Why the World Has Fallen in Love With Downton Abbey: Rich People Have Problems Too

Downton Abbey

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.

Madame de PompadourOne 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.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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  1. Clarasitre

    OUTSTANDING article. I enjoy how the “Upstairs, Downstairs” theme is presented. The two worlds colliding, blending or exploding when the alternate universes of the servants and the affluent conjunct with one another. Drama at its best.

  2. Petra Foster

    Very intriguing post Jon. The performance gets me. The likes of Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter and Maggie Smith deserve to be the yard stick for excellence in acting.

  3. …Wow. Holy crap, man. This article is amazing! I’ve only seen a bit of Downton Abbey but I found this article to be extremely intriguing and well written.

  4. stewarts

    This might be one of the best articles that I have read on this subject. Well done. Shared it on Facebook! The producers and actors have done a wonderful job in creating and maintaining suspense and tension.

  5. That was a very enjoyable read, the concluding paragraph was really on point and I’m not sure I will be able to watch Downton Abbey as in the same light as before. Great work.

  6. This is a really great article, and as someone who knows a lot of people who watch Downton I’ve always wondered why people like it so much. To a certain extent, most of our entertainment centers around more fortunate people, but not often are they as rich and fortunate as those on Downton.

    I think part of the whole being stripped down to yourself isn’t just about not wanting to admit to being fortunate. When you lack material things to worry about, what happens then? You’re left with more emotional things. Your attention is drawn to things you hate or like about yourself, and how you interact with others, and sometimes this isn’t in line with what you want. Sometimes it’s enough to hurt you. As someone who likes the mental struggles of characters and finds it more fascinating than the physical, I can see how focusing on mental struggles of otherwise fortunate characters can be used by writers to successfully draw in an audience and gain sympathy for the characters. There’s still a lot of conflict to be had in people who have money, or who are fortunate, simply because they have emotions like every body else.

    Whether the writers pull this off is another question. I haven’t seen the show, but it seems that it’s doing the job for most people.

    • Jon Lisi
      Jon Lisi

      Very interesting response. I do agree with you (if I understand your point) that drama is sometimes more exciting when the conflicts are emotional and internal. And I do agree that rich people have emotions like everyone else, and some of the best art has shown this. I think for me it was the way the creator of the show treated the “emotional problems” of the rich the same as the “physical problems” of the poor, and I was concerned with the ethics of that equal treatment. But anyway thanks for the thoughtful response!

  7. Taylor Ramsey

    Very good article! I may have to give this show another chance. I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind the last time I tried.

  8. I completely understand what you are saying about Sybil. I really enjoyed her portrayal, but I felt far more sympathetic and caring about Anna and Bates. This may have been because I thought Sybil was slightly stereotyped; she wanted to be a nurse, she disliked society, she was beautiful, she married a commoner etc. I felt like I knew what was coming.

  9. Jordan

    Possbily the longest article ever on the Artifice? That must have taken ages to write, good effort!
    I’ve never seen a single episode of this show. My mum and sister are really into these sorts of shows so i guess i steer away from them.

  10. i am not a very big fan of non scientific, non action shows but downton abbey is a very beautiful exception of it. when i saw the mansion back in the poster that was the moment i started to download the show. i am so into Celtic castles and the show is absolutely just about one of them! so now, i can not be very objective about this show but i am not expected to anyway. the show is great.

  11. Sierra Throop

    I really love Downton Abbey and I agree with a lot of your points. While Downton Abbey is very well done and has wonderful acting, perhaps it is important to ask ourselves why we are attracted to certain things. You also mention that it is important for people to check their privilege and I completely agree.

  12. Fiona Farnsworth

    This is a great article. I’ve only just begun to watch Downton Abbey, and so far I’m enjoying it a lot, but can’t help feeling uncomfortable with a number of the situations it presents regarding the “first world problems” of the Crawley family. Nonetheless, for the female characters at least, I do believe that the show depicts contemporary issues of relevance. The confinement of women to the home and the inherent assumption that fulfilment and financial security could only be achieved through marriage are were highly problematic issues. Perhaps they are not life-threatening in the way that those of some of the poorer characters are, but they are important. You do say that you’re aware of undermining certain issues of feminist argument, but I personally don’t think we can belittle such issues because they are borne by the financially well-off: problems of gender equality are pertinent to all classes, and there are many who would argue that a life where one is financially stable at the expense of the ability to hold an individual intellectual opinion is hardly a life at all. Even so, I agree with many of the points you make – access to art and the time to appreciate is something we often take for granted, and the way you compare this to our attitude to celebrity is really interesting.

  13. This is truly a great article. I love the way you connect it to our obsession with the celebrities. I stopped watching Downton Abbey after season 2, but my mother has stayed obsessed. Maybe I’ll get back to it.

  14. I don’t usually have a lot of time to watch television, so when I do, I like to watch something that I feel is worthwhile and actually has some substance to it. Downton Abbey is one of those shows. I think the mastery behind Downton Abbey is that, underneath all the pomp and perfection, the lives of the aristocratic Grantham family are just as troubled and imperfect as anyone else’s, even those of their servants. I think the continual appeal of shows like Downton Abbey is that, despite the presence of the “first world problems” ideology, we still see a little bit of ourselves in these characters. While it is true that we all have our problems, some of them- like having to walk five miles in order to find clean water versus deciding between Perrier and Smartwater at the local supermarket-differ in their degree of importance. Where we do find common ground, though, is that, we all search for and want to have purpose in our lives. This purpose is not about what we do have or the problems we create for ourselves, but the meaning we find within our own lives regardless of what we do or don’t have, who we are or where we come from.

  15. I’m just now watching season 1 (borrowed from the library over spring break) after first seeing seasons 3 and 4 on PBS. A character that I admire is Isobel Crawley. She is kind-hearted, treats everyone with respect and lacks the extreme social snobbery of the other members of the family. I didn’t quite understand why this was until I started watching season 1 and realized she grew up middle-class and was only invited to the Downton village when her son became the heir. I’m curious to see how Mary and Matthew end up together, but so far I don’t see any reason for him to like her other than her beauty. I’ve barely been introduced to Sybil so far (she wasn’t featured much in season 3) but I don’t think she’s like Lily Bart. Lily’s misery was that she was poor but aspired to be rich and passed up a chance at love because it would not have given her the wealth and social position she craved-where it seems that Sybil is going to go the opposite way.

  16. Great article. I think that Downton portrays the dichotomy between rich and poor in a different light, as suggested: their woes and dramas are in fact the same, as well as their joys, in despite of their monetary differences.

  17. Very interesting article. It was wonderful and refreshing to read the themes and events portrayed in Downton in such a different, more broad light. I agree with you about the upstairs/downstairs interactions within Downton representing the social hierarchies of the time, and how Fellowes gives this social differences a twist in his series.

  18. It was interesting to look at Downtown Abbey from a different perspectine

  19. It was amusing and at the same time frightening to see how comparable the times of Downton is to today’s society. Downton portrays how the old Edwardian world is slowly expiring, and how the proud nobles and royalty deal with their powers and influence slowly eroding away like ocean waves to a stone. Lord Grantham represents the tradition that firmly demands to stay in spite of having little relevance and belonging in the new world, while his daughters represent how they carry on the legacy of their great name in the changing world. Mary is most like her father but accepts the fact that their lifestyle and practice must change or stop in order to survive. Edith represents how she wants a taste of the working world and making a name for herself to make her family proud. Sybil is the most divergent out of all of them as she accepts the new world with open arms and is will to cast away everything her family stands for in order to experience it. This show goes to show that as proud and prosperous the British nobility of old is, they need to accept the fact that they won’t last forever. It epitomizes the appropriately phrase of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Since it has reached its final season, I’m sad that it’ll end after six years, but I’m grateful for giving me the insight of a world I’d never imagined myself looking into, especially in regards to human nature.

  20. Love is all that matters. You don’t have to search for love because it is inside all of us; strip away the ego and it all boils down to the great Oneness/Equality. In other words one in spirit.That’s the true meaning of being made in the image of our Maker. Being one in spirit makes sense out of loving us all the same. Or loving neighbor as thyself; loving the sinner- hating the sin; or judge not lest you be judged. Finally, as you say- “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.”

  21. FANTASTIC article. It’s true, Downton is simply one of those iconic and timeless series that will be highly regarded for decades to come (similar to Keeping Up Appearances or The Golden Girls), and it is due to the level of polish and attention to detail coupled with the genius-level acting. The only character/actor I simply could not stand was Gillingham (complete driftwood with dog eyes). I will always have a place for this series in my heart forever.

  22. Fascinating take on the Western obsession with the “struggles” of the upper class in film, literature, and art! The author attributes the fixation of love-truck viewers of Downton Abbey (guilty as charged!) to the way that those of us fortunate enough not to worry about basic necessities seek to validate our dissatisfaction with the lack of purpose we feel and convert into problems so that we can solve them! While I recognize that everyone faces their own trials, this article made me stop and reflect on what is exactly that draws me to TV shows like Downton Abbey and The Crown and how that has shaped my academic studies, personal interests, etc. I also notice the whiteness of all the art mentioned and wonder what that might mean in the context of this article?

  23. You put a lot into perspective, especially how fortunate a lot of families are today in having what we do (technology, food, a roof under our heads). To answer your question “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?”…I find myself most relating to characters on the downstairs set, not by economic means (and certainly not by their high etiquette), but in the way their personalities and their beliefs are uncaged in the difficulties of living with one another. Great question!

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