Downton Abbey Morality: Conservative, Progressive, or Something Else?

Downton Abbey Morality: Conservative, Progressive, or Something Else? March 1, 2015

Around this time a year ago, my colleague Morning’s Minion happily proclaimed, “Yes, progressives can embrace Downton Abbey!”  The presumed novelty of this idea puzzled me.  As I commented at the time, I didn’t think that was ever in question, and had in fact been uneasily wondering whether my current television infatuation was becoming a thinly veiled vehicle for a kind of ideological progressivism.  At certain times the storyline has appeared to be going down a checklist of tolerance tests, an impression that seemed to be confirmed by one commentary last year in which a producer referred to the appearance of a black man as an opportunity to see how “forward-thinking” each of the characters would be.  This is just the sort of language that rankles me: racism is always wrong and has always been wrong, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with forward and backward and everything to do with human dignity – a truth as old as humanity itself.  But it often feels as if we’re being invited to judge Downton’s characters based on our own supposedly more enlightened time.

And yet, the show’s portrayal of the tumultuous (as perhaps all times are, really) early decades of the 20th century is not entirely unsympathetic toward those characters who struggle with change.  The characters are delightfully complex and respond to the changing times, and each other, in varied and often unpredictable ways.  But overall it’s safe to say that resistance to change is represented most strongly in the upstairs stratum by the matriarch Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, and downstairs by the butler Mr. Carson.

The presence of a strong conservative matriarch always makes things interesting, although the complexities of this are sometimes navigated a bit awkwardly by some of her odder quips: having her avow in one moment, for example, that well-bred women in her day were incapable of feeling physical attraction until instructed, and in another that her son, being a man, “doesn’t have rights.”

Carson, on the other hand, is sometimes relatable, at least for those of us of a certain temperament.  Personally, notwithstanding his nationalistic bent (which I had a bit of fun with in my own earlier post), I can identify to some extent with his temperamental (which is not to say political) conservatism.  This trait has its own complexities: while it often has him coming across as stuffy and reactionary, there is also a certain poignancy that comes through in his less guarded moments, as when he confides to his only real equal in the house pecking-order, the utterly dependable Mrs. Hughes, his fear that his deepest beliefs are going to be held up for public ridicule.  And as audience we have the historical hindsight to know that his fear is not altogether unfounded.  There may be an additional layer of dramatic irony when the same fear is being realized by the show itself, but at the same time, when it’s expressed with that kind of honesty, it’s hard not to sympathize.

And those who can’t muster much sympathy for the hard-nosed Mr. Carson can perhaps more easily find some for Mrs. Patmore, the capable cook who fears being made obsolete by new technologies coming into the kitchen which she struggles to grasp.  A smart and informative primer on the historicity of “Downtonomics” that appeared in the Washington Post last year discussed her symbolic struggle with the electric mixer as well as the more imminent obsolescence faced by the perennially unfortunate Mr. Molesley, whose involuntary downward mobility is disconcertingly compared to “a former printing press machinist now restocking shelves at Wal-Mart.”  I certainly hope we haven’t come to that just yet (said the self-confessed temperamentally-conservative bibliophile writing for a blog – the irony thickens).

A significant part of the show’s dynamism is that amid the easy temptations to judge characters’ prejudices and adaptability or lack thereof, we also see occasional flashes of a truly virtuous kind of conservatism.  The Washington Post article nicely summarizes Lord Grantham’s “social and moral obligation” toward the tenant farmers’ livelihood and time-honored relationship to the estate’s land; in the current season, a subtly significant scene has him explaining to the next generation of estate planners, Mary and Tom, his desire to temper development with caution, “to expand but without spoiling,” reminding them that adaptation, however necessary, need not mean ignoring the good worth preserving.


Keeping to the subject of morality, something should be said (in true Feminists for Life fashion) about the ever-present threat of social shaming, expressed in Downton language in terms of the precarious yet all-important female “reputation.”  A few examples (major spoilers here) will serve this point.

Lady Edith’s reputation is what prevents her from mothering her child openly, a subject made all the more weighty by the preceding season’s plot having dared to broach the topic of abortion.  In the wake of the immense relief of her courageous last-minute decision to give life to her child in a situation fraught with fears and unknowns, the torture of having to keep her desperate love for her daughter a secret becomes doubly tragic.

Elder sister Lady Mary’s shockingly modern sexual experimentation makes her arguably the most culpable, becoming something of a pioneer, not of open promiscuity (she is still at pains to remain discreet), but of serial monogamy.  Her desire to be sure about such a life-altering decision as marriage is laudable, yet the premarital trial run only leaves her more unsure than ever.  (Incidentally, a consequence of Mary’s avoidance of “consequences” is that any idea of natural family planning is reduced to the schoolmarmy pharmacist’s moralistic advice to an embarrassed Anna, “There’s always abstinence.”)

And then of course there’s Anna herself, doubly victimized by victim-blaming social mores, paralyzed from heeding Mrs. Hughes’ sage advice to inform the police or even her husband of her assault, and re-traumatized by the investigation into her attacker’s death.  This is where the culture of shaming is exposed at its most brutal: the specter of the damaged reputation applying even to rape victims is nothing less than a moral outrage.

If we take that outrage as an opportunity to look back and feel superior, however, we’re not being honest.  Contrary to what C.S. Lewis would call “chronological snobbery,” we don’t necessarily know better for having been born later.  Too many rape victims are still shamed into silence.  Too many single mothers are still shamed into seeing the ultimate act of violence against their children – and themselves – as the way out.  And even those who embrace a sex-without-consequences morality have by now been done the profound disservice of being confusingly advised to seek liberation in self-objectification, a poor answer to any longings for either love or surety.


If I seem to be alternating between hard judgment and rave review, I suppose it reflects the generally mixed view that Downton Abbey tends to leave us with in its presentation of responses to social changes with obvious analogs to our own time.  Any perspective on any given time in history will inevitably be filtered, to some degree, by the spirit of our own – one truth postmodernism has grasped well.  Fortunately, Downton Abbey’s characters are fleshed out enough that any such slant is complexified by their humanness.  That is what not only makes for great drama but also makes its elements of social commentary effective: I may at times question the point the narrative seems to be making, but it is always deliciously thought-provoking – and so very human.

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  • I’d far rather be entertained by “The Tudors” (which, for all its deplorable distortions of history, does seem to capture some of the flavour of that horrific period) or even by Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on video, despite the novelist’s–and presumably the scriptwriter’s–heavily anti-Catholic bias, than by television productions about Victorian and Edwardian snobbery. And, in fact, it’s not really the snobbery that leaves me so cold, but, rather, the intense hypocrisy of that era, which contrasts nicely (for me) with the brutal honesty of Tudor ruthlessness.
    Also, Julia, I wonder if you’ve ever lived in Britain and experienced the insidious and all-permeating class consciousness of that society? I have, but even before I did live there for a time, I had read and doubted Nancy Mitford’s assertion that “UC dialect” meant that one could trace a person’s lineage, class and even background in public school by his speech habits and inflections–and then I learnt that it is true!
    I’ll never forget trying to comfort a British VSO volunteer whilst I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka, who was weeping over the fact that she had to go back to “that dreary island-country” wherein “no one can ever get over the circumstances of her birth.” What most Americans don’t seem to know about Britain is that it is definitely the most class-conscious society in Europe, probably because it never had a genuine social revolution, and every time there was an attempt to stage one, as in the labourers’ strikes of the 30s, or the miners’ strikes under Thatcher, it was brutally crushed. In my experience, France and Germany and Italy, countries in which I have also lived or traveled extensively, are far more socially democratic than England. That having been said, however, I will attest to the greater social ease of northern Britain (Lancashire, especially) and of Scotland.
    Also, I say all this as an avowed anglophile, who appreciates modern Britain and British history for reasons other than her social climate.

  • Tanco

    I have no real interest in Downton Abbey, though I do watch it occasionally since others in my house are addicted to the tv show. I view Downton Abbey through the lens a person who refuses to leave the postmodern frame even just to escape into a well-acted fantasy world.

    I am one of the [very?] few who awaits in pregnant expectation when the Crowleys’ candy castle will melt under the cultural supernova of the post World War II destruction of the manorial system by a series of Labour governments. Unfortunately, the series will probably not chronologically extend until the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the curtain call for this kind of upper-class British life. Why topple the house of cards when we’re all having fun?

    The moral failings of the clan are to be expected. Unsurprisingly, Downton Abbey plotlines exhibit affairs. The premarital romps rival today’s freshman dorms. However, persons accepted today, such as gay characters, suffer with the immoral expectations of a particular time (ie the gay character who attempted chemical castration as a “cure”). Even including dubious “cures” for homosexuality, there is not one morally-charged activity on Downtown Abbey which doesn’t happen today. So, why then is the dramatized scandal of the Abbey’s moral decisions exaggerated? What use is this effect?

    Downton Abbey must follow to its inevitable end in the rise of postmodern Britain from a war pockmarked landscape. At the end, fantasy must meet reality. In that way, im/morality will be uncovered as not unusual behavior in a “prudish” era, but constants of the human condition.

    • Julia Smucker

      Well, I think it’s been the beginning of the end since the beginning, which is what drives the overall plot, but it’s hard to imagine how the whole series will end.

      There’s a whole other moral point there about the homosexuality cure. The focus is put more on Thomas wrestling with his sexuality and the sexual mores of the time (another thing we’re supposed to cluck our tongues at), but my thoughts went to the racket those people have who are peddling the supposed cure. Quite apart from questions of sexual mores, to knowingly sell placebo treatments, and with unsterile instruments to boot, is all kinds of wrong.

  • Ronald King

    Julia, “…Downton Abbey’s characters are fleshed out enough that any such slant is complexified by their humanness…” For me, this is what gives the viewers a potential benefit. Due to the complexity of our brains’ ability to observe, react and anticipate we are placed in a situation in which we instinctively respond to what we see and hear. This gives us the opportunity to develop empathy towards each character regardless of their social status. The more a character is developed the more we are given the possibility of viewing them with an empathic understanding. The less a character is developed there is less of a chance to develop empathy. Watching Downton Abbey gives the observer a chance to discover the inner bigot within all of us.

  • Julia, thank you for taking up the topic of ‘shaming’ in the Downton Abbey story line in the second half of your post. To my mind it’s not necessarily the experience of shame itself that is problematic (do you agree?), but that it is inflicted with malice as a weapon; a retribution. You forgot to mention that Edith was a ‘shamer’ of the highest order regarding her sister Mary’s reputation when she exposed her affair with the Turkish diplomat who died in her bed.

    I’m tempted to regard all shaming as wrong because it arises externally (not from the individual’s conscience or spirit) and is usually accompanied by malice or false righteousness. Anna’s situation of course is manifestly unjust as you point out and beyond the pale. Now we can argue all day about who is more progressive/conservative in this matter and the Edwardians would certainly see themselves as highly developed in this area and they would surly regard current standards as bankrupt rather than enlightened.

    I’m curious how most viewers handle the shame that Mary and Edith both exhibit. Is this all about a loss of reputation or is there some deeper guilt that lurks beneath? How much of their ‘remorse’ lies in being found out? There are many parallels in their experience including the dread sense of shame before their father, Lord Grantham. Interestingly, in both situations he discovers their woe before they ‘confess’ and he wants to help them. Eventually he presses the matter and takes his concern to them with a desire to help them and they are in turn intensely relieved and unburdened. In each case Lord Grantham stands humbled with his own infidelities in mind and asks his daughters to forgive him, but they are so tightly wrapped in their own despair that this escapes them.

    Mary’s ‘salvation of forgiveness’ was very climatic (dramatic too) and if you recall she was then willing to bear her reputational shame with much less burden if her situation became public. Author Julian Fellows deals again with intense shame in Rose’s father-in-law who is nearly ‘shamed’ as collateral damage with Thomas’ connivance against the house butler. Rose and the Grantham’s save him from embarrassment with his wife. Even here, he is unwittingly taken down a notch and the better for it.

    What the modern mind has to contemplate is whether any sense of innate shame (meaning specifically apart from the loss of reputation or rigid social mores) in these two young ladies (and the Jewish father-in-law too) is warranted or beneficial? If it is not, then their father’s forgiveness is misunderstood or perhaps not needed.

    • Julia Smucker

      Interesting questions, Tausign. I think there is an important distinction to be made here, some would say between guilt and shame, or perhaps ‘remorse’ is a better word than ‘guilt’ here. Or, thinking especially of what happens to Lord Sinderby, there is a difference between being shamed and being humbled. With that sort of distinction in mind, I think the experience of being shamed and the malice of the shamers are interdependent and inherently negative, as opposed to the genuine conviction of conscience. Lord Grantham is a good example of this too, in that his being “humbled with his own infidelities in mind” repeatedly leads him to forgive.

      For the other examples at hand, we’ve seen Anna express feelings of shame despite not having done anything wrong. The others are more complicated, because there are degrees of moral culpability involved, so the remorse for wrongs done and the fear of shaming are tangled and harder to separate. I think particularly in Edith’s case, the absence of the latter would allow her to regret her mistakes, forgive herself and be forgiven, and live with the consequences both good and bad. But her endangered reputation (in other words, the threat of public shaming) prevents her from being honest, and that’s what has tortured her this whole season. That’s what makes her conciliatory father-daughter scene so satisfying.

      I’m trying to remember a similar scene with Mary, but I’m not sure what you’re referring to in this case. There was the nasty business of the broken engagement with the newspaper man, but as I recall Lord Grantham never did find out about the Turkish diplomat (though she did tell Matthew in a climactic unburdening), nor about her fling with Tony Gillingham.

      • I think we are in major agreement regarding the ‘shaming’ issue. There is a sense however where the individual conscience turns upon itself (and in a spiritual sense this is the work of the Holy Spirit) and shame descends upon someone and leads to conversion. Pope Francis used the term ‘shame and mercy’ in this sense yesterday (3/2/15) in a homily given at Santa Maria. “Feeling shame and blaming oneself, instead of assigning fault to others, judging and condemning them. This is the first step on the path of Christian life which leads us to ask the Lord for the gift of mercy.” – See more at:

        You say…but as I recall Lord Grantham never did find out about the Turkish diplomat Oh, but he did. I believe it was in season 2. Mary’s behavior is seemingly odd concerning Matthew (she puts him off and accepts the newspaper owner’s proposal of marriage) and Lord Grantham cannot fathom why. He is truly disturbed. Finally, Cora unloads the entire affair as the camera fades. Lord Grantham has grudgingly promised Cora to say nothing to Mary but ultimately the situation is ripe and he chooses to share his knowledge.

        In the library, when they are alone Mary is sulking about her marriage predicament to someone, who as Lord Grantham puts it, ‘makes you set your teeth’. At this point LG quietly asks, ‘Could this have something to do with the dead Mr. Purmook (sp?) who was found in your bed?’ Mary is mortified, truly in shame (though not shamed) and she replies with something like ‘You must truly be disappointed with me’. Yes and no, he assures her of his love and then begins to suggests solutions such as moving to America and living with her American grandmother for awhile or perhaps going to Chicago and ‘finding a wealth cowboy and marrying him’. Mary leaps up crying ‘Oh Papa’

        I hope this helps you to remember as this scene was one of the best in the entire series. Edith’s scene was somewhat of a parallel event, but it seemed like an minor echo compared to the high drama in Mary’s scene. But Edith always get short shrift doesn’t she? Finally, Mary did confide the whole affair to Matthew before their marriage.

        • Julia Smucker

          Yes, Pope Francis is clearly using the word ‘shame’ in a different sense than I was – more along the lines of remorse. Semantics can be confusing, and I wish I could find a handier distinction for what I’m trying to get at, but I think we are really on the same page.

          Funny, I know I’ve seen it but I barely remember that scene you describe. I do remember there was some talk about sending Mary to America to ride out the public scandal that somehow never materialized.

          Come to think of it, it’s also kind of funny how America has become kind of a dumping ground for absent characters, when they can avoid being killed off.

  • Melody

    I’m addicted to Downton too; even as I sometimes want to slap some of the characters upside the head. I am glad that Edith went ahead and gave birth to her baby. But the child has been through two foster homes, and is now with her mommy. Oh, wait a minute. We can’t tell anyone that she’s the mother, she has to be a generous stranger who just offered to take little Marigold in. And I couldn’t believe that Violet and Rosamond wanted to send her to a boarding school in France! This is all about the adults, and reputations, etc. rather that what is good for Marigold. And I am sorry for the foster families who loved her. To Edith’s credit she genuinely loves Marigold (unlike Lady Mary who doesn’t seem to have a maternal bone in her body). She just isn’t able to translate that love into looking people in the eye, and saying, “Yes, I have a baby. I’m going to keep her.” Yeah, I know. “Papa Don’t Preach” wasn’t a song of that generation. At least now it seems that Marigold can share the nursery with George and Sibbie (until Sibbie and Tom go to America). I admire Cora and his lordship for being willing to do that.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I have never watched even a minute of Downton Abbey and have no desire to do so. I am old enough to remember when Upstairs, Downstairs was also all the rage. I was too young to form a critical opinion of it, but the few episodes I saw bored me to tears.

    My own prejudgment of D/A was that it was going to whitewash the British upper classes in order to have characters that were sufficiently sympathetic to early 21st century viewers. Polly Toynbee has a scathing leftist review of D/A along these lines, one which draws on some historical work to suggest, that “things were different back then.”

    • Ronald King

      David, Excellent link. I remember my Mother telling that her Grandmother worked as a maid for an upper class family in Pittsburgh and they refused to address her as Elizabeth because that name belonged to the upper class.
      The sociopathic/narcissistic tendency to treat others as objects stems from being treated as an object which is good or bad depending on how the developing human being adjusts to the demands of the environment. Since we are wired for safety, belonging and imitation we are more prone to repress/suppress any feeling that may potentially disturb an insecure attachment to a caretaker. This begins the process of developing a false personality based on fear and shame which has the core belief of not being good enough.
      Another factor which I see as critical to the dysfunction in these intra/interpersonal dynamics is the lack of touching which is extremely critical for developing a healthy sense of self. Along with this is the expression of love which is lacking. This leaves the person with a void which eventually becomes identified as shame for which it is believed there is no cure. Consequently, one must always be on guard against any threat which may expose the underlying truth. Rigidity becomes protective mechanism to keep self and others in a predictable relationship. However, the vulnerable and hidden truth of the self is always there attempting to be free from the intrusive authoritarian who has burdened her/him with lies and fear.
      As I see it the morality of Downton Abbey is evolving towards more empathy and compassion. This happens when shameful family secrets and societies’ secrets are revealed and openly explored. Only then can shame begin to transform into acceptance.

    • Mark VA

      I’m old enough to remember the “The Forsyte Saga” from the sixties:

      It seems that the English (let’s get this terminology right) entertainment media will keep cranking out these soap operas / tv novelas / “masterpieces”, for as long as the world’s fascination with aristocracy holds.

      Now, to be fair, the English are perfectly capable of producing first-rate, self-effacing satire:

      Or this:

    • Julia Smucker

      David, who knows, the way social issues and change in general are presented, you might be surprised. Yes, it does this in a sympathizing way for the sake of drama, but universally so. I imagine if romanticizing the aristocracy were the goal (rather than an arguable side effect), it would be a very different show, with the servants serving as mere props for the upper-class drama, but far from that, everyone we see on screen is thoroughly humanized (not necessarily the case for a few conveniently invisible plot-drivers, but that’s a whole other tangent).

      I grant that Polly Toynbee may have a point about the realism, or lack thereof, of relationships across class boundaries. But making the language of the time and place more palatable to modern ears, I would argue, is a necessary part of the translation of the setting – as much so, indeed, as not trying for 1920s accents. As I said in the OP, the attitudes (even if perhaps muted, which I am too far removed to judge myself) are filtered through, and sometimes judged by, a 21st-century lens – which of course is inevitable because this is the time it’s being made in. In any case, whitewashing or not, to take DA as pure period nostalgia would be a superficial reading.

      I unashamedly admit – though I do watch with a critical mind because that’s how I do everything – that none of this keeps me from thoroughly enjoying it.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I don’t think the show is merely period nostalgia. Were I to pursue the leftist critique seriously (which I will not, because I don’t want to take the time to watch the show), I would explore the extent to which the past is being used to justify class divisions in the present. Reflecting on what Digby said, I think that this is a real concern for the English commentators, and I think one we should take seriously her in the US. Recently, while traveling, I was in the Charlotte airport, and came across a black washroom attendant who was singing spirituals. Despite the shiny, 21st century airport around me, I felt as though I had been dropped back in time 100 years.

        In romanticizing the aristocracy one would not want to reduce the servants to props: rather, you would have to present them them through the lens by which a thoughtful (but not self-critical) member of the upper class would see them. In other words, you would have to make visible the lies the aristocracy told themselves about the class structure. In particular, they would overlook the many negatives that Toynbee points out were part of quotidian reality for the lower classes.

        But, don’t let any of this detract from the fun you have watching this show. My TV vices are legion (ask me sometime about why I religiously watched every episode of JAG) so I cannot fault you without being supremely hypocritical.

        • ’Bless me Father for I have sinned…I watched five seasons of Downton Abbey……mea culpa…and Disney’s version of Cinderella…double mea culpa.’

          I wish someone would create a ‘quotidian reality for lower classes’ rating system to guide my selection of movies, TV and reading material. With such a resource I could locate a Marxist film which accurately depicts a more appropriate quotidian reality of no class. A suitable penance to the ‘fun and vice’ of Edwardian viewing.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Filie meae, ego te absolvo. Say a good act of contrition, and for your penance, I want you to watch the Battleship Potemkin and write a brief report about the heroes of Soviet labor who made it possible.

    • Melody

      David, the Toynbee article makes some good points, however I think it is as much of a mistake to cast everyone in the upper crust as mean and nasty as it is to sugar coat them. As far as the drudgery of daily life, it was pretty much a given unless you were rich enough to have servants. I know my own pioneer forbearers had to deal with outhouses, no electricity, and carrying water, etc. But I don’t get the idea that they felt particularly ill-used, it was just what you had to do. It would probably be different, though, if you had to watch people who didn’t know how to boil water live a life of leisure.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Melody, I think that is the key: it is one thing to do hard, dirty and dangerous work while, in the idiom of American individualism, “being your own boss”; it is quite another to do it for crappy wages for people who think you are scum and don’t deserve anything better. As Marx would put it, this is the alienation of their labor.

        Also, I don’t want to make the mistake of personalizing thi: I am sure many members of the upper crust were polite to their servants and (by their lights) treated them well. Like racism, you must distinguish between individual class prejudice and institutionalized classism, wherein the upper class takes their place in the order of things as natural, and regards the various slights (and outright abuses) suffered by their servants as part of the natural order of things. It is this institutional framework which is much more damaging, not least because it creates the foundation on which individual class prejudice can play out without consequence.

  • Julia Smucker

    So, Tausign parts ways with David, who in turn is drawing on Digby and Marx. The interpersonal dynamics and dialogue here are getting as unpredictable as an episode of Downton Abbey.

    Seriously, my read on how the narrative presents itself is that it’s much more about bucking class divisions and other prejudices (then and now) than justifying them. There may even be more of a trace of Marx than you might think, in the sense that hindsight makes us see the crumbling of the aristocratic social structure (at least in a visibly institutionalized sense) as historically inevitable.

    I also think Toynbee seriously downplays the difficulties that Tom (the chauffeur turned son-in-law) had earlier on in becoming accepted. And for a counter-example, there was a maid who tried to manipulatively use him as a stepping stone to upward mobility, and that didn’t work out so well.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, hard for me to argue about a show a steadfastly refuse to watch. All this evidence based reasoning is overcoming me! 🙂

    • There may even be more of a trace of Marx than you might think…

      Well yes, especially when you consider that in America this is funded in part with taxpayer dollars on PBS. That’s where some progressives can take their consolation if the content annoys them.:-)

      • Julia Smucker

        I just like to think that it being a British import via PBS automatically proves that it’s intelligent television.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I think the Benny Hill show stands as a glaring counter-example, though I must admit that I cannot remember if I watched it on PBS or on commercial TV.

  • Julia Smucker

    I do also want to pursue the rabbit-trail I alluded to earlier about the invisible people, because I had two examples in mind and have thought of a very pertinent third (and David, you might actually like this one).

    I was thinking first of all of Gregson’s wife and then Mrs. Hughes’ sister, and realizing there is a mental illness connection there. And we could also add to this list Mrs. Patmore’s “shell-shocked” nephew who was shot for cowardice during the war, which becomes another source of (unjust) shame for his family. These are people we hear about but don’t see, and as such they are almost a go-to device for plot developments. For all the categorically marginal people who are paraded through to test characters’ prejudices, this set remains decidedly on the margins.

    Granted, I may be making a bit of a stretch to see a pattern here. In fairness to Fellowes, the sister is at least being cared for, and the nephew actually becomes a poignant question mark on a certain kind of nationalistic narrative, his memory a would-be casualty of the war office, along with any validation of the family’s grief (talk about a whole other tangent; that could be a whole other post!).

    So those two cases are entirely forgivable in my opinion, and I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of them along these lines, but the wife shut away in some asylum somewhere has always bothered me. I think I commented on MM’s post last year that she is dehumanized by her absence: she isn’t supposed to matter except as an impediment to Edith’s happiness, and the lengths to which Michael Gregson goes to divorce her we are supposed to applaud as gallantry for that reason, and just ignore that (in contrast to Mrs. Hughes) he shows no sense of any moral responsibility for her well-being. But I’m certain that if we saw her on the screen she would complicate matters by becoming human to us.

    • You are simply too ‘American’ with your concern for ex-wives who are impediments to a proper marriage. Have you forgotten Vera Bates who was roadblock to Anna and John. I think this is a ‘British’ thing going back to Henry VIII…;-)

      • Julia Smucker

        Ah, Vera! The wrench in my theory! We did see her, but she was so full of bitterness as to be utterly loathable (and seemingly reincarnated in Susan MacClare).

        Now here’s another morally confusing parallel: Vera’s death felt like just deserts, but we all wanted Bates to be innocent. And then the same thing plays out with Mr. Green. And now I’m wondering whether this almost Disney-esque theme of bad guys getting what’s coming to them while the good guys retain their purity dilutes the show’s moral complexity. Or maybe it really implicates us viewers for being consistently satisfied with that sort of thing.

        • Mark VA


          The below came across my field of vision today, without me looking for anything related to Downton Abbey. Maybe it’s a message from the, how shall one put it, the “Upstairs”?

    • Ronald King

      Julia, be very aware of your mirror neurons being influenced by your increased levels of dopamine to seek higher levels of pleasure through your serotonin system as you lose yourself in the trappings of Downton World. I am not affected like this when I watch House of Cards. Now I must go to confession for lying. Damn Brits are now colonizing our minds.

      • Mark VA


        It’s the English, not the British!

        I just finished “The Isles” by Norman Davies, thus am well acquainted with many cheerful facts about the paradoxes, peculiarities, and the sensitivities of these misty lands:

    • Melody

      I just watched the season finale (which we DVR’ed) last night, and I was also thinking of the invisible characters, particularly Mrs. Hugh’s handicapped sister, and Anna Bates’ mother, who had been unable to leave her abusive husband who had tried to rape Anna. Among other things it pointed to a total lack of a social safety net; maybe a subtle message that we have made some progress since then. Though there are those who would like to shred that net, and have done their best to pick away at it.
      BTW, did the bit about Gregson’s wife make anyone else think of Jane Eyre and Rochester?

      • Julia Smucker

        Yes! Especially since I finally reread Jane Eyre just a few months ago.

        In addition to the importance of a social safety net, these situations also point to the need for some kind of cultural conversion, in the sense that social stigma and victim-blaming can still block people from using whatever safety net is there.

  • Julia remarked, And now I’m wondering whether this almost Disney-esque theme of bad guys getting what’s coming to them while the good guys retain their purity dilutes the show’s moral complexity. Or maybe it really implicates us viewers for being consistently satisfied with that sort of thing.

    Uh oh, we may be coming full circle here… Yesterday for my ‘penance’ I read a few pages of the comments following Polly Toynbee’s editorial to get a sense of the British response…at least among her followers. All I can say is that it really illuminated and validated Digby’s opening comment to this post.

    There is loads of vitriol and indignation; here’s an example: ”If ordinary working class people have succeeded in the post-war era, they’ve made it thanks to state education, the NHS, the Attlee settlement, the welfare state and all it brought. If they’d been relying on the Downton model, they’d have died of rickets, relied on charity, or subjected themselves to being shagged by the benevolent Lord of the Manor.”

    Here’s another: ”I wouldn’t watch this manipulative pile of drivel. Its very existence is a wretched joke a complete fabrication a disneyesque framing of history.” Perhaps a reference to Mary Poppins.

    Moderation was hardly in attendance with any counter opinions being quickly struck like ‘whack-a-moles’. Digby did say that they never had a ‘proper revolution’. It seems that whatever intentions writer Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford has, he simply is regarded as a conservative member of The House of Lords with no ‘street cred’ among Toynbee’s followers. Hmm….I wonder if this and similar fare is Britain’s version of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’?

    With all of this I have to wonder why it is that so many Brit’s of lowly beginnings allow themselves to be knighted with honorary titles…Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCarthy, Sir Elton John, Sir Bono, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Sean Connery…and the list goes on. There are some who say no, such as John Lennon who sent the Queen a note: “Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag.”. David Bowie dissed the Queen also.

    Egads!…look at this breaking headline: Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, will visit the set of the popular British television show Downton Abbey to visit the servants. CNN News:

    • Julia Smucker

      Oh, crikey! Now I have to back-pedal. Perhaps my “Disney-esque” comment was a bit ungenerous if it puts me among Toynbee’s indignant (and apparently prejudging) followers. Anyway, I was really only referring to the one particular thread in the plot, and the point was that being invited to celebrate anyone’s death, even in fiction, is morally disturbing. Antagonists may be necessary, but they should ideally get a bit of character development to remind us that human beings can do horrible things yet are still human beings.

      About the titles, you made me think of the time Sir Patrick Stewart was interviewed by Stephen Colbert and said that he didn’t believe in hierarchies, and then defended his knighthood by saying he accepted it “on behalf of the people.” Colbert immediately poked a giant hole in that by saying, “Same thing here: I get paid a lot of money to do this show, and I accept it on behalf of the people!”

  • Julia Smucker

    OK, one more thematic addendum and then I will try to quit. (Yes, I need help. But darn if it isn’t so inexhaustibly dissectible for a chronic overthinker.)

    Anyway, this ties into my earlier discussion with Tausign about shame and unburdening: Mary and Edith each found forgiveness upon being found out. Mrs. Hughes was rewarded and Miss Baxter liberated for having to come clean with their secrets. Maybe most dramatically, Anna passed through humiliation and fear to immense relief twice, first when Mr. Bates found out what happened to her and then when he told her he knew who did it.

    Perhaps if there is one consistently recurring moral lesson on Downton Abbey, it’s that honesty pays.

    Finally on a completely unrelated note, there is something irresistibly enjoyable about the dowager savoring her last immoral proposition from a man. Not sure what that means.

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