Everyone who writes about Downton Abbey accepts the premise that the show is a narrative of progress, the fin de siècle story of The Traditional that is about to be (and then is) buffeted by The Onrush of Modernity. This might be a function of opening sequence, whose fast-moving montage of moving cameras and busily buzzing activity cuts so quickly between so many disembodied movements that we find History suggested, a History that cannot be stayed… until, of course, the movement dead-ends on the immoveable object, stopped, hard, on this strangely immaterial landscape shot of the house itself.
It’s to the show’s credit that this is completely wrong. By that Edwardian moment, the Old World that the Granthams seek to maintain and preserve had already passed away a long time ago, something we would understand if we took seriously the simple fact that Grantham is able to be the kind of “traditional” Earl he is only because, and only to the extent that, he married American money.
Think of a novel like Mansfield Park, where the blood and labor of colonized bodies in the Caribbean provide the driving energy to keep it all moving, both the narrative and the household economy. Unlike this house, that house’s conspicuous consumption has an input, an exploited population and economic machine with a dynamism of its own. But this lord has no peasants: Grantham’s house is powered only by the one-time donation of an American woman who wanted to live in that house, with that title, and that illusion of permanence, and who still does.
To put it as bluntly as possible: she bought him, along with his manor and name, and on some level, both he and the show understand this.
Carina Chocano, on the other hand, does not understand this, asking in the New York Times yesterday:
"Has a fictional aristocrat as upright and honorable, as tender of heart and noble of spirit, as humble, forbearing, magnanimous, solicitous and totally ludicrous as the Earl of Grantham ever graced the screen? Supermodels playing rocket scientists in Nicolas Cage movies put less strain on my credulity."
Chocano’s column does little more than reflect on how the thing she does not understand are what make the show enjoyable to her, and she may even be right about that; after all, she knows better than anyone else why she likes the things she likes. But a supermodel gets hired to play rocket scientist in Nicholas Cage movies because she looks good in the part, and that’s why the Lady Grantham bought this particular Earl: he looks good playing the part of humble, forbearing, magnanimous, and solicitous lord. There is nothing surprising or unusual about models being hired to play parts – in movies – that are not – in real life – conventionally associated with extreme physical attractiveness; the moviemakers don’t care that much about reality, so they produce the pretty pictures that (they well know) their audiences will gladly accept. By the same token, there is nothing all that ludicrous about a “humble, forbearing, magnanimous, solicitous” man being allowed to play the part of “Earl of Grantham” in Downton Abbey’s play-within-a-play. His wife didn’t want a real aristocrat; she wanted a modern simulacrum.
After all, if this show were set in the early 1600’s, then yes, perhaps it would be a little strange for him to be such a great guy. But that’s probably because, in the early 17th century, the perks of being an aristocrat were things like raping the servants’ daughters and taxing your indebted tenants until they went broke and you could throw them off the land to starve. Having conquered the country by the sword – literally and metaphorically – the aristocracy kept their position because they had access to real political and economic power, and they used that power to keep their position.
That’s what real class antagonism is, the relatonship between the powerful who use their power to benefit themselves and the weak whose subjection to it makes them objects of exploitation. In industrial capitalism, this antagonism is the exploitation of labor; in agricultural economies, it’s based around rents and debt peonage. But the principle is similar enough, and in both cases, the antagonism flows out of real – and violent, when necessary – relations of power. It is because the aristocracy needs its victims that it violates them into submission and consent, producing – in the mind of the master – the Hegelian master-slave dynamic by which the master is actually, apparently paradoxically, dependent on the slave for his position.
Grantham is something very different than this. Rather than an aristocrat trying to cope with a modern world of industrial capitalism, he’s the author of a fantasy, using a wealth stream from America to recreate a “traditional” world that never really existed “Downton Abbey” – the house – is a museum and a show-piece, a theme-park for a single American tourist, and Downton Abbey – the show – is a behind-the-scenes narrative about its maintenance.
When Chocano writes, then, that Downton Abbey is “a fantasy in which an enlightened overclass and a grateful underclass look deeply into each other’s eyes and realize that they need each other, that there’s a way for them to live together in perfect, symbiotic harmony,” she’s actually not all that far off the mark, even if she doesn’t realize it. She’s simply misunderstood whose fantasy it is, and who’s selling it, and why. It’s precisely because Grantham doesn’t need his servants very much (or doesn’t need to exploit them) that he can treat them like human beings; having buttered his bread so completely, his wife has made it unnecessary to be an evil bastard, so why should he? There’s no percentage in it. So he can let people go whenever they want, or let them stay longer than they can afford it. In fact, since it is precisely his job to pretend to have the class relation that his wife wanted to marry into – but whose reality was as irrelevent as a whether a supermodel in a Michael Bay movie can really do astrophysics – he only needs them to prop up his image of the idealized lord, the only version she (or we) are interested in. His relationship with his servants and tenants is not mediated by the forceful extraction of labor and taxes – only by his need to be a Potemkin Village for the aristocracy that never was – so one of the benefits of the job is that also he gets to be a nice guy.
If we understand his essentially ornamental (and mystifying) purpose, then, we’ll have a better understanding of why Grantham spends two seasons threatening to do all sorts of things and then never actually doing anything. A real aristocrat would have known how to deal with an impertinent Irish chauffeur, for example, and he might have even, occasionally, made good on any of the other proposed actions he loudly proclaims himself about to mybe take and then doesn’t. But Grantham never does anything because that’s not what he’s for.
The closest thing he ever comes to an actual action, in fact, is the exception that proves the rule: having been deprived of his usual audience (his wife), he finds he has nothing to do, no one to perform for. The very essence of his personality and reason for being is gone; if an Earl reads his paper in the dining room with no one to see him, is he really an Earl? And so, when Jane comes along and gives him an audience to perform Granthemness, he leaps at the opportunity. But it isn’t sex or power he wants; he has never wanted that, particularly. He wants what he in fact, gets: a chance to perform his rendition of airbrushed aristocracy. And so, he does: having seen Major Bryant demonstrate to us what the upper class is really about – taking advantage of the housemaid, Ethel, and then abandoning her and her child – Grantham perfectly washes away that exploitation, taking responsibility for an out-of-wedlock child he won’t even stoop to sire.