imon Schama holds a place of honor in our home. Preparing for a trip to London in 2005, we watched his video series “A History of Britain” over the course of several weeks. Our boys loved it so much that they would chant “Britain! Britain!” after dinner. His history of the French Revolution, “Citizens,” was masterful.
So it’s with the greatest respect that I disagree with him about “Downton Abbey,” the first television series to keep my interest since, well, “The Sopranos.”
Schama thinks he detects the “clammy delirium” of nostalgia in the Tea Party’s “ache for a tricorny country,” “radio ranters” selling Americans on a false paradise of pre-Social Security and Medicare America, and now viewers are racing to their TV sets on Sunday nights to catch “Downton Abbey” — a “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.”
America, Schama scolds, “desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present” is gobbling up this newest Edwardian-era story because of our secret longing to be members of a defunct aristocracy.”
Who is being the snob here? Schama, an Englishman, proposes to elevate our taste. The series irritates him because he still recalls the sting of being “put in his place” by the “toffs” in the 1950s and 1960s. We credulous Americans are too easily swept off our feet, he protests, by these country house tales.
Oh, please. There were similar complaints in the 1970s — before the era of talk radio or the Tea Party — when Americans were swept up in “Upstairs, Downstairs” fever. The critics, then as now, are quick to suspect class-consciousness in the American psyche. They assumed that viewers loved the series because it fulfilled fantasies of living the coddled life of the upper class, with scads of disposable servants warming the bed sheets, polishing the brass and ironing the lace.
Not really. In “Downton Abbey” as in “Upstairs, Downstairs” some of the noblest characters are to be found below stairs. Bates, the earl’s valet, is partially lame from a wound sustained in the Boer War. He bears his disability — along with the cruelty of two of the other servants — with fortitude. His quiet integrity and long suffering seem to be rewarded by the love of a ladies’ maid, Anna. But there are plot twists coming.
As Schama acknowledges, the series is “fabulously frocked and acted.” The sets are gorgeous, the actors stunning, the costumes dazzling and the story captivating. It isn’t great literature. It’s melodrama, with clear villains and heroes, with boy meets girl, girl loses inheritance, girl loses boy, misunderstandings, sex scandals, blackmail, sibling rivalry, lost opportunities, jealousies, lies, flower shows and war.
Among the servants and the aristocrats, there is thwarted romance, betrayal, cunning, generosity and gentility. The viewer sympathizes completely with the servant who longs for a better life and takes up a correspondence course in typing so that she can earn a better living and escape the grinding work and foreshortened possibilities of a parlor maid. And the viewer’s compassion is aroused even for one of the least admirable servants (a thief himself, he had schemed to frame another), when he is sent to the trenches in World War I. Shaking with fear, he reaches a hand above the trench holding a lighter. When an obliging German shoots through his hand, he manages an escape from the torment of trench warfare.
It’s not an honorable escape, but that’s one of the things that elevates “Downton Abbey” above the usual TV fare. Set in an era when honor was considered as essential as oxygen, the series always sets a moral frame for the characters’ behavior.
“Downton Abbey” doesn’t succumb to the modern prejudice of portraying all aristocrats as morons or monsters, the better to grind the ax about the evils of the old class system. The earl is an honorable man who tries to live up to the code of the gentleman. His mother is spoiled and willful but basically decent.
There isn’t any need to reach for the smelling salts because “Downton Abbey” is a hit. We Americans have not fallen into a swoon for dead British aristocrats. We don’t need lectures on the injustice of the class system. We’ve never had one. When we meet the Queen, we shake hands (1776 and all that). We’re simply enjoying a good yarn — beautifully executed. Come down off your barricade Schama.