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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