On Living in a Better World: Diversity and "Downton Abbey"

By Katherine Henderson, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of English

Downton Abbey’s English country house differs from the claustrophobic, homogeneous settings many other period pieces evince. It incorporates a range of types, including characters who are gay, disabled, sex workers, unwed mothers, activists, arrivistes, potential terrorists, murderers, and even an Australian and an African-American jazz singer. In a 2010 interview with The Telegraph, writer and creator Julian Kitchener-Fellowes portrays this diversity as an integral component of the series: “It’s difficult to find an arrangement whereby people of tremendously different backgrounds and expectations all lived under one roof and came into contact daily in the living of their lives.” This “mingling,” he suggests, is the heart of the show, and Downton certainly has been applauded and awarded for it.

Of course, such conviviality indicates more about contemporary values than historical ones. This is not an indictment of Downton’s anachronism, but rather a possible explanation as to the show’s appeal. The vision Downton provides is that all of these characters, however distasteful they find one another, coexist more or less harmoniously under one beneficent (albeit leaky) roof.

The opening credits visually underline the show’s valuation of multiplicity, offering visions of different aspects of the house’s operation. The first shot is of a man’s pant leg and yellow lab striding through the grounds, situating the viewer as both an outsider to the house and an insider, a companion to the walker who is, presumably, the lord of the manor. Successive images elaborate on this insider/outsider dynamic — anonymous or invisible hands open, ring, carry, measure, arrange, illuminate and dust, as the viewer moves from outside to in, upstairs to down, in quick succession. Our implicit perspective is unclear and variable; the camera’s position is close to the point of view of the person whose hands set places at table, but far from that of the shadowy figure with an armful of laundry; we see bells ring in the servants’ hall, but someone else has already set out decanters for us.

Downton's doomed couple Lady Rose MacClare and Jack Ross dream of a "better world."The overall unity, despite shifts of perspective, bespeaks one of the show’s pleasures: a sense of omniscience that transgresses the door separating the house proper from the servants’ quarters — a boundary even the Granthams cannot fully surmount. Dramatic irony thus propels Downton Abbey; characters cannot grasp the entirety of the drama transpiring on the other side of the house, still less the events the future has in store for them. Meanwhile, our access both above and below stairs places us in a position to understand more than any character, as does the historical distance between their lives and our own. When the African-American fiancé of a white English cousin nobly promises to end their engagement, asserting that he wouldn’t do so “if we lived in even a slightly better world,” we are left to assume that the “better world” of which he speaks is the one in which we already live.

When the show raises such specters of historical intolerance, they are tempered by other characters’ equanimity (Lady Mary’s quip to the above comment is, “It may surprise you, Mr. Ross, but if we lived in a better world, I wouldn’t want you to”), as well as by the expectation that viewers naturally will find these prejudices intolerable. Indeed, a common criticism of Heritage productions is not simply that they reflect nostalgia for a gilded age, but that they breed complacency, a feeling that civilization has come quite far from those bad old days. This reduces the oppressions and injustices of history to the quaint, doomed notions of individuals who, we are given to understand, are merely products of their time. Such a sensibility lends itself to retroactive apologism and contemporary quietism, simultaneously minimizing historical conflicts and exaggerating our contemporary distance from them.

Downton Abbey does at times fall prey to this tendency, representing differences of wealth or identity as temporary, isolated obstacles, rather than systemic, ongoing problems. When the aristocrats come around (as they nearly always do), we applaud their hard-earned open-mindedness, and congratulate ourselves on our own preemptive magnanimity. In this way, the show transforms care for national, aristocratic traditions into the cultivation of vague notions of progress, leaving the viewer feeling as though she has already arrived and is looking back, waiting on these old-fashioned characters to catch up. They likely never will, since Fellowes has said that he will not continue the plot past WWII. However, as the remainder of the fifth season airs in the United States and the chronology inches forward, it may be useful to consider what Downton’s multiple perspectives could uncover if its setting ever did converge with that of its contemporary viewership — whose self-righteousness it might reprove, what continuities it may reveal, and whether it would represent the world in which we live as any more than slightly better. 

Katherine Henderson is a scholar of 20th- and 21st-century British literature. She is currently teaching the course Lifestyles of the Rich and English, drawing on E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh — and Downton Abbey — to investigate the transformation of England's grand old country houses and the servants, ghosts, lords and ladies that populated them in the face of two world wars, the Welfare State and decolonization.