I just finished watching Episode #5 (Episode #4 for those of us watching in the States) of Downton Abbey. I have to admit it — this show is my guilty pleasure. Usually my tastes run more to the works where the force of the narrative is in rejecting rather than accepting rigid social hierarchies, more Tolstoy and less Waugh. Yes, sure, we have Branson and his good old-fashioned Irish republicanism, but the character often comes across as simply churlish rather than truly revolutionary; as if the worst thing a freedom fighter can do is cause discord at high tea rather than sow dissent in the public square. I have too often thought that the critics of the show have gotten it wrong. It is not simply a museum celebrating the glories of a now-faded imperium. And I think tonight the program showed its true colors. Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD. Julian Fellowes, an aristo himself, has shown where his true loyalties lie. In the contest between barbarians, philistines, and populace, it is the philistines (the middle class) that wins out. Tonight’s episode had three particularly striking moments where view this.
First, there is Isobel’s determination to “save” ex-prostitute Ethel, even to the extent of offering her a position in her house. As a result, Mrs. Byrd, the cook/housekeeper, resigns. The senior staff at the big house, especially the men, are shocked. Here, the middle-class virtue of Isobel is seen as demonstrably superior to the narrow and traditional morality of several working class characters.
Second, Matthew, Isobel’s son, has been investigating Downton’s books. He finds that the estate has been mismanaged for decades, and he is determined to put it back on the right course. He says to Mary that one of the most important middle-class values is husbandry (as in the controlled and judicious use of resources). The bourgeois methods will prove far more effective in saving Downton than those of the aristocracy. Murray, the middle class family solicitor, agrees with Matthew. And thus again we have that idea of saving, of providing salvation.
Third, and most importantly, we have the conflict between the two doctors over the proper treatment for Lady Sybil for the last days of her pregnancy. Dr. Clarkson, the middle-class family doctor, diagnoses her with eclampsia and wants to take her to hospital. Lord Grantham’s chosen physician, the aristocratic Sir Phillip, thinks that she is doing just fine and that they do not need to rely on institutions like hospitals! to bring a child into this world. Guess who is proven right? And so we bid farewell to Lady Sybil. Clarkson’s hard work and experience trumps Sir Phillip’s pedigree.
Matthew Arnold wrote, “Our guides who are chosen by the Philistines and who have to look to their favour, tell the Philistines how ‘all the world knows that the great middle-class of this country supplies the mind, the will, and the power requisite for all the great and good things that have to be done,’ and congratulate them on their ‘earnest good sense, which penetrates through sophisms, ignores commonplaces, and gives to conventional illusions their true value’.” Arnold would have found tonight’s episode especially fascinating.