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Class politics in Downton Abbey

The healing properties of aristocracy.

Photo: Radio Times

Downton Abbey is a master class in sumptuous design, compelling stories and aristocratic aesthetics. But whilst one sits down to see how the Crawleys combat the Spanish flu, what one is really doing is betraying their social and economic class in order to adopt themselves into the noble house of Grantham. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Playing class dress up is a perfectly innocent pursuit that, when restricted to the privacy of your own home, has little to no effect on the world at large. 

It’s another form of escapism, except this type is mired in a great deal more political context. While fantasy and sci fi often serve as a convenient release from the dreariness of the modern nine to five grind, shows such as Downton Abbey (and other similar prestige period dramas) offer an escape from one’s social station. Everyone wants to be the 7th Earl of Grantham, the Viscount Downton, Lord Lieutenant, and Colonel of the North Riding Volunteers. And of course they do: when they’re not floundering due to a risky investment in Canadian rail, the Crawleys live a charmed life. 

The exact same can be said for the Windsor’s in The Crown, or the Queen herself in Victoria. And in Downton’s case, the audience is invited to join in on the all rigidly structured, hierarchical fun. It’s easy to lose yourself in the moment and drift into a catatonic state of nobility: one where you observe the narrative of Downton as a simple Earl or Baron watching from the wings. Which is good for the viewer, as much of the show’s villainy tends to arise from the poor and nouveau riche. 

Thomas and O’Brien are perfect examples of the former. No episode is complete without a close zoom on the two concocting some devilish scheme in the stairwell. Nor is it complete without us seeing some up-jumped, self made rapscallion impugning the good name of England’s rich and powerful. The nouveau riche, championed by their symbolic leader Sir Richard Carlisle, are often depicted as cruel, money-hungry, merchants of misery. 

With all this in mind, let’s crunch the numbers. Downton Abbey invites you to masquerade as a member of the British ruling class for a crisp hour and a bit while encouraging you to go after the poor and nouveau riche like a pack of well trained hunting beagles. After crunching those numbers (which on reflection look suspiciously like letters), you’re left with a whole lot of nothing. 

At the end of the day, everyone needs to feel like an oligarch every once in a while. It’s good for the soul. Downton Abbey lures the viewer into a social structure which no longer really exists. One might argue that it’s going strong today but simply by another name. Which is a perfectly valid, perfectly incorrect point. The allure of Downton’s fantasy is not so much the substance of aristocracy but its aesthetic. An aesthetic which is undeniably delightful. If only we could keep the velvet drapery and grand staircases of a ruling nobility without the class oppression. 

While at first glance it may seem like Downton’s viewers are traitors to their class, it’s important to remember that at its peak Downton had 13.3 million viewers per week in the UK alone. It’s difficult to be a traitor when everyone else is a traitor too. One can enjoy fictionalised portrayals of unjust power structures and their associated aesthetics without betraying anyone. All it really shows is that you like sandstone castles.