Downton Abbey S1E2: A Question of Class

Posted on December 29, 2011

We should note before we continue that, for a bunch of reasons, we chose the Netflix version of the series to blog. Basically it came down to which platform would be the best way for people who haven’t seen the show to follow along with our writeups. We didn’t realize that PBS would be streaming the first four episodes and that the PBS version and the Netflix version of the series divide up the episodes differently, which means what we’re calling “Episode 2″ does not start or end at the same points the PBS version of Episode 2 does. There is a persistent myth (voiced several times in the previous post’s comments) that Americans are getting a vastly reduced version of the original series that ran in Great Britain. This has been debunked time and time again, but it keeps coming up. Any version of the show you watch, whether DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix or PBS.org, is the same version of the show. There have not been massive cuts to the so-called “PBS version.” Any cuts amounted to a total of minutes and no storylines were sacrificed. Both the producer of PBS’ Masterpiece and Gareth Neame, the executive producer of Downton Abbey debunked this myth in person when we attended that Q&A and screening a couple of weeks back. No matter what you heard or what you think you might have missed out on, Americans are getting the same series that the Brits watched originally.

Onward.

Downton Abbey doesn’t really trade in heavy-handed themes, like its closest American counterparts, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, do. It’s got far too light a touch for that (which is one of its most appealing traits). But if there was one theme connecting the various plotlines weaving in and out of the show, then for this episode, it was snobbery. More importantly, the theme was how snobbery is misguided to the point when even a man’s life can hang in the balance over it. And it’s not just relegated to the upper classes. The middle class and the servants are as guilty of it (possibly even moreso) than anyone else in this setting.

Matthew Crawley is perhaps the biggest snob of all. We’ll get to some of the nastiness tossed around by the more titled members of the family, but Matthew was guilty of probably the greatest sin here. Frustrated by the changes in his life, as well as being thrust into a social and familial circle that doesn’t seem to want him around, he did the one thing no gentlemen should ever do: he took it out on a servant. Mosely is probably the least developed of all the servant characters and yet the actor has such a hangdog face and a quiet dignity, that when Matthew joked to him that his profession – which would be his life’s work, as well as the family business – is not just pointless, but silly, the pain on Mosely’s face was all but unbearable. To our 21st Century middle class American eyes, Mosely’s profession does seem a bit silly. It’s not that we disagreed with Matthew’s point, but he was crass and thoughtless to voice it. Worse, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, or at the very least is drawing arbitrary distinctions. As he admitted to his mother, they had a maid and a cook back in Manchester, so he’s not opposed to servants, just a certain kind of servant. To his credit, he learned his lesson and the scene where he asked Mosely to pick out cufflinks for him – possibly the most banal scene you could think of – makes our eyes a little wet each time we see it. The point here is simple: middle class snobbery is hurtful because it’s expressed so inelegantly. If you want to sling the bitchy, snobbish bon mots, then you turn to your betters for guidance: you turn to the Dowager Countess.

The Lady Grantham’s initial fit of pique over the arrival of the Crawleys was quite entertaining and “We could always start with ‘Mrs. Crawley’ and ‘Lady Grantham’” is one of her very best lines. But her disapproval of Isobel’s middle class drive to improve the world around her by getting involved in it almost cost a working class man his life, something that shocked the Dowager Countess when the realization hit her. Interestingly (but totally true to her class) she’s far kinder to the servants and the working class than she’d ever think to be toward the middle class. “Might I give you this cup?” she asks the embarrassed Mosely, and it’s probably one of the kindest gestures the character has ever made.

As an aside, Isobel remains one of our very favorite characters. She is strong, open-minded, and opinionated, but at the same time she is deathly afraid of the social disapproval of her wealthy, titled in-laws. “What they expect,” she reminds her son,” is that you and I won’t know how to behave, so if you don’t mind, I would like not to confirm their expectations,” a truly fantastic line that reveals so much about her. Watch the scene where she and Matthew are presented to the family for the first time. It’s subtle, but the fear and stress on her face is palpable. And the irony of it is, she always conducts herself impeccably. She was, after all, a doctor’s wife, and what she learned from that consists of far more than just the latest treatments for dropsy. She learned how to move through the world, even when it intimidates her.

But in many ways, the Dowager Countess is only a prelude to the intense snobbery that comes out of Mary, directed straight at Matthew. This is snobbery-as-weapon. Sure, she’s appalled by Matthew’s lack of manners and inability to hold silverware “like a gentleman,” but under normal circumstances, she’d most likely keep these feelings to herself, much like she’d normally refrain from putting down her own mother with “You’re American. You don’t understand these things.” But even before her mother and grandmother put the marriage possibility on the table, Mary was feeling the pressure to marry this man who represents everything that’s wrong about the entail in her eyes. To marry a man simply because he has a title is abhorrent to her and, ironically, something her own mother understands far, far better than she herself does.

Which isn’t to say that Matthew’s some sort of wilting victim in the face of her sharp tongue. He earned her disdain all by himself; first by mocking the idea that one of the daughters would be “pushed” on him; then by openly commenting on the class distinctions and odd (in his eyes) ways of doing things at Downton Abbey. Regardless of one’s own background, it’s still pretty classless to openly comment on things like that at your hosts’ dinner table. Matthew, in Mary’s eyes, is crude and boorish. He is not, however, stupid, even though she wishes that he was. Check their dinner conversation about Andromeda and Perseus. She is first quite surprised and a little peeved that he can finish the story for her, but she’s essentially cut off at the knees by his verbal bitchslap of “That depends on the princess and the sea monster in question.” Girl, you just got OWNED by a solicitor from Manchester. She’s not in love with him – not even close – but that conversation left her far more intrigued by him.

But the show definitely wants to make a point about the aristocracy and the servant class, and it goes out of its way to expose the idea that the servant class – especially in a big house – can be even more viciously classist than their employers and can be just as likely to hold on to silly social conventions that are nothing but illusions.

O’Brien, as she is wont to do, sits in the kitchen, badmouthing Matthew in the most vicious terms when Lady Grantham happens to walk in on her. For once, Cora showed some common sense with O’Brien and slapped her down so hard in front of the entire staff that her head was spinning. Worse, she sugar-coated it with “If we’re to be friends…” Say what you will about O’Brien, she doesn’t fool herself. “Who is she kidding? We’re not friends.” Anna seems skeptical, but O’Brien’s got it right. You can be friendly with the family, but at the end of the day – at the end of every day – they are the masters and the servants are the servants.

And while Cora had a job to do and did the right thing here, we couldn’t help but once again side with O’Brien and Thomas on the fact that she walked into an area of the house where no servant would ever expect her to be. In a way, it wasn’t quite fair of Cora to dress her down like that, even though it pretty much had to be done. Mrs. Hughes brought forth the full weight of her steel-spined fury to remind O’Brien and Thomas that they’re not indispensable and that free speech doesn’t exist anywhere for the servants in a country house. It’s one of the few times the show goes out of the way to make this point: that a life “in service” can be pretty humiliating and dehumanizing at times.

And finally there is stuffy old Mr. Carson, who goes apoplectic when William splits a seam only to have it revealed later that, for all his bluster and rigidity, he was not, as William believed, born a butler. The only thing Carson has to maintain his power over the staff is his dignity and the belief by others that he’s a man of class and honor. If they were to find out that he’d spent his early life on the stage with someone who turned out to be a common (in every sense of the word) criminal, it could have ruined his reputation among the staff. How do you think O’Brien would have handled this news? Or Thomas? Carson is damn lucky that the only people to witness his shame were Anna and Mr. Bates, two of the kindest people among the staff, and Sybil and Lord Grantham, two of the kindest people in the family. Could you imagine if Edith had walked in on that scene? Even Cora would have found it too funny not to share with everyone. Contrast Lord Grantham’s manner of treating Carson with Matthew’s manner of dealing with Mosely. It’s not our favorite thing in the world about the show, but it’s sometimes a bit too in love with the idea of the benevolent aristocrat. Sure, the Dowager Countess is there to stir a little salt into the cream, but for the most part, the show repeatedly makes the point that the Lord of the Manor is far kinder and wiser than anyone else, from his American wife right down to the ladies’ maids.

Watch Downton Abbey, Season 1: Ep. 2 on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

[Screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com - Video Credit: pbs.org]

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  • Anonymous

    For all the cattiness and bitchery and light-hearted mocking of celebrities here, THIS is why I return time and again to this blog.

    Gentlemen, thank you for your erudite insights on this show, and others such as Mad Men. I’ve checked out other sites, and the two of you always hit the best notes for me to ponder and question and be surprised and to learn from.

  • MilaXX

    Thank you for the clarification regarding the editing of this show. I think watching Carsen all but dig a hole and crawl under the floor at his embarrassment of having once been on the stage was one of  my first surprises on this show. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/shannonlstewart Shannon Stewart

    I don’t know, I could see the “not confirm their expectations” line to be just as much about delivery proper behavior as a fuck you as out of fear.  I know I’ve done it — my in-laws don’t like me at all, and there’s been more than one occasion that I’ve charmed their friends and acquaintances (a practice I normally try to avoid because it’s tedious and just fills my life with more people that are immensely tiring) just because it makes my mother-in-law grit her teeth. 

  • Anonymous

    “Tlo said: It’s one of the few times the show goes out of the way to make this point: that a life “in service” can be pretty humiliating and dehumanizing at times.”

    Yes, for the most part the lives of the servants are candy-coated. But I’m thinking that that is because, at the end of the day, this is entertainment, and not trying to make a political point – and to make the characters palatable and make the story work for a modern audience, there would have to be some kind people in the family or the audience wouldn’t care how the entail thing turned out. So either Lord Grantham or Mary had to be nice, and if Mary were a ‘nice’ girl, it wouldn’t be as dishy.

    Ironically, several years ago, PBS broadcast a reality show called ‘Manor House’ (I think) that took modern people and sent them to live in an country house like Downton, and live in the roles and under the rules of the Edwardian time period. The servants all chafed under their roles, but the family chosen to live the lives of Lords and Ladies, pretty quickly, got too big for their britches.

    But back to Downton: The snobbery of the servants was something that struck me right off the bat. I guess it was the kind of denial that one would need to survive a life of such subserviance that they would be so dismissive of the Crawleys – almost to the point of forgetting that no matter how low they thought the Crawleys were, at least they weren’t relegated to working on their knees and sleeping in the attic.

    –GothamTomato

    • Anonymous

      The servants all chafed under their roles, but the family chosen to live the lives of Lords and Ladies, pretty quickly, got too big for their britches.

      I have my doubts has to whether their reactions would accurately reflect the behavior of of the actual servants and upper-class employers during that epoch.  After all, the “modern people” were not brought up with the same ideas of what was natural, what was expected, as were the Victorian/Edwardians.   To quote Dorothy L. Sayers (Busman’s Honeymoon):  ”But in a village – no matter what village –  they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares.”  People, quite literally, “knew their place” and their duties, and the duties of the aristocracy very much included the concept of “noblesse oblige”.

      • Anonymous

        No, it likely didn’t accurately reflect the behavior of actual servants. I think the point of it was to show how difficult their lives were. But there had to be some who push against their allotted place or they’d still be living like that.

        –GothamTomato

        • Anonymous

          But there had to be some who push against their allotted place or they’d still be living like that.

          I think that the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of death duties had more to do with it.

          • Anonymous

            The death duties may have broken up the big estates, but they didn’t create the new options to the underclass. Interesting that this series began around the same time as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the rise of the union movement. I wonder how all that impacted servants as well (ie; if laws were enacted to put a floor under their wages.)

            When I was watching Downton, and thinking about the older characters who spent their lives ‘in service’ I wondered what happened to them when they got too old to work.–GothamTomato

          • foodycat

            “ I wondered what happened to them when they got too old to work.–GothamTomato” – I’ve met a couple of women who were in service. They are in their 90s now and pretty much dependent on charity, although one of them still gets occasional gifts from the family she was cook for.

          • Anonymous

             thinking about the older characters who spent their lives ‘in service’ I wondered what happened to them when they got too old to work.

            An interesting question!

            Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, writes:  Many, perhaps even the majority, of old Nannies probably retired as other servants did, that is back into one branch or another of their families, into homes of one sort or another, or, if they were fortunate, into some form of independent, if poor, existence on money saved during a long lifetime.  Nevertheless my researches suggest that on the whole they did better than other servants, and commonsense would support this.  Up until 1939 it was by no means uncommon for old servants to be given pensions, either of money or homes.”  (Emphasis added.)

          • Anonymous

            Sometimes, in contemporary fiction, (and all the time in later 20th/21st century fiction, but that can’t really be assumed to reflect reality), a character’s parsimony is illustrated by their not being adequately generous to old and long-time family servants, either upon their retirement or upon the employer’s death.

            To modern eyes, what’s appalling is that receiving any pension, in coin or in housing and food, (or even receiving irregular gifts) was entirely dependent on the moral sense and the continued prosperity of a former employer and/or his heirs. You couldn’t count on anything. 

          • Anonymous

            Your observation is so ironic.  So many corporations have done away with Pensions…one’s medical care/attention is predicated on private insurance vis-a-vis one’s ability to pay in proper coin….there’s a commercial that says you only needs to save about 1.5 or so million dollars to hope to maintain a semblance of a middleclass retirement (my parents AND my friends parents, claim they can’t afford to retire).  Oh, we the lucky inheritors of the modern century!  Now, more than at anytime SINCE the last century I feel, “The more things change…the more they stay the same.” 

          • Anonymous

            The state pension was introduced in 1908 so that would provide some safety net. But yes, much of your comfort in old age would depend on how good your employer had been and if his heirs would or could carry that on.

          • Anonymous

            In Sense and Sensibility (set a century before Downton Abbey), Mrs. John Dashwood complained to her husband that her widowed mother was forced to pay annuities, set up by her late father, to old, retired servants every year until they died.

          • Anonymous

            Basic state pensions were introduced in 1908 and then the welfare state was properly developed in 1945 which would’ve been in time for the younger ones. Plus a good employer would’ve provided to some degree. Especially one who ran a large estate and could quite possibly provide cottages. If you take the shorter life expectancy and the fact they’d often work until they dropped (think Anthony Hopkins father in Remains of the Day) it probably wasn’t that much of a burden on employers to care for retired staff.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=12500056 Joseph Lamour

      Re:Manor House- I think the too big for your britches thing comes naturally when you are in a setting like that. I’m pretty sure the people chosen to live there as quasi-royalty didn’t grow up rich, and probably the lottery effect hit them (I bet some of them were just simply assholes too). I think as with any group of people, you have the kind, and you have the jerks. It brings to mind when Mary and whichever guy she was with were caught in the servants quarters and she said “I always think to apologize when I’m in the wrong.” It immediately gave one of the biggest snobs on the show layers for me.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, that was a great way of peeling back Mary’s seemingly tough exterior.

        –GothamTomato

    • Jessica Goldstein

      You remember correctly. I loved that show, and many of its American counterparts (Frontier House and 1910 House are two that I caught.)  If *I* remember correctly, the Butler was the heart and soul of the house behind the scenes and on screen, the lady of the house horrified her kids by getting so comfortable spending her day party planning and the like, and an unmarried sister/aunt could not take the isolation acting her role at that time demanded. Also, one of the lower ranking maids had a grandmother or great-grandmother in service, and wore a very simple silver band that she said was the nicest thing her ancestor ever wore. She joined the cast to gain insight into her great-grandmother’s life and could hardly believe how hard a life it was. These things are sugar-coated because, as you rightly state, were they not, no one would view as light entertainment.

      • Anonymous

        “…and an unmarried sister/aunt could not take the isolation acting her role at that time demanded.”

        Yes, to me, one of the most striking things is seeing just how limited options were for women. That really is the biggest difference between then and now, even more than technology, is the difference of feminism in the lives of women.

        –GothamTomato

        • Anonymous

          And how interwoven technology and options for women were, for good or ill (labor-saving housework devices on one hand, Xerox machines replacing secretaries on the other, to move forward in time a bit to a point TLo made on one of their Mad Men wrap-ups).

      • Noelle Haland

        Just today I was hoping to find a streaming version of “Manor House” but was unsuccessful. My memory serves that the modern folks ast as the aristocrats in “Manor House” were, in fact, a rich businessman and his wife, and at least some of the servants worked service jobs in real life, eg. one might have been a bartender, another an actual stable hand, I believe. I remember wondring back when the show aired if the people cast as ‘aristocrats’ didn’t actually fid their roles quite comfortable and smoothly fitting. I remember being quite angry with at least some of them. Now if I could only get my mitts on this show again without having to go back to DVDs mailed from Netflix…..!

  • Anonymous

    . . .  the servant class – especially in a big house – can be even more viciously classist than their employer  . . .

    Because their own status depends on that of their employer.  

  • Elizabeth Davis

    Very insightful, as always. I wish I shared your enthusiasm for Isobel, though. Her character drives me crazy. I understand her zeal, but sometimes it feels like she picks fights just for the fun of it and not for any real purpose. 

  • Leslie Streeter

    I agree about the downstairs areas being the only place that the servants can speak freely, but for O’Brien, that sourpuss, to sass her back, when she was being a jerk, even if she should be able to think that way, was dumb.
    And I agree – the closeness between master and servant is unsettingly because it belies everything we’ve learned about the way the aristocracy worked.
    Love this show.

  • Anonymous

    Lord Grantham and the Dowager Grantham may be written  to be the kindest characters  , but it is the maintenance  their lifestyle that is causing the scheming and unpleasantness in the staff and other family members. 

  • Anonymous

    Matthew and Mosely’s scene with the cufflinks is indeed one of my favorites!!  It’s so quietly perfect.  As is any scene with Anna and Bates!

    • Anonymous

      TOTALLY on both counts! And every time I see Matthew remark to Mosley that it’s a “silly” job, I want to cry at Mosely’s expression.  It’s clear he’s never considered it like that because it’s always been done, it’s a “great” job for someone in service, and he’s good at it.  You can see his whole paradigm crashing in his facial expression.  In addition to having had his feelings hurt by Matthew’s unthinking and unintentional rudeness.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting points although I have a different take on a few things.  I give Matthew more leeway than you do about his reactions to Mosely.  Having people do things for you that you aren’t used to is uncomfortable.  Having a cook and a maid is different than having a valet which is far more personal.  I once stayed at a posh hotel where the norm was for someone to unpack and pack your luggage and I found it really disconcerting even though I was happy to let someone else clean the room and make my meals.  Getting Lord Grantham’s and his mother’s take on how doing things for himself is now rude instead of thoughtful was illuminating for him, but me too. That perspective is not one I’d have thought of.

    I also cut Thomas and O’Brien less slack about criticizing the family when downstairs.  Although it’s not common for the family to come downstairs, there are at least three instances shown that I can remember (Lady Grantham as discussed, Lord Grantham to greet Bates, and Lady Sybil when she’s sneaking back in from Ripon).  In their rooms, they may have more expectation of privacy (except when a duke wants something back) but downstairs in the working part of the house, maybe not so much.  Plus I can see why Carson and Hughes came down on them for badmouthing the family.  That kind of talk can become infectious, affect morale, and then spill over into behavior which then becomes a real problem.  People like O’Brien and Thomas can poison the atmosphere and often do.  

    I also think it’s hard to draw the same line between friendship and servanthood for everybody.  I think Anna has a different relationship with Sybil than O’Brien has with Lady Grantham, or even Anna with Lady Mary or Lady Edith. And clearly Lady Sybil and Gwen have a different relationship as well.  Lord Grantham may be portrayed as a little too perfect, but it’s a good device to highlight the different attitudes.  And even the family recognizes it.  Doesn’t Cora or his mother ask him “Why do you have to be so much better than the rest of us?”   

    • jessamyn

      I agree that the servants cannot expect privacy downstairs, only in their rooms. Many accounts of the time make the point that often young children of the family tended to be in and out of the kitchen (listening to stories, bagging treats, chasing the cat, what-have-you) and it was, after all, a public space. I think it’s much more equivalent to an office where a V.P. suddenly turns up in the employee break room and catches the cubicle-dwellers bitching: did they think it was safe? Yes. Did they have the right to assume that? No.

      • Anonymous

        I remember reading about Princess Diana that said that when she was growing up, she often ate in the kitchen with the servants, preferring their company to her family.

        –GothamTomato

    • Anonymous

      I agree with you about Matthew.  

      • Anonymous

        Re Thomas’s explanation to Mathew, I used to work for some very rich, old-money people and they always took the staff to their Very Exclusive Club for our annual holiday lunch. The dishes were brought to the table, held by the wait staff, and we served ourselves from the platter, exactly like that scene in the episode. One of the office staff complained that she didn’t like eating that way because she thought it was “lower class” to serve herself and wanted her plate bought to her, with the food already on it. 

        • Anonymous

          Love it!  For reference, that style of dining is called “à la russe” and became standard in England in the early 19th century.  Before that, all the dishes were placed on the table at once and passed around the table, with several courses (all the dishes removed and more brought in and placed on the table).  There is an article called Service à la russe at Wikipedia that explains some of the details.

          I have noticed in my studies that sometimes notions of class invert over time, particularly about food.  For example, “high tea” or “tea” as a meal vs. as a light snack in the mid to late afternoon;  dining times;  the terms “dinner,” “supper,” “tea,” etc.  I think it’s fascinating.  

  • Anonymous

    While the scene with Carson does paint Lord Grantham as a noble aristocrat, I do like the scene a lot for its other implications.  For all intents and purposes, he serves as law enforcement in his titled area.  In a Freedom of Speech society, the criminal would have been perfectly free to stick around and harass Carson as long as he liked… until, of course, he happened to be convicted of some crime, and Carson would have been ruined by then anyway.  But Lord Grantham unequivocally sent him packing, illustrating the extent to which people live and die by their relationships with the landed gentry.  (In this case, a good thing for Carson.)  

    Another reason to love this show.  It suggests and implies plenty of additional food for thought.  Thanks for blogging this!

  • Anonymous

    I know it’s from the first episode, but one scene that really struck me in terms of aristocrat/servant relationship was the one between Mr. Bates and Lord Grantham after Bates’ arrival.  They had been together in war and clearly had a bond between them as men from the experience that transcended class (there’s no upstairs or downstairs in a foxhole…).  They spoke to each other with a very atypical degree of direct eye contact for men in their respective positions, even while Bates clearly was dutifully moving into a new master-servant position, with a mixture of wounded pride and gratitude.  Something of a subtle reminder that all of this carefully maintained snobbery and hierarchy is going to get a real shaking up soon.

  • Michael Colvin

    Lady Mary’s line to Matthew about “you’re right, this is a joke” has to be one of the most wonderful moments between these two. 

  • Anonymous

    “It’s not our favorite thing in the world about the show, but it’s sometimes a bit too in love with the idea of the benevolent aristocrat. Sure, the Dowager Countess is there to stir a little salt into the cream, but for the most part, the show repeatedly makes the point that the Lord of the Manor is far kinder and wiser than anyone else, from his American wife right down to the ladies’ maids.”

    I really disagree with this, and think the later episodes bear it out.

    • Anonymous

      I was just about to post the same thing.

    • Anonymous

      Yes the later episodes do bear it out I agree. Better not say any more though or I might land myself in trouble :D

  • Anonymous

    i too loved the scene with matthew and mosely – largely because of the superbly understated acting of the man playing mosely. i kept expecting overemoting, but it was not there, and yes, it made me tear up – even now as i type.

    i empathised with isobel crawley’s class insecurities, and was glad she acquitted herself well enough at her first meeting with the granthams.

  • Jessica Goldstein

    “It’s not our favorite thing in the world about the show, but it’s
    sometimes a bit too in love with the idea of the benevolent aristocrat.”

    This is the exact reason the first season underwhelmed me and I’m nervous about the second. There was less of this in Gosford Park, perhaps because it was a murder mystery, and also perhaps because it was an Altman movie. But as Downton Abbey went on, I kept getting the uncomfortable feeling that Julian Fellowes, a member of the peerage, was issuing an apology for and ecomium of the British aristocracy. I think this is best witnessed in the development of Matthew, whose character becomes more likable when he learns to appreciate and accept his future role as Lord of the Manor.

    I’ll tune in next week for the costumes and because I’m a sucker for most things British. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Fellowes background and politics (he’s a Tory) is as obvious this time around.

  • Anonymous

    Even if Lady Grantham shouldn’t have been in the servants’ hall and even if she was wrong to give O’Brien a dressing-down in front of the other servants, O’Brien should never have alluded to Lady Grantham’s privately shared opinions of Matthew Crawley.

    • Anonymous

      That struck me as well.  Servants are going to gossip, but it seemed like a breach of trust to say that in front of the rest of the household staff. My guess is that one aspect of being a good valet or lady’s maid is knowing what could be shared with the rest of the staff and what couldn’t be.         

  • Anonymous

    I mostly just enjoy the verbal interaction and the clothing.

    I think that the way I’ve been socialized to think about duty, responsibility, class and privilege is SO SO different from how these characters, up & down stairs, would have thought at the time, that the people and events presented MUST be sometimes a little bit selectively chosen or even ‘adjusted’ from what would have been typical at the time in order for a modern audience to have enough sympathy with any of the characters to engage with the show. It’s hard for a modern American to sympathize even with the hard working downtrodden if they mostly not only accept their downtrodden status but are grateful for & proud of their place in the world. And it seems wrong to my mind that feeling responsibility for one’s servants’ welfare was to some extent a moral choice, rather than a matter of clear justice or a legal imperative.

    It is mind boggling that the younger characters here are the generation who went from this existence not just to the social changes after the First World War, but weren’t truly ‘old’ until the early 1960s. That’s virtually unimaginable social and technological change.

    • Anonymous

      It is mind boggling that the younger characters here are the generation
      who went from this existence not just to the social changes after the
      First World War, but weren’t truly ‘old’ until the early 1960s. That’s
      virtually unimaginable social and technological change.

      Excellent observation. I’d hadn’t considered that. Yet it’s also true that the social and technological change wrought since the mid-forties when the baby boomers began to come along is almost as unimaginable.

      • Anonymous

        My grandmother, in her lifetime, went from cooking over an open fire for the ranchhands (when she was five) to cooking with a microwave in her seventies. (She much preferred the microwave.) 

        • Anonymous

          Same for my grandmother (except for the ranchhands) – but she never got past referring to the refrigerator as the ice box. One of her earliest memories was of the ice delivery man, who delivered the ice in his horse drawn wagon. When I told her I was saving to buy a house, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t buy a house! You get married and your husband buys you a house!”

          –GothamTomato

          • Anonymous

            Yes! My father (born in the 1920s) called it the ice box to the end of his days. The ice man routinely carried the heavy ice blocks up and down multiple flights of stairs. My dad’s childhood dog was addled (the story went) from being kicked by a cart horse. Apparently deliverymen using horse drawn carts were in use in Jersey City, N.J. well into the ’30s.

          • Anonymous

            My father, born in the 1930s, still calls it the ice box!

        • Anonymous

          That’s a great dramatic example.
           
          I was considering such things as the fact that smart phones have more powerful computers than what sent men to the moon, which was still a *Jules Verne* idea in the mid-forties, when computers were the size of small buildings and could do very little. And blacks were *colored people* with their own drinking fountains who can now claim a member of their race as the President of this country.

    • Anonymous

      If you landed up in a good house with a good employer were you really any more downtrodden than a modern worker on minimum wage working long hours for some corporation where the directors take massive salaries.

      It is hard to imagine the changes our grandparents and great-grandparents saw in their lives though. My great grandmother was in service before she was married. I don’t remember her but I have a photograph of her as a young woman in her maids uniform, which would be from around the same time as the start of DA.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, that question of “who is more -or less- downtrodden” illustrates why I mostly just enjoy the conversation and clothes without being too analytical. Because I’m pretty sure someone born in 1894 didn’t *feel* any more downtrodden than a modern minimum wage worker feels – but from today’s perspective the lack of control over one’s personal life being in service mandated and the essentially all-the-hours-you-are-awake-if-you-are-needed work day (wasn’t the standard a single day or half day off every week or every other week?) would certainly feel like a much worse situation.

        • Anonymous

          Yes, it has to be put in the context of the time. It wasn’t uncommon for rural families to be crammed into a two room cottage with a large number of children. LIkewise city flats jammed full of people. To get out of that into a large house where you maybe shared a room with one or two other maids and had food on the table every day – you might well feel you’d landed on your feet. The worst thing would be the homesickness if  you’d come from a happy family background. The hard work wouldn’t have been a problem, no matter what situation you were in the work would be hard and long.

          My great grandmother’s other option would’ve been the local linen mill which employed much of the village. Going to Edinburgh to service may well have felt like going up in the world to her.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know if it’s benevolence of the aristocrats toward the servants or the fact that the aristocrats were raised from birth by servants and feel more familial toward them than they do toward their own biological families. The middle class and nouveau rich treated the servants differently because they generally didn’t grow up having any, so it was a whole different dynamic. At least this was my take on the relationships.

  • Claire Tuley

    One thing to remember with Matthew in terms of servants is that almost everyone had a cook and maid back then, even the middle-class. In Rebecca West’s 1917 “Return of the Soldier” the main characters go on and on about the tacky poor girl, even though she has a servant. Not having either would be the modern equivalent of not having a washing machine; if you owned a home, you had someone to take care of it. They weren’t servants so much as necessities, which Mosley doesn’t seem to be to Matthew.

    • Anonymous

      Definitely. After all even now many people who can afford it have a cleaner coming in. So if you think of how labour intensive keeping a house was in those days having a maid was pretty essential. You couldn’t make any attempt at refinement and still black the grate, wax the floor and all the rest of the hard manual work involved.

      • Anonymous

        Just the fact that your house ( and everyone else’s, if you were in a town/city) heated with wood and coal deposited unbelievable (by our notions) dirt on walls, curtains, carpets, furniture, etc.  The notion of scrubbing everything down to the bare boards annually in a spring cleaning was not invented out a masochistic desire to create work.

        • Anonymous

          My last house was built in 1840 and we decided to try and clean the loft/attic up to use it for storage. It hadn’t been touched in many years (we found a newspaper scrap from about 1906) and the layer of soot between the rafters was unbelievable. It killed the hoover we were using. And that was a long time after the coal fires had been replaced with central heating.

          Everything used was hard work; the silverware, the linens. To have been a working class woman with no help trying to keep a house would’ve been a mammoth task.

          • Anonymous

            The oldest house I’ve ever owned was about 65 years old – and doing any maintenance that opened up a wall or floor was such a crap shoot – what oddity of what vintage and following what (if any) outdated building code would one find?  Maintaining a house built in the mid-nineteenth century must be quite the adventure!

          • Anonymous

            Oh every small job turns into a big one! And you find weird things like rooms that have been repurposed, a bedroom that was once a kitchen etc. My current house is an Edwardian flat, in a typical Glasgow tenement building but it’s been modernised at some point and a lot of the original features are gone. But I don’t think I could go back to a modern house, couldn’t stand the low ceilings etc :)

    • Anonymous

      I remember reading a funny story about how one when electricity was installed in someone’s house, everyone marvelled at it except the mother, who wailed how everything looked so dirty. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818790248 Andrea Grenadier

    A fine analysis, but — and call it what you will, in this case, snobbery — the way one acted has little to do with that label. That’s what WE call them, but in their world, it’s simply the way one acts. Life was classist back then, and much had to do with the great insecurity in Britain’s world between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and especially, after the Boer Wars. The insecurity and provincialism reflected great fear of what was to be lost, and what was at stake. 
    I’m much more sympathetic to Matthew. He’s found his way in the world by himself, so imagine what it must be like to be then yoked to an estate, and a family that doesn’t want him to be part of theirs. The scene with Mosely was painful to watch, but again, we can’t filter that experience through our own eyes; we should probably take it for what it’s worth: that Matthew isn’t used to having a manservant and finds it absurd. Because it IS absurd. Lady Mary also reflects a great deal of insecurity; she’s a cold-hearted, fearful child whose options are growing fewer by the day, and she knows it. 

    • Anonymous

      Yes.  The idea that a person who moved up and out of their class would not know how to behave was not solely a classist prejudice against the ‘lower orders.’  It was to some extent a reality – markers of pronunciation, language usage and manners were taken seriously, and (just like today) were modeled and/or taught from childhood. Also, the difference in educational opportunities between upper and lower classes was enormous when literacy was not a requirement for much of the labor force.

  • Anonymous

    What a fantastic write-up!! Thank you so much for reminding me in such fascinating terms why I fell in love with this series.

  • http://twitter.com/itsveryfaraway Margaret

    EDIT: This is a reply to Jessica Goldstein’s post below – not sure why it came up as a stand-alone.

    I don’t really detect an apology for the aristocracy in Fellowes script,
    and his ancestry doesn’t support the idea that he’d feel a need to do
    so.  While he is, strictly speaking, now a peer, it is a life peerage
    and it was not bestowed upon him until this year.  Life peers carry the
    title “Baron”, but they are not counted as part of the aristocracy (and,
    indeed, Fellowes own background is not at all aristocratic). 

    I
    believe his father was a diplomat, but Fellowes attended only very
    minor public schools and I’d be most surprised if he had a chance to
    associate with any real “aristocrats” until he *might* have met a few at
    Cambridge.  Even then, he’d most likely have found that they’re normal
    people with normal lives – not remotely like Fellowes’ Grantham family. 
    Actually, I was in a close circle of friends with Hugh Williams
    (professionally “Bonneville”) while we were at Cambridge and he had more
    of a “peer of the realm” attitude about him than did the titled people I
    knew (and Hugh’s dad is a doctor with no claims to peerage, to my
    knowledge) (don’t hate on me, lovers of HRBW – he was a lovely, witty
    friend – just acted a bit entitled as a young man).  My point is, there
    is just nothing in his background, as you suggest, that would lead
    Fellowes to apologize for aristocratic attitudes or ways of
    life, historic or otherwise, and I don’t particularly see such a theme in DA, FWIW.

    Don’t know why I expounded upon all that, really, except that Fellowes
    is mates with a producer friend of mine and my limited experience of him leads
    me to think the somewhat derogatory observations about him in your post
    are not well founded, so I guess I wanted to jump in.

    • Anonymous

      What interesting friends you have :)

      I think generally it’s a mistake to read too much social comment into Downton. It’s a pleasant Sunday evening type of drama set in beautiful surroundings with an interesting range of characters living somewhat romanticised lives within the context of changing times. It is no more a social history document than Monarch of the Glen (to rope in another Fellowes connection) was a comment on Scottish feudalism (leaving aside the fact the books that was based on were more satirical). To have characters either wringing their hands with guilt or ranting about inequality would turn it into a completely different production. We’ve had period dramas set in working class mill towns, impoverished rural communities (even Lark Rise being  a very romanticised example)  and grim city streets. Having Downton set among a benevolent aristocratic famlily just fills another pigeonhole. It doesn’t make it any sort of upper class PR job just because Julian Fellowes has achieved a lot and talks a bit posh :D But sadly it’s an opinion I’ve read a few times.

    • Anonymous

      Julian Fellowes wrote Gosford Park–available on Netflix Streaming, as is the version of Downton Abbey being recapped here. Which was written after he became Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stanford. He’s gone on record as being incensed that his wife will not be able to inherit the title when Earl Kitchener dies; the title will go extinct. 
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/celebritynews/8757793/Julian-Fellowes-inheritance-laws-denying-my-wife-a-title-are-outrageous.html  Is there truly no political reason behind the Downton series?  How different is the Lord of Gosford Park from the benevolent fellow who rules over Downton Abbey?

      Well, Series I is well worth a recap & my new HDTV shows the Netflix version quite beautifully. Another Netflix note: They’re streaming the first series of the original Upstairs/Downstairs–the ancestor of all this Masterpiece stuff.  Production values were more basic back in the day, which I remember well–a few episodes are in black & white! But the story moves along quite smoothly & Lady Margery’s frocks are stunning; let’s hope they stream the rest of this highly addictive series. 

      PBS at this very moment is showing the version of Emma starring Romola Garai & Jonny Lee Williams.  Yes, most Americans who watch this stuff are well acquainted with obscure points of British law & custom.

      And Sherlock Series II will begin New Year’s Day in the UK.  But that, as Kipling often said, is another story….

      • Anonymous

        Despite the fact that the clothes are not at ALL as interesting, I am already happily anticipating Sherlock Series II. Though, sadly, it won’t air here in the U.S. till, I think, May.

  • Anonymous

    I’m thrilled you are recapping the show TLo! I love everything about DA, the music, costumes, scenery, acting, plot line…..

  • Anonymous

    Julian Fellowes wrote a book called SNOBS in which the main character seems very much like the real Julian Fellowes (although I doubt the real one has or had a BFF trying to marry above her station, since that character seems very Princess Diana-ish and not just some fascinating woman the real Julian Fellowes would’ve run into). Anyway, that narrator displays the same conflicted attitude toward aristocrats and snobbery in general that I, personally, see in Downton Abbey. Whether he really does know what he’s talking about, well, I haven’t a clue. But he certainly SEEMS to have some kind of inside knowledge of the privileged class enjoying its privileges, to steal a line from Phillip Barry, writing about American snobs. So if you’re building a character assessment of Julian Fellowes based on his writings, be sure to include SNOBS.

  • http://profiles.google.com/emily.w.sings Emily Wilkerson

    I think it’s important to consider that the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, is a Baron and a Conservative peer in the House of Lords. Obviously, his perspective on the British aristocracy is pretty biased and perhaps a bit old-fashioned. I think that explains the “benevolent aristocrat” idea that is so prevalent in this show (and is one of the few things that irks me about Downton).

    I adore Downton Abbey and I’ve been hoping that you would start re-capping it as soon as I finished watching the first episode last year. As usual, your re-cap was intelligent, but not at all snobby. Keep it up!

  • Anonymous

    Loving these recaps! I was interested to hear your thoughts on the scene with Thomas and O’Brien, and I’d just like to add that the scene is even more effective in juxtaposition with the similar situation presented earlier in the show as Mary walked in on Matthew making disparaging comments about her. However, despite the fact that he too is living on the property of the Grantham estate, Matthew is allowed the freedom to speak of whatever he likes in his home, and Mary could hardly reprimand him. The house staff is not awarded that privilege.

    Also, I really appreciated your take on Mary’s snobbery towards Matthew, and I just wanted to add that the choices made in the editing of the Perseus scene direct as much, if not more, attention to the reactions of Lord and Lady Grantham as they do to Matthew. In fact, until Matthew demonstrates that he knows the story, and therefore becomes Mary’s intellectual equal as opposed to her prey, over two thirds of the shots in the scene are of the adults taking in Mary’s display. Brilliant writing and direction all around really, and the scene really sets the groundwork for her arc throughout the season. 

    And because this is after all a fashion blog, Mary’s gray getup with the big black hat near the end of the episode is FABULOUS, as are both Mary and Sybil’s riding costumes. Cora’s sparkly green number was pretty fantastic too. And as an added bonus, I thought it was a nice touch that Matthew’s clothes were just the slightest bit off in terms of the fit and the style. Excellent work from the costume department.

  • Anonymous

    this could prove to be seriously entertaining…..

    “According to UK tabloid Mirror, the one and only Joan Collins is in talks to appear on Downton Abbey as Maggie Smith‘s cousin – but only if the show does a 2012 Christmas special”.

    • Anonymous

      God, I hope that’s not true.  Or, if it is true, then I hope the talks fall through.

      • Anonymous

        agreed, though it might be worth it just to see Dame Maggie take the piss out of her :)

    • Anonymous

      I can’t see her in period costume. She wouldn’t be able to hide under the same layers of make-up for one thing. 

  • sweetlilvoice

    God I love this show!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1185123018 Melissa Protzek

    Re: editing of the show.  Just wanted to let you know, TLo, the versions are slightly different.  While no major storylines have been sacrificed in the PBS version, there were cuts that failed to illustrate what I believe to be some significant character traits.  For example, the Netflix version has the scenes regarding the alleged thievery of Lord Grantham’s snuff box — and all the minor mayhem that ensued including Anna’s idea of sabotaging Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien.  But in the PBS online version, there was nothing about the snuff box, the story went right to the wine thievery.  Might seem insignificant, but upon watching the Netflix version, Anna seemed to be presented in a new, bolder and more brazen light (at least for someone who originally watched the PBS online stream).  It made such a difference that I am going to watch both versions of the first season, just to make certain that there weren’t other things that I missed.  

    Just an FYI.  Thank you so much for blogging about the show.  You have completely turned me on to DA, as you did with MM.

  • Jett Galindo

    Just had to say that the despite having difficult work hours, I get out of my way to watch 3 series (Project Runway, Revenge & Downton Abbey) mostly because of the awesome commentary from you, guys. Thanks for the fabulousity, TLo!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Emily-Smith/12431153 Emily Smith

    so i’m just watching this show now so this comment is late and will go unnoticed, but that’s some incredible side saddle riding in the hunt by whomever their stunt rider is.  side saddle riding is HARD, must less jumping while side saddle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bellwether.nesingwary Bellwether Nesingwary

    I just watched this and came here. I will keep coming back as each show unfolds. This was a really interesting ep. I had no idea how hard Lady Grantham had to work it to make sure she was on top and to crush those she didn’t trust like Mrs. Crawley. I just sort of figured they got whatever they wanted. Also I couldn’t put my finger on why I disliked Matthew’s attitude even though you could tell he wasn’t a bad person. I think I figured it out after reading the above. He’s snobby about being a middle class person. I was glad Lord Crowley figured out how to explain to him he was being just as awful to Mosley as Lady Grantham was to his mom.