By Sarah Pridgeon
Perhaps you’ve already heard that Sundance Library is planning a fundraiser that’s right up my alley – if not, may I take this opportunity to urge you to give it a try. On May 7, at the Sundance United Methodist Church, all my friends and neighbors will have the chance to walk a mile in British shoes at a Downton Abbey-themed afternoon tea.
I’m told that fancy dress will be encouraged, so anyone wishing to take on the role of the acerbic Dowager Countess will have the chance to live out their fantasies. Practicing one’s quips may be a necessity, however, as coming up with a line such as, “No guest should be admitted without the date of their departure being settled” can surely not be as easy as it seems.
It did surprise me to discover how much of a following the show has garnered on these shores. At first glance, the ins and outs of stately life a century ago doesn’t seem the sort of thing that would interest such a fiercely classless society as this one.
It’s arguably not even relevant back home. In modern Britain, the class system has less of an obvious impact than it did in the days of Lady Mary and her kin.
Thanks to our obvious reluctance to set the record straight, the rest of the world still views us as entrenched in the social cages we built so many centuries ago. At the top, the lords and ladies upon whom every advantage of wealth was conferred, from mansions and servants to setting fashions and enjoying the very best cuisine, with a pecking order firmly established among its ranks.
Below them, the rest of us: the “nouveau riche” who had only recently made their fortune and would no doubt elicit an involuntary sneer from the Dowager. The middle classes, upper and lower, and then the “peasants” clinging for dear life to the bottom rung.
But is that still true? Yes and no. Though nobody would faint in modern Britain if a couple with differing financial backgrounds decided to marry, we do seem to stick within our own social groups – whether or not we identify them as classes. We also have a wider spectrum of “classes” these days, based as much on our social and cultural capital as they are on our finances.
The class system is still there, it has just evolved with the times and become much more akin to the American social structure, based on qualities other than birthright. “Each decade, we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade, the coffin stays empty,” said eminent sociologist Richard Hoggart.
Sure, our lords and ladies still prowl the grounds of their estates in Wellington boots accompanied by beagles, and they still hand those titles on to their children, but they are no longer the caretakers of the land and creators of jobs they once were.
Those of us who were not born with a silver spoon in our mouths may meanwhile strive for all the upward mobility we wish, though studies suggest we seldom get too far. According to one piece of research, it can take ten generations to climb or descend the ladder, barring an unexpected event.
Of course, Downton Abbey is not quite the realistic representation we viewers would like to believe, even in terms of what Britain was like a century ago. Far from it, in fact: life for those who entered into domestic service did not involve nearly so much equality and cleanliness.
“Downstairs” was a place of hard labor and sweat and “upstairs” was much less understanding when things went wrong. It would have been a rare event indeed for the master to ask advice of a servant, much less support him or her through suspicions of wrongdoing or scandal.
Illustrating this is the fact that servants were expected to face the wall and stay silent while one of the masters passed them on the stairs, which a handbook for the running of stately houses assured was to spare the servant the “embarrassment” of explaining what they were doing there.
But this inaccuracy, I think, is precisely what we love about Downton Abbey. It is not so much a reflection of what life was like in the olden days as a dream of how society ought to function.
It’s the idea of community but with labels given to each cog in the wheel. At its head, those with status, the ones who have the influence and ability to run the show and do so with grace and fairness at every turn.
Nestled under their protection are those whose lives are shaped by their position in the household. People who take great pride in their work and in the notion of service and whose efforts are both respected and appreciated.
I’m sure there were stately houses in which the Downton Abbey model flourished, but I think what appeals to us is that the show melds the atmosphere of the past with the sensibilities of the present. The end result is a world in which the most fortunate understand their fates are entwined with the less fortunate and that one’s bank balance is not a reflection of character. What a wonderful way to be, don’t you think?
It also forms the basis for a wonderful fundraiser, in my opinion – not to mention that I’m told there will be fancy hats to wear. So if a refreshing cup of tea and a scone sounds like a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon (and remember – no pinky fingers should be lifted), I will see you at the church in May.