final years of English manor life at its best, tutors conservatives on how to make our nostalgia astutely selective. It highlights both the greatness and the limits of traditionalism, just as it reminds us of what’s best about modern (or more “displaced” or individualistic) virtue.
The way of life displayed on Downton is so attractive because it seems to be the very opposite of what we see on Girls. Everyone—aristocrat or servant—knows his place, his relational responsibilities. There’s a huge emphasis on breeding, on manners and morals. The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world.
We even come to appreciate that many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. The series, as far as I can tell, exaggerates for our edification how much a place like Downton could have been a relational whole. The Earl of Grantham is quite singular in his capacity to think of himself as a kind of father for his whole village.
Lord Grantham has not only the virtues but also the vices of an aristocrat. He had the savvy to marry a rich American woman, but by vainly relying on his own ignorant judgment, he loses all her money in a stupid investment. He is saved only by luck: his middle-class son-in-law comes into an unexpected inheritance. The earl has just sense enough to bring his son-in-law in as a partner, but he bristles when forced to face the truth that his inefficient ways are running the place into the ground.
As the show goes on, the earl’s limited perspective is increasingly enhanced by American and middle-class contributions. Lady Cora, his wife, reminds us constantly that being American isn’t all about the money. The earl, not his American wife, married for money. The democratic woman teaches her aristocratic husband to have an American-style marriage: one all about love and the fun of monogamous sex and sleeping in the same bed with one’s spouse. The earl learns how to practice (with a little struggle) the virtue of marital fidelity. He even learns how to treat his daughters as free persons, whom he can keep around only by allowing them to become somewhat “progressive.”
Maybe the most magnanimous and loving moment in the whole show is Lady Cora’s reaction when her husband (Robert) tells her that he has blown her fortune and will probably have to sell Downton: “Don’t worry about me. I’m an American. Have gun, will travel.” The American isn’t defined by any geographical place; she’s armed with a secure personal identity that can be at home anywhere. This also means, of course, that she will love her husband and children no matter where and no matter what. Robert’s response: “Oh, thank God for you.”
There is one big exception to Cora’s loving acceptance of her husband’s limitations. When one of their daughters dies in childbirth, Cora rightly accuses her husband of having preferred the pretentious advice of a physician with an aristocratic title to the more scientific, caring, and empirically informed advice of the family doctor. The American woman can live with the man who squandered her money, but not with one who chose for his class and against the life of his child.
But Cora does eventually forgive her husband, largely owing to the clever interventions of Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess (played perfectly by Dame Maggie Smith). Intelligent and quick-witted, she’s also the most philosophic character in the show, the vindication of what’s best about aristocracy. Speaking with her son about the death of his daughter, she says: “My dear, when tragedies strike, we try to find someone to blame. And in the absence of a suitable candidate, we usually blame ourselves. You are not to blame. No one is to blame. Our darling Sybil has died during childbirth, like too many women before her, and all we can do now is cherish her memory, and her child.” We have to accept the tragic and invincible fact of death—and that means living well now in love. When it counts most, the Dowager Countess is more realistic than even the American woman.
Downton Abbey shows us what’s best and what’s ridiculous—if not necessarily much of what’s worst—about being aristocratic. It also celebrates the decent business sense of the middle class, the realistic love of the American woman, the nobility of living in service to a lord, the humane achievements of modern medical science, the struggle of both aristocratic and servant young women to become somewhat displaced in a world that has their whole lives figured out, and even what’s admirable about the progressive idealism that liberates women and the Irish. Downton highlights the tension between aristocratic traditionalism and modern progress, and forces conservatives to confront the good and bad in both.
Let’s be satisfied with three takeaways: First, to be personal is to be relational—to find a place in the world with others. Second, all nostalgia is selective, because the world is always getting better and worse. The “best regime” would find a place for both aristocratic and modern ways of life, and Downton Abbey endures as a relational place because it’s open—but not too open—to change. And third, what aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He blogs at Big Think and First Things’ Postmodern Conservative.