At first glance, Downton Abbey just looked like an animated National Trust booklet. What splendour! What lawns! What gracious living! Can you imagine the charmed lives which the owners of this house must have charmingly lived? Well, let us tell you a story… It’s Brideshead Regurgitated, it’s Upmarket Downstairs, it’s what Mark Kermode calls “the Laura Ashley school of film-making”.
But, as June Thomas of Slate pointed out, the show’s set-up actually poses a rather pointed question to its audience. “Do you like these people, or do you just like their lifestyle?” it demands. The problem over the entail and Lady Mary’s inheritance forces the viewer to consider what they’re finding charming and engaging about this world. If it’s the people, and the audience is willing them to be happy and fulfilled, that’s going to involve the family estate breaking up and them losing their ancestral home. If the attraction is simply the fabulous wealth and poshery, that can only be maintained by forcing their daughter to marry against her will. This device seems to undercut Downton’s celebration of fabulous privilege by nudging the audience every now and then to make sure they’re not just wallowing in it.
This dilemma doesn’t last too long, however, and its solution arrives in the person of Matthew Crawley, a middle-class lawyer with exceptionally good bone structure. As the Earl brings Crawley further into Downton, it becomes clear that this isn’t a lament for the lost glories of Edwardian feudalism. It’s a birth myth for the middle class. Matthew Crawley, handsome, educated, and pleasantly “classless”, is the future of England. He’s a clean-cut emblem of what Barbara Ehrenreich called the professional classes, “those people whose social and economic status is based on education, rather than…capital or property”. Just as the ancient glories of the British aristocracy are about to be shattered by the First World War, it turns out that the right man to inherit them is a smart young professional with nice manners.
It seems particularly apt that he’s a lawyer. Open to all, promoting only on merit, valuing intelligence and hard work, the law sums up what the professional class would like to believe about itself. Decently paid, of course, but it’s serious work and some of the top people are really quite dashing. A smart youngster can go far in the law. Tony Blair and Barack Obama studied it. All of which is certainly true, but the profession is not as “classless” as we might hope. The Sutton Trust estimated in 2009 that more than half of solicitors in the elite London firms, and over two-thirds of barristers, went to private fee-paying schools. Their figures suggest that seventy percent of British judges went to seven percent of British schools. One of London’s leading solicitors, David Morley, has said that it is now significantly harder to enter the legal profession if you come from an average income family than it was thirty years ago. This squares with anecdotes I’ve heard from students trying to break into the law, who give the impression that success often requires an Oxbridge degree, or a family who can support you whilst you work for free to make the right contacts. It may not involve titles or stripy ties but this is an elite class reproducing itself, even more convinced of their right to rule by the certificates which confirm they’ve earned it.
This is the group – determinedly “classless” in their privilege – which Downton Abbey bequeaths the nation to. The inheritance, a resonant metaphor left over from Victorian fiction, is used to install the new ruling class. For all its noise about epic upheaval, this is less a social revolution than a management buyout. Perhaps the National Trust was a suitable comparison after all. Jeremy Paxman describes its operations in the 1930s and 40s as a form of charity offered to the landed aristocracy, a way in which the middle class could “save” the great country houses from the twin threats of mass democracy and aristocratic incompetence. These estates are often described as being purchased “for the nation”, which is true as long as we accept that “the nation” is that same group of reasonably well-off professional people who instinctively recognize Matthew Crawley as their spiritual ancestor. Paxman quotes from the diaries of James Lees-Milne, who travelled through the country assessing stately homes for the Trust:
This evening, the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me…A whole social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful? How I detest democracy. More and more I believe in benevolent autocracy.
This is the authentic voice of Downton Abbey, a charmlessly snobbish parable which explains smoothly that of course all that class business is all in the past, though wasn’t it glamorous whilst it lasted? Welcome to Brideshead Rebranded.