The Magazine

Class Distinction

Why ‘Downton Abbey’ resonates with me— and everyone else.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By WENDY BURDEN
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I’m not much of a TV watcher. Other than Top Gear episodes that feature Porsches, I tend towards Iron Chef or reruns of Two Fat Ladies. I lack the commitment ethos required (and invariably tested) by a multi-narrative television series.

Photo of Lady Mary Crawley in repose

Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) in repose

That being said, I confess I have spent this winter happily overinvested in Downton Abbey, absorbed in its lovely, bygone excess, and deeply concerned with the sluggish romance of Mary and Matthew—not to mention the war-torn state of the latter’s reproductive organs. And even though the second season of this PBS blockbuster has reached the end of its run, it is still being gushed about ad nauseam.

Justifiably so, for it satisfies on every level. The visuals are particularly toothsome; the production design would thrill the chambers of any OCD heart; and the costumes are equally fulfilling. The acting is first rate as well, Maggie Smith notwithstanding—she is genius. (And as a comrade-in-arms who shares a similar ocular physiognomy, not to mention marital status, Ms. Smith, as the Dowager Countess, has made mature widowhood, with all of its hard-earned intolerance, rather more appealing.) All of the predominant characters seem to inspire unusually strong feelings in viewers. Take Carson, the butler. He may look like a Maybelline mascaraed penguin in drag—even in his PJs. But I for one want to nest under his authoritative chins. That Carson knows precisely where he himself nests in his English God’s plan is the bulk of his
enormous appeal.

The mania for Downton is such that there are even a slew of online questionnaires you can take to see which character you are. Most of these are predeterminately fixed, just like all those “How Good in Bed Are You?” quizzes I used to take back when I was a virgin in high school. (According to Cosmo, I possessed the skills of a hooker, though no one has told me so since.) The quiz on the PBS website is not dissimilar, in that it is geared towards allowing anybody with the IQ of a tea bag to be deigned the character they most admire, be it the icky chauffeur Branson or the fabulously svelte and arch Lady Mary. This is a likely explanation for why everyone who has completed it is smugly self-satisfied: A sweet-natured friend protested she didn’t want to take the test because she just knew she would be O’Brien. But when a final click on the return key brought that villainous maid’s sneering, snake-coiffed visage to the computer screen in affirmation, my friend was clearly thrilled.

For me, however, Downton is more than mere entertainment; it is a masterclass in comedy writing. I possess scant literary training beyond high school English. What I learned about writing I learned in art school, cooking school, and even restaurant management school—and that was to ape the great, be they Michelangelo, Escoffier, or Benihana. Ask writers to borrow their books and they may be reluctant. That is because most pages are marked up and underlined and labeled with references for future use.

Downton has become my secret stash of snappy dialogue and one-liners. I watch it with paper and pencil because it’s a veritable candy bowl full of ideas for the taking. The wit, the placement, the delivery of lines, the clever vocabulary—I had forgotten what a potent word vulgar is—it’s all there for the taking. So when the Dowager Countess philosophizes, “It always happens. When you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink,” I think—hmmm, how can I use those showstoppers “little people” and “strong drink”? Same with “Of course it would happen to a foreigner; no Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.” Or “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H. G. Wells novel.”

Downton is dotted about with other small lessons in comedic writing, like Carson with that newfangled telephone. Or my favorite: When Cora is puking blood all over her deservedly guilt-stressed maid O’Brien, and O’Brien is, like, there, there milady. Didn’t that bad puppy come to heel. Then there’s the onscreen exercise of spelling out an accent. I hit the replay button (well, of course, I own the DVD set) and work on my phonetics: Anna to Mr. Bates, “Mista Beets .  .  . but Mista Beets!” All these tutorials are of paramount importance when a writer is focusing on embellishing a character, even though they might ultimately be cast aside by an editor in the way a mother scrubs makeup off her 8-year-old.

Double entendres abound. Downton Abbey is also a masterclass for those of us who miss the summer days of our now-depleted trust funds. Watching the Crawley family, you long to support the old class system. Really! As long as you are extra nice at Christmas, and let them have HDTV with the mega cable package, the servants (and it’s okay to call them that when steeped in Edwardian period dramas) will respect, if not adore, you.

That I ever got a book published, I freely admit I owe to the class system. Seriously. Nobody would have read the manuscript for my family memoir if it had been about poor people behaving badly. Yea, I am a product of the American blueblood class—specifically, a family that made a lot of money, and then spent and imbibed themselves into virtual extinction. During the time of the American Heiress Buccaneers, one of our clan married the Duke of Marlborough—quite famously, and with tepid results. She got stellar pearls, and he got her money, and my great-great-grandparents got to go hang out with royalty. The aristocracy of Edwardian England was then faithfully reconstructed in my family’s very own costume drama stateside, and they orbited seasonally around several piles, the largest one a faithful replica of Hampton Court. Number of servants: 200-plus.

Cora may be excluded from her mother-in-law’s sorority, but she’s fared better in Downton Abbey than most of her ilk. Presumably she will not get a divorce in season five and hightail it back to Long Island, the way Cousin Consuelo did. She and Lord Grantham appear to love each other, and if Cora got a whiff of the servant maid on her man’s fingers, she hasn’t let on. Her children may occasionally berate her for being an American, but then Cora deserves it: Enough of those tight-lipped soupy stares, already.

Seeing Cora with her breakfast tray in bed is a scene from my own grandparents’ home life. I can’t recall them ever having theirs seated at a table. And though I’m not certain the Wall Street Journal got a once-over with the iron before it was presented in the side basket of the Porthault breakfast tray, I did have a cousin who insisted his New York Times be practically Botoxed. One of my grandfather’s butlers even looked like Carson, though his name was Hector. Each one in the long line of them was prouder than the next, Hector’s predecessor having been usurped from President Eisenhower.

These men served my grandfather as butler and valet, in the American tradition. Not only did they tend to the running of the staff, and the silver, and the wine cellar, but they brought my grandfather his breakfast tray in bed, dressed him, and served him at lunch—at the office, even, if he was there—and at cocktails and dinner, before undressing him and virtually putting him to bed. In the early 1980s, Juan, the Basque coda of my grandfather’s history of butlerdom, expressed a desire to have the title of his position changed to “personal assistant.” My grandfather, grudgingly succumbing to the new age, accepted, and was dead in a year.

So you see, it’s in my DNA to wax nostalgic about the dissolving
class system.

I’ve gotten my just rewards, though, living as I do now in my adopted city of Portland, Oregon. In spite of myself I remain, and beat on against the current of political correctness and übergemütlich social encounters, halfheartedly maintaining the mores of an East Coast trust fund baby who came of age in
the seventies.

But there are glimmers, thanks to Downton Abbey. The other day I crossed the threshold of my local bank and was instantly, as is the norm, fired upon with joyous call-outs of How is your day going so far? Typically, I have my phone to my ear in a pretend conversation, but this time I thought: What would the Dowager Countess do? (Not that she would be there in the first place, since she’s probably never handled currency in paper form.) So I try a Dowager Horrified Reaction: I roll my eyes so hard they practically fly out of my head—not that anyone notices (it’s the Northwest)—and I think, Let the tongue sharpening begin. Waiting in line, I run through possible dialogue to be scribbled down back in my car. I even wonder if I will have to acknowledge the source: Dialogue coaching provided by Julian Fellowes.

I certainly hope not. Fellowes is arguably Britain’s biggest snob, a man so class-obsessed he changed his surname to include that of his wife, and publicly mounted a campaign to rid Great Britain of its primogeniture laws so that she (they) could have inherited an earldom that went out of existence when the last, issueless Earl Kitchener died last year.

Arse or not, Fellowes is a screenwriter at the top of his form and has managed to create a brilliantly entertaining portrayal of Britain’s elite during their most transitory era. That our uppity Mr. Fellowes is astigmatic in his depiction of aristo Edwardian society (something his countrymen have complained about), I don’t care. I’m American. Let the British worry their hangnails off about the TV aerial spotted in episode two, or that the series was clearly not filmed in Yorkshire, where the Crawleys purportedly live. Personally, I love Downton Abbey the way it is. It’s like a Georgette Heyer novel: You know you shouldn’t be enjoying something so decidedly mainstream, a narrative where the answer is invariably “yes,” but it feels so good.

Besides, it’s only television.

Wendy Burden is the author of Dead End Gene Pool.

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