Beautifying Abbey Road

 

In real life, Americans may keen about income inequality. But on TV, they’re keen for it.

Downton Abbey continued its upward ascent with viewers Sunday night, a gushing embrace of class snobbery that hasn’t been seen since friends clustered across the country in 1981 - wearing black tie and clutching Teddy Bears and champagne glasses - to watch “Brideshead Revisited.”

I’ve resisted the Downton Abbey fervor. My grandmother and her nine sisters were tall, strapping women who immigrated to America from Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century and found jobs as maids, cooks and nannies for rich families with names like Gore and Mellon. So heaven forfend that I would enjoy watching Lord Grantham erupt in horror when his youngest daughter wants to marry the cute Irish chauffeur.

At the start of the fourth season, Maggie Smith’s caustic Dowager Countess still can’t stomach calling the Irishman by his first name, even now that the widowed Tom Branson is the estate manager and father of her great-granddaughter (dubbed a wicked “crossbreed” by the nanny.) As my great-aunts worked tirelessly to grasp shards of the American dream, they were not gliding about mansions playing confidantes to malleable employers, much less co-conspirators in moving the bodies of dead lovers.

It was a much tougher life than the democratized fantasy shown in Downton Abbey. Sure, Julian Fellowes’ servants have to iron the newspapers, choose cuff links and scan for scratches in the silver candelabra, but basically the upstairs-downstairs hierarchies work in contented concert, mingling like family —warmly and sometimes spitefully.

Just as there is a yawning gulf between Gone With the Wind and the harrowing 12 Years a Slave, there is a yawning gulf between the Panglossian PBS soap opera of manners and the dehumanizing life most servants led.

In Castle Rackrent, an 1800 work that was a pioneer of the historical novel, Maria Edgeworth skewered her own British landlord class for viciousness to the Irish peasantry. Speaking of the grand lady of the house, Edgeworth wrote: “She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent, and all fast-days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together, we put a morsel of roast beef in her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh’s dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it unfortunately reached my lady’s ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced, as soon as she could walk, to do penance for it, before she could get any peace or absolution, in the house or out of it.”

Niall O'Dowd, the founder of The Irish Voice, IrishCentral.com and Irish America magazine, asserted: “For this generation of Americans, the Downton Abbey ‘Yes, m'Lady' servants are the equivalent to the old minstrel shows on the Bowery. It reflects the colonial cringe, casting an ameliorating light over a period that was full of pretty desperate stuff for people trapped in a rigid, notorious caste system.”

Americans cast off the British monarchy, but they go nuts for Kate Middleton’s procreation story. (”Rich woman has baby,” O'Dowd notes dryly.) And they savor watching a Downton aristocrat dress down a servant for noting inelegantly, “Dinner is on the table.”

We believe in upward mobility. Yet some of the new American moguls are taking on the worst traits of the old British class system: Silicon Valley’s up-and-coming tech titans who complain about having to look at the tatty homeless spoiling their San Francisco “utopia.” The Dickensian conservatives who don’t give a fig about a social safety net ensuring that poor people have food on the table.

As Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money asked MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “Wasn’t this settled in 1848-1850 with the Irish potato famine? I’m not kidding. Lord John Russell believed what the Republicans did, which is, you know, let them eat potatoes even if they’re rotten.” The issue of laissez-faire, Cramer said, “was decided many years ago by Queen Victoria’s insolence toward the Irish.”

I relented on Downton when I read Alessandra Stanley’s review in The New York Times last week pointing out that the allure “isn’t Anglophilia or a vestigial yearning for a monarch” but the fact that it’s a “show about class differences that panders to contemporary notions of democracy and equality.”

Watching the saga from the beginning this week, I saw the extent of the subversive fantasy: The servants rule the masters. The bad ones manipulate the lords and ladies into doing their bidding. And the good ones instruct and nag their superiors into making the right moves in their royal lives, both personally and professionally.

In Sunday’s season premiere, Lady Mary frostily informed Carson the butler that he had overstepped the mark in urging her to move past her grief over her husband’s death and get more involved in running the estate. But she soon humbly apologized for having the cheek to criticize Carson’s cheek. The marble beauty in long black gloves melted into sobs in his arms and then bucked up to rejoin the world.

The butler did it.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Sen. John Walsh plagiarized my work

    On Wednesday afternoon, a flurry of phone calls and e-mails informed me that Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., had apparently included — verbatim and without attribution — several pages of a 1998 paper of mine in a work he submitted to the U.S. Army War College. Walsh’s paper, which also failed to properly reference the work of others, was one of the requirements for the master’s degree he received from the War College in 2007.

  • teachers-comment 07-25

    Teachers unions’ destructive behavior

  • Left Coast Rising

    The states, Justice Louis Brandeis famously pointed out, are the laboratories of democracy. And it’s still true. For example, one reason we knew or should have known that Obamacare was workable was the post-2006 success of Romneycare in Massachusetts. More recently, Kansas went all-in on supply-side economics, slashing taxes on the affluent in the belief that this would spark a huge boom; the boom didn’t happen, but the budget deficit exploded, offering an object lesson to those willing to learn from experience.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category