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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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.

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