Is Downton Abbey the best we can do?

Downton Abbey’s blend of nostalgia and wishful-thinking has been entertaining, but it raises questions about class that have yet to be resolved even now.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
28 January 2016


, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Downton Abbey has closed to visitors at last. Compared to the original Upstairs, Downstairs, it was something of a disappointment. Downton was a soap opera of incident rather than a drama of character. If the period look was superficially credible (and well-acted), the period background of manners and language was questionable. Wholly inaccurate was its depiction of class attitudes of a century ago when in reality servants were seen as little more than robots without inner lives of any consequence.       

The failure of American ventures like Dallas is the presumption that money and the power of money create the required sophisticationDownton’s success in America is no real surprise. Period style is something British popular drama can do. You have only to look at Agatha Christie adaptations. There is a sense of authenticity with actors who look and sound right. Although few are actual gentry, training to play in Sheridan and Wilde (and a grounding perhaps at a minor public school) enable the British actor to convey elegance and a leisurely culture so well. The failure of American ventures like Dallas is the presumption that money and the power of money create the required sophistication. But style comes from within. It is an approach to life that cannot be bought.

It is a question of class rather than status. Dallas was a product of the shallow Reagan/Thatcher notion that designer labels as symbols of advantage could circumvent the incidental paradigms of a class society. Look again at Christie’s sharp perception of class, a factor on which many of her tales rely both for atmosphere and plot. She was critically alert to the revealing nuances of a social milieu more concerned with manners than with morality.

Class is a cultural matter, though it is more than style. Class in a deeper sense concerns the great sweep of social history. With Marx we may agree that class is a way of describing patterns of development rather than a means of stratifying individual experience. We may agree also with Dickens and Shaw that in everyday terms style (accent, attitude, taste and manner) is the determinant of each individual’s experience within society. The two positions on the matter are complements rather than contraries.

Class of course is the great stumbling block of British society even now. There was a time when we thought it was fading. Everyone young wore t-shirts, spoke a demotic argot and listened to rock music, so weren’t we all part of a common culture? For a time perhaps it seemed almost true. But, on reflection, perhaps we middle/upper middle were fooling ourselves. Embedded social structures born of a long and complex history are not dismantled by the idealistic aspirations of an emerging generation of liberal privilege. There has been some flattening to reflect the widening franchise. The furnishings are less gracious, but the great house remains.

We’ve been here before. Every so often the Brideshead comes into view, although the perspective varies. Just recently a respected Anglican divine praised the famous television version for its beauty, a word often used in relation to it. The point being made was that beauty contains a truth. That begs the questions of what is beautiful and of what is true, and whether there is any correlation between the two.

The truth contained in art may be more to do with the sublime than the beautiful. The sublime requires intellect as well as aesthesis. Truth is a moral quality, rather than a question of pleasing effects. Iris Murdoch’s distinction between the Nice and the Good (in the novel of that name) is one that we may overlook too often. How easily we are persuaded by the superficially charming. Good humour and good manners may conceal wicked intentions. We only see this when it is too late – if we see it at all.

The beauty of art speaks of depths of experience and understanding beyond the contingencies of the everyday world of the immediate and the necessary.Beauty, however, is not mere surface detail. The beauty of art speaks of depths of experience and understanding beyond the contingencies of the everyday world of the immediate and the necessary. It moves into the sublime when fear as well as love may be evoked in the name of art. The grammar of film includes the stark irony of elegant music accompanying horrific images. The conflict of feeling is intentional. We are pulled in contrasting directions, a dilemma that alerts us to the moral choice.

Evelyn Waugh said that Brideshead Revisited described the ‘operation of Grace’ on a set of diverse characters. They came, in other words, to some sort of understanding of the deeper meanings of life beneath the surface. Charles Ryder gains so much undeservedly, only to lose it and thereby gain some insight. He did not, you may think, deserve to lose so much. And perhaps he did not deserve the mercy of better understanding. He thought he was master of his fate, but the interplay of truth and beauty got the better of him.

How well this works as art is questionable. Nostalgia and snobbery are at work in both the novel and its adaptation. They perpetually threaten to overwhelm it. That it succeeds to sustain our sympathy for the characters is a measure of Waugh’s exquisite craft and also his moments of incisive perception, especially of the more selfish motives for human behaviour.

Arguably, Brideshead Revisited is a lesser work than those earlier books where, so it seems, Waugh cannot decide whether he admires or despises the frivolous upper class types he depicts. The tension this conflict of emotion brings is the dynamic of Waugh’s terse, sardonic style so suited to the anxious hedonism of the inter-war years. Brideshead Revisited is Waugh’s answer to his own question: yes, he does admire that upper class milieu, for all its failings.

It is an outsider’s reflection, of course. Ryder is not an aristo himself, and if he were he could not ask the question. As an aristo he would simply accept Brideshead as a fact. It could be a fact he rejects on political grounds. But he could not question its reality. For Ryder the charmed life of Brideshead is a dream he has entered, like a visitor accidentally opening a private door, only to be welcomed as a guest rather than an intruder. Whereas the nameless heroine of Rebecca feels ill at ease, Ryder accepts gracious living as to the manner born. In that respect Waugh’s novel is emotionally false.

It is socially false, too – a nostalgic retreat into a Neverland contrasting with the realities of post-war reconstruction. 1945 contains its myths, but to some extent things could not be quite the same again. At least, not for the middle classes. No longer could my grandparents employ a uniformed maid for a few shillings. But that did not mean the egalitarian contingencies of wartime were going to continue. It meant that the class structure was redefining its priorities and reshaping its appearance.

Class is not as readily discernible as popular culture suggests. The polarity between upstairs and downstairs of past times has given way to a more fluid, less marked and therefore less obvious scale of precedence. Contrary to the notion that we are all one great community, social relations continue to be determined by hierarchies, though they may be defined in democratic language. The rich and influential may stress their ‘working class’ origins as social credentials for their personal advantage. Power and the power of money now seem to be the determining factors. The style is hard-edged and street-wise even as it savours haute couture and fine dining. The new hierarchy does not seek to mimic the old, Thatcher-style. It announces its triumph over everything.

We look on the climate of a vanished era, and try to make sense of it. The past is indeed a foreign country. Even our own past can seem impossibly distant. We can recreate the past in imaginative terms. For that imaginative enterprise to work there has to be some evident distance, a reflective irony that engenders a critical sympathy. The conservative desire to return to a golden age the day before yesterday has to be countered by a radical desire for a more promising future over the near horizon. Brideshead Revisited can see no future except a world where Brideshead is a museum, a monument to a discarded ideal that thought style was everything.

After 1945 the world was going to be communitarian in an ethic that valued everyone and required of everyone a contribution to the general pool of resources. The pleasures of the few were to be opened to the many. Nobody was going to be deprived. Nobody was going to take more than their share. Privilege was to be earned. The enterprising individual would seek communal support. Society was to be enriched by new styles of living for all.

But it isn’t like that. Whatever may be claimed, however it may look, it isn’t like that at all.


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