Guilty Catholic pleasure? ‘Downton Abbey’

AFP/GETTY IMAGES In an undated handout picture released by TMC – NBC Universal on December 8, 2011 British actress Michelle … Continued


In an undated handout picture released by TMC – NBC Universal on December 8, 2011 British actress Michelle Dockery (R) playing Lady Mary Crawley and actor Dan Stevens (L) in his role as Matthew Crawley pose on the set of hit British television series Downton Abbey.

I’m an over-the-top “Downton Abbey” fan. Lately I’ve been avoiding all Sunday night engagements (at least those that continue past 9:00 PM ET) and am downcast if I haven’t heard the Dowager Countess’s most recent aperçu. Despite the show’s manifest weaknesses (sorry, but didn’t amnesia go out with Susan Lucci?) and because of its strengths (read: Dame Maggie Smith) I’ve been hooked since Season One. Like most DA fans, I’ve watched “Sh*t the Dowager Countess Says” on Youtube more times than I care to admit, and thought that SNL’s Spike TV parody of the show was, hands downton, the funniest thing I’ve seen all year that didn’t feature Melissa McCarthy.

So why do I feel a little guilty when I turn on PBS every week?

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited” (and in the popular 1981 TV series as well) the flamboyant Oxford aesthete Anthony Blanche addresses the protagonist Charles Ryder, a budding artist who is besotted with a Catholic noble family, the Marchmains. Over drinks, Blanche darkly warns Ryder against getting too close to Lord and Lady Marchmain and their privileged children. Why? For fear of the “simple, creamy English charm” that will blight Charles’s creativity and his critical faculties.

“It spots and kills anything it touches,” says Blanche, over four Brandy Alexanders. To underline this, Waugh has Blanche repeat his condemnation years later, after he visits an exhibition of Charles’s paintings.

That line stayed with me all these years (yes, I was addicted to “Brideshead” even as a college student). Sometimes I think of it while I’m taking in the costumes and furniture and manners and breeding and general hauteur of the denizens of America’s favorite English country house. Can charm, as Anthony Blanche warned Charles Ryder, blind our critical faculties? Is all forgiven when people are charming, rich and well mannered, or more specifically (and literally in this case), to the manor born? I fear so.

In other words, I feel the tiniest bit guilty liking “Downton” because it celebrates:

1.) Income inequalities. No, I’m not going to get all “Occupy Downton” on you, and yes, I know that the show also concerns on the downstairs staff (whose love lives are as absurdly complex as, to quote “My Fair Lady,” every peer who’s here). But the main allure of the series for the PBS set is most likely the ultra-wealth upstairs characters. In other words, would “Downstairs” have been as popular as “Upstairs, Downstairs”? What about a show focusing on the dutiful Mr. Bates vigorously brushing Lord Grantham’s dinner attire every five minutes? Or a series on the now-I’m-bad-now-I’m-good-now I’m-sorta-bad-again lady’s maid O’Brien helping Lady Grantham fasten another diamond necklace around her upper-class neck?

It’s hard to overlook the fact that we’re watching a show about rich people who have poor people working for them. And don’t seem to mind. As the theologian Sidney Callahan wrote on America magazine’s blog In All Things: “(O)nce your eyes are fully opened you see the hidden power of class: how it perpetuates privilege while inflicting psychic wounds and cultural deprivation.”

Yes, yes, I know that this season we’re focusing on how much things are “changing” in the aftermath of the First World War, and that’s given the show some added zing, but the Earl of Grantham and his progeny still live in an awfully big house with awfully nice furniture and wear awfully nice clothes. If you really want know how things changed after World War I, dip into Paul Fussell’s magisterial study “The Great War and Modern Memory.” On the other hand, Fussell’s book, oddly, includes not one of the Dowager Countess’s lines.

2.) Noblesse oblige. Look, Lady Sybil is having a relationship with the chauffeur! (And he’s Irish.) Look, the Earl of Grantham is going to a pub – a pub – to confess his need for his his valet, Bates, as if Bates were on his level. Look, Lady Mary is confiding in her lady’s maid as if they were equals. Viewers (according to some of the DA blogs) seem to thrill when the landed gentry interact with their inferiors, i.e., when the gods and goddesses climb down from Mt. Olympus to speak to mortals.

Yes, there is some genuine affection between the upstairs and downstairs personages, and the relationship between the longtime butler Carson and Lady Mary is one of the most touching in the series. But in actual manor houses, the situation was quite different. For more on that, check out “Below Stairs,” written in 1968 by Margaret Powell, who was “in service” as a young woman. In her memoir, the former kitchen maid and later cook, talked about the ever-present divide between “Us” and “Them,” the latter being her former overlords.

“We always called them ‘Them,’” wrote Powell, “’Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them,’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil.”

Even when the gentry condescend to speak to their inferiors, it’s not much to celebrate. Treating an employee, even a poor one, with respect is a pretty low bar, if you ask me.

3.) Snottiness. This brings me to everyone’s favorite character (and mine, too): the Dowager Countess, or if you must, The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham. The earl’s mother is, depending what word you wish to use: waspish, biting or catty. She makes comments that are, take your pick: droll, withering or devastating. But a lot of the time she’s basically, um, mean. Let’s face it: Dame Maggie Smith’s character (a combo of her role as the Countess of Trentham in “Gosford Park” with a little Charlotte Bartlett from “A Room with a View” and Miss Jean Brodie thrown in for good measure) can be snotty.

Here’s what we’re enjoying: her making fun of people who don’t know the “right” thing to do or to say or wear; putting down people without titles; and mocking people from outside a privileged social milieu. NOKD, as some of the preppies used to say when I “went up” to Penn. (Oxford was too far). Not our kind, dear. If you heard her putdowns in real life – say, in your workplace or at home or from your neighbors – you’d probably say, “What a jerk.”

But since the Dowager Countess boasts an impressive title, has pots of money and dresses well (or is, more precisely, upholstered well) she seems to get a pass. Rich people, I guess, can be mean.

Maybe I’m wrong, but the fact that these people are wonderfully titled, rather fabulously wealthy, have exquisite taste, live in magnificent old houses and possess vast tracts of land means that they get away with quite a bit. Has that “creamy English charm” taken us in? Killed our critical faculties, as Anthony Blanche warned Charles Ryder – or really, as Evelyn Waugh (who himself knew something about class) warned us? I’m afraid so.

Look, I’m not saying that you have to feel guilty watching your (our) favorite show. Just that I do. And only a little. Because all that cream is probably not good for me.

James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” His latest book is “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” This essay is adapted from an essay from The Jesuit Post.

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  • edbyronadams

    In the bigger picture the Great War and the loss of a generation of young men across Europe put to lie the idea that a superior class of human beings made the big decisions. Downton Abbey, in the long run, must be a story of the fading of the aristocratic class. Just as Upstairs, Downstairs ended with the house being closed as the aristocrats toddled off to diminished circumstances, so must an honest ending in this series.

  • JBinVA

    Only a little bit guilty? To me, Downton Abbey is a veritable smorgasbord of guilty pleasures, as a consciously chosen escape from the dreariness of our current political and economic situation and from the difficult, unending, often boring demands of everyday life.

    I revel in all the layers and facets of guilt I get to feel for an hour or so every Sunday evening. It’s glorious, extraordinary, beautiful, even inspiring, much like Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle) itself.

    I also disagree with your 3 points, in particular that the Dowager Countess is “mean”. She has merely attained an age and position where she, unlike virtually everyone else in the show, is unfettered by the highly stylized constraints that prevent the other characters from speaking their minds. She is self-assured, fearless, and outspoken, not mean (her daughter Rosamund, on the other hand, IS mean).

    Indeed Lady Violet is often quite kind, both on her own initiative and in response to someone else having the temerity to point out to her a different POV. Her giving the flower show award to Mosely’s father, trying to keep both William and Mosely out of the war, bringing William home to die and honoring his wish to be married, and trying to set Matthew straight about marriage and Mary, are just a few examples.

  • eggcellentideas

    http://www.downto­nabbeygift­ the 1 rated source for exclusive designs inspired by Downton Abbey. “What would Lady Mary do?” “I am the Dowager Countess” “TEAM Grantham” “thank you, how very Downton of you!” “What is a week end?” http://www.downto­nabbeygift­ “I’m a woman, I can be as contrary as I choose” “Why must every day involve a fight with an American” and more to chose from. Mugs, t-shirts, sweatshirt­s, buttons, magnets, travel cups, water bottles, pjs, mens boxers, thongs, totes, caps and wall peels. http://www.downto­nabbeygift­

  • ashleybone

    As the theologian Sidney Callahan wrote on America magazine’s blog In All Things: “(O)nce your eyes are fully opened you see the hidden power of class: how it perpetuates privilege while inflicting psychic wounds and cultural deprivation.”

    If only theologians realized that the exact same sentiment applies to religion…

  • ccnl1

    DA is a fricken soap opera!!

    If said Jesuit feels so guilty, he should review the flaws and fallacies of his religion and then correct them.

    To wit:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). Analyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related documents have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus’ sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is “authentic Jesus” like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus’ case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

    For added “pizzazz”, Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the “pew people” to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the “filicider”.

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, “know it all Jesuits, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

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