Why the World Has Fallen in Love With Downton Abbey: Rich People Have Problems Too
The brilliance of Downton Abbey, I think, is that nearly every scene verges on camp and soap, but somehow creator Julian Fellowes always brings the show back to reality. Or, at least, the reality of Downton that Fellowes has created; a reality so absurd that Fellowes might as well be winking at his audience, slyly informing us that we are not to take it all too seriously. And to Fellowes’ credit, I don’t think many of us do. We watch the show, and we love it, but we have accepted Fellowes’ hyperbolically alarmist imagination, and we know that after all is said and done, the show is a deliciously fun trifle.
Sometimes, though, a trifle makes for terrific television. Critics appear to acknowledge the show’s triviality, even though the show’s first season holds the Guinness World Record for the highest critical reviewed show. David Weigand, for instance, describes the show as “overblown fluff,” despite giving it a perfect score of 100. Ellen Gray echoes this sentiment, as she deems the show “simply delicious fun.”
History snobs may scoff at the show’s inaccuracy; I doubt anyone believes that the late 19th and early 20th centuries were this consistently dramatic in any household, even one that holds as many servants and siblings as Downton. Feminists may also complain that the show heavily dramatizes gender issues, or sidesteps others for the sake of convenience. Nevertheless, the world is obsessed with Downton and all of its inhabitants, and as we wait for Season 4 to premiere in January 2014, we simply cannot get enough of Downton Abbey.
This brings me to a larger issue; one that will be the focus of this article, and one that has often been overlooked by critics. I refer, of course, to the world’s obsession with the aristocracy, our fascination with the cult of celebrity, and our interest in all things rich and famous.
It appears that Fellowes’ intention with Downton Abbey is to devote as much time and consideration to the stories of the servants who live downstairs as to the Grantham family who lives upstairs. By doing so, Fellowes suggests that the physical barrier of the household that separates the rich from the poor represents the class hierarchy of 19th and 20th century England. The poor, of course, were not allowed in certain spaces of the household, and this symbolizes both the confinement of the poor and the superiority of the rich. Fellowes, however, often has the poor characters of his show, namely, the servants, intrude upon spaces that they ordinarily and realistically would not enter.
Further, Fellowes uses an omniscient perspective to tell his story, which eliminates subjectivity and causes the audience to view all characters—the rich as well as the poor—as equal. By breaking down these class barriers, Fellowes shatters the illusion of aristocracy, and implies that beneath the veneer of fortune and fame lie individuals whose lives are just as troubled as their poor servants.
Whether or not we agree with Fellowes is not the issue—or maybe it is—but we cannot deny that the show’s ultimate purpose is to make the common viewer feel bad for the Grantham family and all of their “misfortunes.” It is rather ironic to ponder, but Fellowes has constructed his show in such a way so the audience does not end up feeling guilty for its sympathy toward the Granthams.
Take Lady Sybil, for instance. She is born into wealth and is offered every opportunity imaginable, but her life at Downton is not what she wants, and the audience is made to feel sorry for her dissatisfaction. She winds up leaving Downton in Season Two to marry a poor driver and work as a nurse. Her family is astonished. I’m not necessarily claiming that we should not have any compassion for the aristocracy, or that Lady Sybil’s problems are not real, but I do think we need to recognize how insignificant Lady Sybil’s plight is compared to those of the servants such as Ethel or Bates. Ethel, for instance, is an impoverished maid with a baby to care for, and Bates is a footman whose noble efforts are constantly undermined by life’s harsh caprice. Week after week, however, we are asked to watch, relate to, and feel for the Grantham family’s hardships.
This notion is nothing new, and today it is more comically referred to as “first world problems.” It stems from a belief that individuals who come from wealthy, first-world backgrounds create problems for themselves in order to subconsciously elevate themselves above the impoverished. It is rather sick and twisted, if you think about it, because it essentially implies that rich people make up problems in order to provide their lives with a more significant purpose than the poorest populations. The poorest people face hardships that often threaten their survival, and in order for the wealthiest people to live a life of dignity and importance, they pretend as if they, too, struggle to survive. Lady Sybil’s storyline certainly represents this notion, as well as Lord Grantham’s, whose main concern is which family member will be his lordship’s heir.
In terms of art and storytelling, the representation of “first world problems” has existed long before the advent of Downton Abbey and even the phrase itself. Some of the most famous and beloved artwork also depicts individuals who feel trapped within their wealthy existence.
One of the most notable portraits of wealth is Boucher’s Portrait of the Madame de Pompadour (1756). In the painting, we observe an extravagantly dressed wealthy woman who sits on her bed with a book in her hand. The book suggests that she is rich enough to afford a life of learning and leisure, and the decor in the background is gaudy and lavish. However, her facial expressions convey a sense of sadness, as if all of the riches in the world could not mend the Madame’s loneliness.
Some scholars like Elizabeth Abbott argue that the mistresses of yore were often crippled by life’s brutality. Of the Madame, Abbott describes her as “fragile and frigid,” and notes that she suffered two miscarriages in the 1740s. All of this trouble—despite the fact that she was the mistress of Louis XV, and despite the fact that she was given an education and money—two things that only the most fortunate women received in the 1700s.
The trend continues with the most eminent literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Edith Wharton often wrote about the difficulty of 19th century womanhood, and would focus on women who tried to climb the social ladder. Some of her novels are critical of its protagonists, such as The Custom of the Country (1913), but others like The House of Mirth (1905) find Wharton developing sympathy for her heroine.
At the end of The House of Mirth, for instance, Lily Bart kills herself after she is left young, poor and alone. I am not suggesting that Bart’s story is not tragic, but when we consider what led to her demise, it is hard to feel sympathy for a protagonist who brought all of her pain upon herself. As the novel opens, Bart is of good social standing, but scandal and gossip eventually force her to leave New York’s ruling class and travel to Europe. Perhaps any suicide is tragic, but I cannot help and think that Bart’s problems were heightened because of the high standards of living to which she was previously accustomed. Therefore, she kills herself because she regrets everything that she does not have, as opposed to appreciating what she does have. I would not be surprised if Lady Sybil’s story ends similarly.
The same themes are explored in other literature, such as Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove (1902), and although both Wharton and James’ heroines respectively end up poor, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) covers similar concerns while the protagonist remains wealthy by the end of the novel.
Mrs. Dalloway traces a day in the life of Clarissa, a middle-aged housewife, as she prepares to throw a party. Despite her wealth and her position in society, Woolf argues, Clarissa is unhappy. Unlike Wharton’s heroines, however, Clarissa’s story does not end tragically. She is able to overcome her existential angst and join the guests at her party. As Woolf writes: “She felt somehow very like him–the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; he made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble.”
Still, the ultimate triumph of Clarissa’s decision to live does not negate Woolf’s attempt to illustrate the angst of wealthy, middle-aged men and women. Clarissa’s biggest fear, we are told, is that she will fail to throw a successful party. Peter Walsh’s is that the love he once had with Clarissa will not resurface. Tough lives. Thank god they found the courage to join the fun.
I understand that I am completely undermining certain elements of feminist theory, as established by Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of True Womanhood,” and further explored by other feminist scholars who believe that the circumstances of 19th and 20th century womanhood, namely, the woman’s confinement to the household, stifled the woman’s happiness and vanquished her liberation. But then again, maybe it is important to reconsider some of our scholarship if we are to truly understand why we are attracted to certain works of art.
It may also seem that I’m writing this to attack great literature and works of art, but I instead want to highlight the reasons why we—the collective audience—are attracted to the art in the first place. Obviously we know that Wharton and Woolf were brilliant writers, and we understand that Boucher was a terrific painter, just as we comprehend that Fellowes is a gifted storyteller. There is, however, something else that connects all of this terrific art. Aside from being commercially and critically successful, all of these works portray characters who embody the “first world problems” ideology. So why, then, do we as an audience keep coming back for more?
As I have pointed out, Downton Abbey is simply recycling themes that have always attracted a large audience. Perhaps we continue to watch because our lives aren’t any different than those of Lily Bart, Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh, Lady Sybil, or Lord Grantham. Dare I ask—do we as viewers have more in common with the aristocrats who live upstairs, and contrastingly, do we have less in common with the servants who live downstairs?
Here is just one thing to consider. In this day and age, anybody who is able to afford a television or a book, and anybody who has the time to spend hours upon hours watching that television or reading that book, should consider themselves fortunate. In the same vein, anyone who has enough time to stroll into an art gallery probably doesn’t have too many financial burdens.
Human beings, I think, are put on this Earth to seek meaning and purpose. Some people will live their whole lives and never watch television or read a book; their purpose will be to find food and shelter to ensure the survival of their families. Then there are those like us—like you and me—who are fortunate enough to have access to art. We have the money, but more importantly, we have the time. A great deal of us work every day of the week from nine to five, and when we get home from work, we sit in front of the television or we read a book and we invest ourselves in the lives of fictitious characters. We probably do this with dinner in front of us. Then, when we are tired, we go to sleep, only to wake up and do it all over again.
We pretend that our days are tough, that our lives are hard, and that we truly have to struggle. We say that the economy is bad because it cannot afford our ridiculously high standards of living. If we are unable to buy an iPhone or an HDTV, we complain that we are poor. If we have to eat hamburgers three nights a week because we can’t afford a steak, we act as if we are malnourished. And then, once the day is dark and the clock strikes midnight, we worry that we will not be able to sleep. Somehow, our beds are not comfortable enough. We text our closest friends to see if they are awake. If they are, we complain that we can’t sleep, and if they aren’t, we whine that they don’t come running.
Maybe we all do have problems. After all, everybody loses a family member, everybody has to come to terms with who they are, and everybody has to deal with a broken heart. Shows like Sex and the City and Girls remind us of this all of the time. My two favorite shows, Mad Men and The Sopranos, show us what it feels like to be rich and unfulfilled. Woody Allen, too, often depicts wealthy New Yorkers whose inability to find romance threatens their entire contentment. Yet for some reason I’m not convinced.
If we truly look at the world, we can see how fortunate we really are. We have food, clothing, shelter, and beyond that, most of us have an education and access to entertainment. Once we learn that some people in the world don’t have any of it, I think we begin to feel unworthy. We have all of this stuff, but we don’t know what to do with our lives. We don’t know how to make meaning. We can calculate the life of a mother whose children are hungry, and we know that her purpose is to feed them. We can look at a war torn refugee and understand that his purpose is to avoid an explosion. Our purpose is much harder to define. We already have food, shelter, and clothing, and a lot of us are healthy and educated, and many more of us know what we want to do. At the very least, we know that we can do what we want. Why can’t it be easy to know our purpose? Why do we have to search?
Such questions are often asked by the wealthy elite, so they look at art to provide them with the answers. The irony is that most artists and most audiences live fortunate lives, and they, too, are searching for meaning. So what do we do? We look at our relationships, at our fear of death, at family, and we find the pain in the midst of the joy, we find the brutality in the midst of the beauty, and we find the struggle in the midst of all of the fortune. We create these problems because once we have them, we have something to deal with, and then we know more concretely what our purpose is. To find a lover. To get a promotion. To live in this area. To publish this article. We feel bad for a King with a stutter, and we feel sad when a Princess dies in a car crash.
Strip all of this away, though, and what we are left with is who we truly are. And the last thing anyone wants to come to terms with is how fortunate they are, and that they have little to complain about.
What do you think? Leave a comment.