Downstairs in Downton Abbey

If the servants, then, reflect the snobbery and rigidity of the great house they serve, they also reflect its prestige and station. Carson instructs his staff, "A good servant's pride and dignity reflect the pride and dignity of the family he serves." This notion is conveyed visually in the show's logo, which depicts the household standing at attention in a precise reflection of the Abbey's silhouetted skyline above. The point is that the servants' human value and dignity does not exist despite the rigid class hierarchy, or even incidental to or independent of it: the servants' human dignity is guaranteed by the rigid class hierarchy. It is that great chain of being that lends meaning, value, and a redeeming decorum to the filthy, backbreaking labor that fills their days. It is the social order itself that invents a legitimizing and even ennobling mythology of service for the lower social stations: the second footman muses in awe that the head butler "must come from a line of butlers going back to the Norman Conquest!"

If this sounds like a defense of rigid class hierarchies, well, it's not, quite. I'm an enlightenment modern like the rest of us; I can't help it. I do believe that the measure of social mobility and equality provided by our modern social order outweighs the security and meaning provided by the older rigidly class based order. But just barely, and something very important is lost. From our flat modern perspective, one in which all humans are created equal and distinguish themselves on the basis of individual merit, there is no legitimate way to interpret menial domestic service.

Matthew, the show's representative of modernity, articulates this clearly when he remarks to his unwanted and, in his view, unnecessary butler, "Yours seems a rather silly occupation for a grown man." Without the social depth and dimensionality of the great chain, and without the relational dignity it sheds on the lower orders, a maid's menial labor for an able-bodied employer can only be seen in the harsh flat light—electric, no doubt—of a depthless transaction that offers no deeper meaning or value to the work.

And yet menial domestic labor still must be done, even for us moderns in our modern homes. And it is still the poor who will perform that labor for the rich—but without the benefit of an ennobling system of meaning. This should pose a profound ethical challenge for those of us who inhabit this world so comfortably.

4/12/2011 4:00:00 AM