The new season of Downton has resumed on public television. Americans, love these period pieces shown as Masterpiece Theatre. We love the civility, the superb performances of nuanced characters and, of course, the accents. An American ear assigns thirty I.Q. points to any utterance coming from a British mouth.
Twenty-five years ago when traveling through the Yorkshire Dales we stopped off at a pub and got into conversation with a group of blokes from Manchester. I said something about loving the broadcast of Upstairs, Downstairs. Rubbish. they answered in unison. What do you like?, I asked. Dallas, they replied, that’s real.
Maybe these dramas are just soap opera but it’s the kind of soap we willingly wash away our worries with and come away feeling cleansed, even a bit more sophisticated. As Anglophiles we have a special relationship to the U.K.sharing, as we do,our mother tongue if not our mother country….even if our ancestral homeland was Eastern Europe. I suspect we take a composite of these stories and from them compose our sense of the past. What may be hokum to the Brits feels like history to us.
Most are set during the years just before and after the Great War which was arguably the greatest crime against humanity until the Holocaust. Downton Abbey drops us off in the middle of World War I with an array of men eager to cross the channel and serve as fodder in Flanders field. One has returned with shell shock and another connives his way home with merely a bullet-hole in his hand. I take all this as being historically accurate.
My guess is that our fascination lies with the class society of that time. Everyone knew his/her place. The hierarchy of downstairs was at least as rigid and understood as upstairs. Rules pertained. Behavior was prescribed. Dress codes enforced. Men and women were consigned, by birth, to take their place on the chessboard.
And now it was to fall apart. We like that too. The titled and privileged rolling up their sleeves, learning how to boil water and make a bed. The valet with aspirations of running a small hotel. We watch the world in its fracture. Even that is done with grace and dignity in sharp contrast to the senseless abomination of trench warfare.
How does all this relate to the American experience? Our upper class was certainly as up, but not for so long. We looked ahead while they looked back. Our rich were not titled except as Captains of Industry. We were crass and pragmatic; they were genteel but probably no less ruthless, still in command of a vast empire. Our classless society was part of the American myth and still is. Our working class now ranks low in terms of upward mobility as measured against most industrial countries. We make heroes of the exceptions and cling to the opportunism of immigrant experiences yet we also enjoy watching the British seemingly tidy social order. Fear of the impovrished upsetting our daily life is at the heart of the Republican agenda.
This country, with separation of Church and State as a cornerstone, is obsessed with Christian piety. Theirs, with the Church of England as the established religion is able to put it aside. As former colonies, having overthrown the crown, vigilant not to resemble a monarchial government in any way, we now find ourselves worshipping celebrities as royalty. Perhaps the British heritage persists mostly in our bizarre voting practices in which Downstairs votes for Upstairs and perpetuates the class division.