Last week, I watched the first three episodes of Downton Abbey, the critically acclaimed British upstairs/downstairs drama. Set at the palatial home of the Earl of Grantham in 1912, the show follows the lives of the earl and his family, their servants, and the heir to the estate, a middle class lawyer from Manchester. It’s a great show and it’s easy to see why it’s attracted such a devoted following. The show is well shot, well acted, and immerses you in its particular time and place. It trades equally well in gripping melodrama and thoughtful human drama and comedy. And it has Maggie Smith laying down burns like a battle rapper.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the show is how it examines class and privilege from different angles and in all their complexities. The lower class servants and the upper class family are equally disdainful of the middle class lawyer and his mother, who do not understand the rules of this new world they find themselves in. Some of the servants, like the butler Carson, are more passionate in their defense of the aristocratic system than the earl and his family. Carson sees it not as the source of his degradation, but as the source of his livelihood and profession.
The earl himself is disturbed to find out that he’s related to someone with the lowly profession of a lawyer, but clearly has enormous respect for the work and professions of his various servants. And the middle-class lawyer’s good intentions to make do without the extravagance of servants winds up robbing his appointed butler of work and purpose. All the characters are sketched deeply and with great sympathy.
Oddly, the show it most reminded me of was Game of Thrones. In some ways, you can’t find two more different shows. One is a realistic upstairs/downstairs drama, the other is an epic fantasy with direwolves and dragons. But both are centered on the lives of an aristocratic household from the North in a time of great change that threatens the family itself, and the system and society that gives them their power (fittingly, Downton Abbey is set in Yorkshire, and House Stark of Game of Thrones was inspired by England’s House of York).
There are some similarities: the Lord of Winterfell and the Lord of Downton Abbey are both honorable men trying preserve their homes, families, and world against the upheaval around them. Both have “foreign” wives they love dearly despite the fact that their marriages were originally marriages of convenience rather than love, and both those wives are powerful players in their own right. Both have older daughters who hold on to to their class identity fiercely and pursue ill-fated romances, and tomboyish younger daughters who rebel against the constraints and snobbery of their class.
What’s interesting to me is to consider the two shows as part of a continuum, portraits of a single noble English family at different moments in its history. Game of Thrones takes place in a fantasy world, but one modeled very closely on medieval Europe. The Starks of Winterfell are feudal warrior-lords, their power and place won or lost by the strength of their swords and castle walls.
The Crawleys of Downton Abbey are Edwardian aristocrats, their power and place resting on title and tradition. Their estate has no walls. The Earl fought in the Boer War and portraits of armored ancestors hang on the walls, but other than that the vestiges of the family’s warrior past are simply relics. Their primary pursuit is leisure and the maintenance of the estate.
One can easily imagine that Downton Abbey was once a castle like Winterfell, but as often happened in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was remodeled into a palatial country house — its power demonstrated not from the thickness of its walls, but from the lavishness of its design and furnishings.
Game of Thrones shows us a nobility at its height, when kings, lords, and knights ruled with iron fists and bloodied swords. Downton Abbey shows us a similar nobility in its fading, when it’s losing its power and prominence. Both shows make pains to show the cruelty and unfairness of the society that allows for the power and wealth of the Starks and Crawleys, while also sympathetically portraying the families themselves.
Taken together, they provide an entertaining portrait of the arc of the English nobility across history, from its bright noon to its twilight.
*I’d also love to see shows that also address the dawn of the European aristocracy, when barbarian war lords and chieftains seized power after the fall of the Roman Empire. And another show that looks at them during that fascinating transition in the 16th and 17th century from warrior caste to landed aristocracy, when feudalism ended and the castle walls came tumbling down.