Parvenucracy: On "Downton Abbey"

By Alexander CheeJuly 29, 2012

Parvenucracy: On "Downton Abbey"

LAST YEAR WE WERE a people in a country with roads that would take out your axle, watching a show about people learning to use cars for the first time. All over the country, we were learning that you could pronounce the “t” at the end of “valet.”

We were said to be watching it because we were stupid Americans or we were watching it because we were nostalgic for being ruled over or because we loved Jane Austen or country houses or Upstairs Downstairs or (the first) Brideshead Revisited. Or for more reasons than this, or for fewer reasons. But we were watching it, we were watching it, watching it, watching it, watching it.

“Stop watching it,” certain people kept saying. “You’re stupid to watch it.” Others said “what is this?” and then were also soon watching it, shortly after, because who could stop? Even when it was bad. Even when the plot bumped along like a car would on those bad roads, or when upstairs and downstairs the women with men at war had simultaneous, gasping premonitions of doom, which came true for only half of them. (Unless of course the one whose lover did not die gasped instead at the premonition that she would marry, which, to be sure, that one had always dreaded.)

The pictures have been leaking for a month now, filming will end soon, and this September, the UK will again see the season ahead of us, with the rest of us waiting for 2013. From what we can see, Downton is dressed mostly for weddings. Even Lady Sybil, who seemed to choose disastrously, appears likely to wed. Perhaps Season Three will reveal whether Lady Grantham sought some respectability in marriage to Lord Grantham that she could not have back home in America — it could even offer a few flashback episodes, detailing their courtship.

At the recent AFI Tribute to Shirley MacLaine, a Season Three clip rolled live for the audience. A smiling Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, gleamed onstage as she introduced the much anticipated arrival of MacLaine in the role of Lady Grantham’s American mother, wearing far too much jewelry and far too many sequins for daytime as she hugs, kisses, and then, of course, immediately trades barbs with the Dowager Countess. It may be that Martha Levinson, as MacLaine’s character is called, the wife of a Cincinnati dry goods millionaire, who brought her daughter to England in 1888 and married her off, has a few secrets to reveal this fall.

In 1893, five years after Lord and Lady Grantham married, the San Francisco Examiner railed against the likes of Mrs. Levinson, and even totaled up the loss of millions of American dollars to Europe via the marriages of young heiresses to disreputable bankrupt European lords with titles. Twenty million lost to marriages abroad just from California, 200 million from the United States as a whole. Valued for inflation, that comes to 5.4 billion dollars. “The American public has almost ceased even to make fun of this barter of American girls,” the paper fumed. William H. Chambliss, a self-appointed chronicler of the period, dubbed the phenomenon “the Parvenucracy” in his published diaries of late 19th Century San Francisco society.

It’s an old word, parvenu. But, yes, Parvenucracy indeed. Or Parvenuconomy?


I was one of those watching. I was also reading, reading everything people were writing about Downton Abbey. And as my obsession grew, and I waited for Season Two, I caught myself bracing for this or that spoiler tweet, from fellow obsessives who were either downloading it or able to watch it as it aired in Britain first, until I didn’t care — spoilers couldn’t spoil this. By the time I sat down to watch the second season, I had heard it was not as good, a sophomore slump of some kind had set in, but I didn’t care and I didn’t know why.

The season premiere came on, and it was a little like any homecoming: The once-familiar loved ones looked a bit strange. Still, I watched, dutifully, as the shows aired. As I found myself reading the various recaps and reviews I wondered, why was I reading so much about the show? Wasn't it enough to have enjoyed it, despite the choppiness, the plots moving too quickly? Even just Matthew Crawley being at war, or later regaining the power to walk, either should have been one whole season, and yet I couldn’t leave it all alone. There was a puzzle, something more to see that I and many others, it seems, couldn’t quite decipher. 

I found myself in mind of the parable about the six blind sages who meet an elephant in their path. Each is touching the elephant in a different place and so gives the other a different report on what an elephant is — a wall, a sheet, a tree trunk, a hose, a rope and so on — until they fight, each insisting they are right. The point of the parable, though, is that it is funny, and it is funny because between the sages' points of view, out of the pieces of their argument, the elephant is described.

Irin Carmon's essay over at Salon"Why Liberals love Downton Abbey", was a great place to begin with Season Two, and Carmon hits Downton critically, with a realtor's thoroughness — a realtor who is perhaps trying to talk you out of the house. Her gist is a question: “What possible appeal could a show about pre-feminist, pre-democratic times have for feminist progressives, given how many are watching?” Carmon took on, variously, the biographical critical view (Julian Fellowes, the creator, a life peer married to a lady in waiting, is perhaps really writing a defense of the class system), the traditional critical one (the show contains anachronisms that make these characters seem more modern than they could really have been), the material critique (It's beautiful! The lamps, as she points out, even have their own tumblr!), the progressive one (it portrays a society whose class situation oppresses all its members, not just the downtrodden, and tells stories about all of them), and the feminist take (Lady Mary is one of the most complex female characters in recent memory). I thought about all of these, and agreed most about the Lady Mary point, and yet it seemed to me that the show's appeal to me remained someplace else, just out of sight.

Emily Nussbaum's funny take on it in the New Yorker presented Downton Abbey as guilty pleasure, “like scarfing handfuls of caramel corn while swigging champagne.” Her howl at being denied the Christmas episode in her screener made me laugh with an unnerving level of self-recognition — I would also do this.

And yet I didn’t really feel guilty either. Except maybe over my lust for those sherbet-colored lamps.

John Heilpern’s take at The Nation was a fascinatingly nasty, short episode of biographical criticism, conducted in a suspicious high dudgeon. He wanted you to feel guilty, very, very guilty, for liking anything produced by someone as lowly as Fellowes. He did not see Fellowes as a defender of the ruling class, as Carmon did, but rather, an arriviste.

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey’s creator and writer, is an odd duck obsessed with the nuances of class and social etiquette. He is the Nancy Mitford de nos jours, minus the noblesse oblige. The parvenu son of a Shell executive and former diplomat, he married Emma Kitchener, a distant relative of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, and former lady-in-waiting, or official companion, to Princess Michael of Kent (known as “Princess Pushy”). Astonishingly, Fellowes has tried to claim that upon the death of the surviving Earl Kitchener, who was childless, the laws of succession should be changed so that his wife could inherit the title.

Imagine Maggie Smith reading this, in her Dowager Countess voice.

Yet I’ll admit, this was interesting. The inheritance plot was perhaps autobiographical! But he went on, past the point of interest.

Fellowes once described himself as “bottom of the top.” (Not quite upper class, you see). Yet, for many years, he was that classless thing—a jobbing actor. In desperation, he even went to Hollywood in search of work and was shortlisted to take over from Hervé Villechaize as a butler on Fantasy Island. He later played the role of the intriguingly named Lord Kilwillie on the British sitcom Monarch of the Glen and penned a novel, Snobs, about social climbers in search of a title. He also wrote bodice rippers under the pseudonym Rebecca Greville. (Hence the bodice ripping in Downton Abbey).

All of this made me like Fellowes more rather than less. I instantly wanted a .gif of him saying “Welcome to Fantasy Island.” When someone uses the word 'parvenu' in a sentence with your name in it, they are insulting you as well as condescending to you both — it's an insult telling you you've exceeded the limits of your class, lobbed by someone who thinks he’s on the next stair up. And so we found a secondary spectacle, watching someone who would trot out ‘parvenu’ in an essay in The Nation, insisting Fellowes was the one obsessed with class. Heilpern went on to sniff, “I was surprised to learn that the TV rights to Downton Abbey have been sold in over a hundred countries. I didn’t know there were a hundred countries.”

Well, there are, John. And they're probably all parvenus, every one of them, including this one.

Simon Schama at The Daily Beast joined in, but differently; he also wanted you to feel guilty, and to feel stupid, too, as he sought to dismiss the thing as a mistake, one long misbegotten error, something to embarrass historians but most importantly, to embarrass you, the viewer at home:

It’s a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.

But in his case, he gave a different reason to loathe the show: he describes his own experience at the hands of a Carson-like butler, insisting that if one were to really visit one of these places, it wouldn't be so much fun. He ends on a triumphant, depressing note: “Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.”

James Fenton didn’t think much of the history as bummer idea at the New York Review of Books, and he does one better on the historical rewrite than Schama, pointing out, helpfully, that the relationship between Lord Grantham and Bates would probably be, well, considerably more passionate than imagined here currently:

This business, by the way, of officers giving employment to their batmen, their personal military servants, in later civilian life — this is or was a well-known cover for homosexual attachments. One went into the army and formed a passionate liaison with a man from another class. The war over, one brought the batman home, under pretext of valeting requirements.

Fenton compliments Fellowes’ biographical notes, noting that to do so “might seem gratuitous,” but “Step out into that blizzard of ancestors and you will understand why, if there is any puzzling detail in Downton Abbey, Fellowes has probably got it right.”

Much like Irin Carmon, Fenton is also quite bemused by the fantasy of benevolent paternalism on display, though less so than Carina Chocano, in the New York Times Magazine, who found it very bizarre.

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. It’s not just that the earl takes his role as steward of the British class system seriously; it’s that he’s positively messianic in his flock-tending. His noblesse is all about oblige. In fact, save for an uncharacteristic, but not at all inconsistent, indiscretion toward the end of the second season, the earl’s behavior is a model of self-effacing forbearance. He simply cannot do enough. You can’t help wondering what gives.

By now, though, you might ask, who wasn’t a steward of the British class system?

Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry had an answer: Lord Grantham, who is not a Lord as much as a Lord manqué.

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... 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.

Here a hint of the entire creature, as it were, came into view.

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. 

As a result, he has no reason to be anything but benevolent. Unlike a real landlord or capitalist – whose dependency on exploited labor necessitates violence or the threat of it — Grantham is dependent only on his wife’s money. And since he has that, he’s not dependent on much of anything at all; there is no Hegelian drama for him, here, no vexed relationship with the human beings he must dehumanize to maintain the hierarchy which positions him above them. He’s already got everything he needs; his only job is to enjoy it.

I agreed with Bady’s assessment of Lord and Lady Grantham’s marriage, and of its terms, though it was clear from the beginning of Season One that the marriage stemmed from the decline of the system Lord Grantham was trying to protect — that’s what made it interesting, much more interesting than a naïve portrait of the same situation, say, without an American fortune stuffed into all that batting. Season Three could, for example, open beautifully: a prequel to their meeting, set years ago, when Lord Grantham had to go fortune-hunting for an American heiress. It was also clear back in the first episode of Season One that we were watching someone inside the amusement park who had felt, until recently, it was all very real, even as she sensed a charade. But this wasn’t Lady Grantham. It was Lady Mary.

What I found most interesting about Bady’s point was that somehow people had forgotten it as they wrote about the show. Some sort of amnesia had set in, even as the story continued.

Bady understood what Schama did not: We are watching a historical fiction. In fact, a historical fiction within a historical fiction. And all historical fictions are ruses — to succeed, they all flash a bit of what Genet would call the garter, the anachronism that tells you it's not real — this is what engages the audience. If Downton were entirely authentic, we’d need subtitles to understand the servants. Or perhaps we wouldn’t watch at all. As for the show Lord Grantham is putting on for Lady Grantham, while begun and continued for her benefit, the show makes the most sense, I think, when we extend Bady’s idea to cover all of them, from the Dowager Countess across to the servants and daughters, too. Lady Mary in particular. For it is her concerns that make the story’s core. Her disbelief about the rules of the entail in Season One is something she’d have no historical reason to feel, were she the straightforward product of a worshipful nostalgia for the ruling class. But she is not. Instead she both senses she should be able to inherit — her mother did, this is how her world is even possible — and now knows she cannot, a fact she experiences as an injustice.

The crisis of Season One is as to whether Lady Mary can inherit, and if not, if she can marry what she cannot; the crisis of the Season Two is that she cannot inherit, and as a result, will in fact marry — Sir Richard. All of the Grantham daughters’ situations are a product of their status as hybrid creatures — all are the daughters of an heiress who cannot in turn be heiresses themselves. They are prevented from becoming their mother, and they know it; they know that it is both the way things are and that it was not so for their mother. This apparent paradox makes all of them more interesting than they might otherwise be on their own, and each turns differently in her trap. Lady Mary particularly: she now believes that this fantasy, and the heavy job of enacting her part in it, is in fact her legacy, and not the entail. Seen in this light, her willingness to marry Sir Richard Carlisle is a category error, but a reasonable one; she knows it is her duty to her to perform a version of her parents’ marriage, and sets out to make it happen all the same, but with Sir Richard, the energizing, financially successful (if also crass), choice in the part of her mother; herself in her father’s role, that of the down-on-her-luck aristo in need of money. Much in the way her mother’s money solved her father’s problems, she believes her father’s rank will provide the social acceptance Sir Richard covets; neatly reversed symmetry.

This symmetry is part of why Lady Mary is comfortable with her situation while the others are not, even at the depth of her scandal. This is at its most plain when Lady Mary stands inside the very empty Haxby, the vast manor near Downton that Sir Richard purchases and plans for them to call home. She wonders how they’ll fill it, and he answers that they'll buy what they need. To this, she speaks one of the most memorable lines of the season: “Your lot buys it, our lot inherits it.” She shrugs, in a sort of ready dismay. It’s witty, yes, but, it also acknowledges the whole truth of their situation in a way even the otherwise canny Sir Richard cannot. This blank manor was, she thought, to be the stage for the next generation of this theatrical production.

Much of the pain we see Mary suffering in Season Two is not the pain of disappointment in love, but the pain of her disappointment in discovering she will not be central, like her mother, but rather decorative, like her father. Her plans to go to America to ride out the scandal Sir Richard will surely unleash ring hollow, not because she cannot do it, but because it is clear her mother’s theatrical fantasy would never allow her to go. Even in America, she would be living out her mother’s plan for her. Therefore her rescue — when she is reunited by the end of the Christmas episode with Matthew, her true love — is bittersweet for how this is also what her mother wants. The American money has found a way to marry her.

The story, then, is of an American matriarchal fortune wearing the court dress of a British patriarchy, and resenting it in ways it cannot quite express. It isn’t about Lords at all. It’s about Ladies covered in Lords.

Why were we watching? At the same time Season Two of Downton Abbey was airing in the US, there came a report that America had essentially reproduced the rigid class system that is so preoccupying in the show. America is no longer the place Lady Mary could find a cowboy and easily marry him, in other words. She’d never go to the bar after the rodeo now. We are so preoccupied by Edwardians because we are neo-Edwardians; we are a people who apparently missed the vast economic chasms of those times so much we reproduced them, or at least, did not defend sufficiently against their return. The result is that there was something the generation before us was able to inherit that now we cannot, and we do not know why. Now we are all daughters of heiresses who cannot ourselves inherit — the Grantham daughters’ predicament is that of every American. We find ourselves at a place our mothers and fathers once left, a hundred years or so down the road enslaved again. As we listen to the GOP propose a return to child labor, a war against contraception and watch the entire system, no matter the party, blithely create a permanent underclass out of the long-term unemployed, the bankrupt and the homeless, those of us who have not yet been foreclosed on hope by the TV, yes, ridiculously, for the Irish anarchist driver to be a better man, for Lady Sybil to figure out her feelings for him and be free to act on them, for Lady Mary to be absolved of her single, human mistake. We hope for the whole cruel thing to dissolve.

We watch, not knowing how it will all turn out for the characters, but knowing how it once worked out for their society at large: new freedoms were won — freedoms that are now increasingly lost. We watch, whether we know it or not, hoping to remember how to take them back. And if we have nostalgia for any part of it at all, it is for that — for even the wish to be equal and free.


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LARB Contributor

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a 2003 Whiting Award Winner and a 2004 NEA Fellow in Prose Fiction, and has written for The Awl, Paris Review Daily, OUT, NPR Books, Salon, and The Morning News.


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