Blood Soaked Through: Downton and the lie of British Nostalgia

Okay, hold your loved ones tight Wee Readers, it’s time for anecdote. When my grandmother was a little girl she went to a posh girl’s school, because of her high IQ. But it’s important to note that though she was not posh, at all back then, many of her classmates were. In fact, they were the posh of the posh, they were the upper-class. The kind of people that take their children on fox hunts.

Now sometimes when these posh of the posh girls would come back from their summer holidays, it would be noticed that they had dried blood behind their ears, or sometimes still smeared across their faces. My god, I hear you saying, what had happened to these poor children during their summer holidays? Aha, say I – but I’ve already given you the answer already. You see, when a young person – and we are talking young here, these were children – participates in their first fox hunt, when the fox is caught its blood is smeared over the child’s face and worst of all, if you can belive it, they’re not allowed to wash it off. It has to be left to dry and flake off by itself.

A disgusting, foul smelling thing that no longer feels like it should belong in our modern world – speaking of which….

Let’s talk about Downton Abbey.

For those lucky few not in the know, Downtown Abbey was a historical drama set just after the sinking of the titanic, written by Julian Fellows, that ran from 2010 to 2015, and later received a follow up film in 2019, with a sequel planned for 2022. The series started off with a strong first season, with good dialogue and intriguing plot twists ripped right from real stories of the time, but gradually declined in quality. Season two while not the worst the series would ever produce, was mainly pulled along by the natural intrigue of WWI, and seasons three-six coasted on soap-opera like shockers, when they weren’t just repeating their own stories over and over again. I think even fans of the show would agree, that this was not a well written series.

But what I find sad is that it didn’t really have to be, as I said before the first season was actually decent up to a point, and even the later seasons had glimmers of something. Story threads that could have gone somewhere, characters that were occasionally likable. The setting at least should have provided it with many interesting turns for the story. But nothing ever came of it; and I always wondered why, and then I watched the film and suddenly everything was so bright and clear. Oh, not because it was a good film, or in the least entertaining, it’s not, it’s trash from start to finish – in fact in some ways it’s actually much worse than the tv show; because as a film the expectations for it are automatically much higher. You were given a film to play with Julian Fellows, kindly please do something with it other than meander around for two hours. I mean the closest thing we got to a main story, was the servant subplot where they kidnapped the visiting royal staff so they could serve the King and Queen instead. This is not what I wanted from the writer of Lady Sybil’s death scene.

No what made everything so much clearer to me is because the writing was so bad, any form of subtlety with the underlying message of Downton, in a sense the reason the whole phenomena was started, had been dropped. And what is that message you might ask, well my dear wee reader, it’s the warm feeling of nostalgia you might have looking back on a happy time in your childhood, or in fact any time before this whole Covid mess began. But Downton doesn’t want you feeling that way about things that actually matter to your life; no Downton has its priorities right – it wants you feeling that way about the past, sure, but the distant past. The past where the upper class ruled benignly over counties, that really needed them to survive. Where Masters and servants coexisted in a wonderful symbiotic relationship, and were basically family.

Of course, such a time never existed but that won’t stop Downton from spinning its enchanted tale of the place. Weren’t things just so much better? The poor happier and more content – the decent ones anyway – and the rich finally allowed to show just how regal and elegant they could be?

Don’t you wish you could live back then? That today’s world could be more like that?

And now we’ve found the trap.

Everything in Downton, every plot thread, every character you may love or hate is used for this purpose. Don’t belive me, let’s take a look.

Lady Mary

I think even fans of Lady Mary can admit that she was a bit of a b word, she was intentionally written that way so that when she met the middle-class heir, and her ice queen tendencies would begin to unthaw, we could see the real, feeling person hidden underneath. Or at least I assume that was the intention, honestly to me the happier Mary grew with her situation the less her actress seemed to care about her performance. But regardless I’m getting off track.

The point of Mary as a character is to highlight how the rich suffer, nothing less and nothing more. That is not to say that as a woman in the early 20th century Mary does not suffer – indeed the main plot of the show is kicked off by the fact that due to a specific law in Britain at the time, Mary as a woman cannot inherit either her father’s estate or her mother’s inheritance. But when we look at her life through the lens of the time in which she lived, rather than are own, we might discover that Mary’s troubles are not in fact the great hardships, or soap opera-esc drama the narrative encourages us to see them as.

Yes, in comparison with some women today, Mary has significantly less rights and power in her situation – but she is still the eldest (and favored) daughter of the earl of Grantham. She lives a luxurious life waited on by an entire army of servants. I know all this by fact, and yet when I re-watched season one I felt genuine pity for Lady Mary, nay a genuine desire to see her succeed and obtain Downton Abbey for her own. And then I had to stop and think… why? What actually made Mary more deserving of Downton and all its wealth, than Mathew or any other inbred twit that came to claim it?

Because she’s an Earl’s daughter?

Because she’s a woman?

That can’t be it, if real feminism has taught us anything it’s that a person’s worth, or their abilities cannot truly be judged by their gender. And yet through the cunning manipulation of the basic form of feminism – i.e., woman is kept from something that she would have automatically received had she been born with a Y chromosome – Fellows manages to make the audience root for a character who is at their very core, a terrible human being.

Which is the point, the Crawleys shouldn’t have to change to win the plebian audience’s approval, the audience must change their mind.

But then again, she’s not by far the most manipulatively written character of this kind on the show. For instance, I can legitimately say that she’s a terrible person and probably not get much push back down in the comments. Which is in slight contrast to our next piece on the board.

Lady Edith

Like her sister before her Lady Edith is the embodiment of the plight of the wealthy, or at least the wealthy young woman. While there are some ‘feminist’ leanings to her character, like her running a magazine, and her journalist carrier – for the most part Fellows gains the audience sympathy, not by leaning into any outer social justice cause, but just by shitting on her. From the first moment she appears on screen, in actual mourning for her dead cousin – Lady Edith is treated like garbage by almost every member of her family, with only Lady Sybil showing any sympathy. Which is its own problem, but I’ll get into that later.

She’s left at the alter by her elderly fiancé, conceives a child out of wedlock and is forced to hide it, and has her long awaited happily ever after yanked away not one episode from the final by her spiteful sister, Mary. Who then goes onto have her own literal fairy-tale wedding in the very next episode – I know, I know I shouldn’t be getting hung up on that, but it’s just so annoying.

The trick here is that unlike Mary, her suffering is not merely seen by the audience’s modern perspective – Edith is suffering no matter what value system you subscribe to. It sucks that she can’t come right out and say this is my daughter, it sucks that she’s left at the altar, it sucks that her family talks about her like she’s a hideously deformed beast, despite the fact that by most people’s standards she’s still very pretty.

So, it’s very easy and very understandable to feel pity for Edith Crawley, and yet we mustn’t forget as the show clearly wants us to, that Edith’s troubles are not the height of tragedy the post WWI world had to offer. Indeed, that’s true even on the show itself. Yes, it sucks that she had to hide her daughter but unlike say someone like Housemaid Ethel, she gets to keep her child – after some chicanery with the Drewe farm.

And speaking of the Drewe Family, can we just stop for a second, and speak about how absolutely terribly they were treated by the Crawleys and Edith in particular. They take in this child, raise it like their own for the first – I don’t know how time works on Downton, people don’t age normally, but let’s say – year of their life, with the wife completely ignorant of any connection the child might have to the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. All the while Lady Edith seems to have taken a random liking to the girl, and keeps popping in, gradually eroding more and more of the Drewe Family’s privacy. Eventually it all comes out, and the little orphan girl turns out to be Lady Edith’s love child; so, when she’s snatched away by her birth mother, not only do the Drew’s have no legal claim to this child that they have loved and cared for her entire life, but after an unfortunate incident where Mrs. Drewe tries to take the baby back, now they’ve even lost their farm, and their livelihood.

I suppose it just goes to show, that just because Lady Edith’s own suffering is genuine, doesn’t mean she’s not capable of inflicting it on others.

It’s so bad that even Robert Crawley, high lord of all of the Downton world, has to comment on how badly the poor Drewes have been treated. I mean he does nothing to fix it, but he gets to mention it, thus making him seem somewhat more reasonable than the women in his family. Speaking of which…

Robert

When you think of Downtown Abbey and Creator’s pets – that is a character who the writer clearly adores, but the audience (or at least the majority of them) cannot stand – you may think casually of Lady Mary. Who is allowed to continue being a bitch throughout the majority of the show. But I would like to draw your eye to an individual even more deserving of such a title…one, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.

Robert is a spoilt autocrat, content in his power and his place in the world as it was – this is how season 1, with its superior writing, tricks us into liking him. Of course, Robert seems more reasonable than his stuck-up daughters, his thoughtless wife, and his (wonderfully) bitchy mother, he’s getting his way. And it is only in season three and four, when his mistakes, and character flaws become more relevant to the main story, in which the audience is finally allowed to see Robert for who he has always been. A spoilt little boy, playing at being the great lord of the castle. He is the kind of man so focused on showering his new heir and surrogate son with praise that he doesn’t even realise that he’s reduced his daughter to tears. He’s the kind of lord who will kiss his widowed maid, in a sense forcing her to resign and loose her position. He’s the kind of creature so focused on being right, and looking like the great lord, that he will ignore the advice of a trusted physician just because he’s not fashionable.

But wait I hear you say, Wee Lassie, in season three and four he’s punished for his mistakes. He loses his daughter; he loses half the power to run his own estate. And to that I say look closer, yes, on the surface he does seem to be punished for his mistakes, and his crimes, but when you really think about it, he suffers much less than he really should. He lost his wife’s fortune in bad, nay stupid investments, and when he’s saved by Mathew’s inheritance; he expects things to go back to the way they were before. So, when Mathew proposes making Downton self-sustaining, this comes as a shock and he throws a fit, several fits in fact. Still, Mathew and later Tom and Mary are persistent and Downton is saved. If we were in the realm of reality, Downton would not have been saved, there would be no last-minute inheritance from Mathew’s dead fiancé’s dead father (yes, it’s as melodramatic and daft as it sounds), and Robert would have to live with the consequences of his action.

But we’re not in reality anymore, we’ve stepped through the door to the Downton Zone, where everything and everyone bends just a little to accommodate Robert Crawley’s wishes. Still don’t belive me? Think back to Lady Sybil’s death; caused undeniably by Robert and that fancy Doctor ignoring the signs of pre-eclampsia in Sybil. A fact that he’s called out on by his wife in the end of the episode, and it almost ruins their marriage. Until of course Maggie Smith steps in and forces the local doctor – who had caught the signs but had been ignored – to lie and tell Robert and Cora there really was no hope. The world bends around him, so that Robert doesn’t have to bear that guilt anymore. But my point is, if Robert’s actions are to actually mean something, then he has to bear the guilt of them. He has to bear, until his own dying day; the fact that he killed his daughter.

But that would never happen, not to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.

Not to Julien Fellows’ aristocratic hero of the upper-class.

Please, consequences are for the poor.

Which leads us to…

Tom

Tom Branson, oh poor Tom Branson. It’s clear when he first appeared on our screens all the way back in 2010 that he was always intended as the love interest for Lady Sybil. Which is why when Fellows came back with season two, the lack of focus on the relationship, or at least the pre relationship between the socialist chauffer and the spirited youngest daughter of the earl of Grantham, seemed so strange. But looking back on it now, with the film fresh in my mind, it no longer does.

An actual in-depth romance would have to actually acknowledge the class discrepancies between the pair. Perhaps even confront Sybil’s unchallenged assumptions and prejudices; a process that would last longer than a single scene, and effect the rest of both the characters’ lives. But fuck that, clearly, it’s much more important to give that screen time over to the imprisoned Bates, despite the fact that he is doing absolutely nothing interesting at all. And I am thoroughly convinced that Bates got that screen time because, unlike early Branson, not only upholds the status quo that keeps the Crawley’s on top, he revels in it.

The fact that this clearly already planned Romance was shoved into the end of season two reveals Tom Branson’s second role in the narrative, and one that Fellows clearly finds way more important than his brief stint as Lady Sybil’s husband. That is, Tome Branson the reformed Marxist. That is much more than he is a love interest, Tom Branson is the character set to have his political beliefs proven misguided, torn down, and rebuilt in a way that the writer finds much more agreeable. If this were a more leftist – or at the very least neutrally written – show this role would probably have been filled by one of the Crawley Sisters, but then again that’s not Downton. Now I’m not saying that Marxism and socialism don’t have their flaws, they do, just like every other political belief system on earth. But when you have your socialist character go off to America sometime in season five, I think – and come back claiming that the fair treatment of the American Worker has left him with a better feeling towards Capitalism as a whole, it’s clear that you’re not going to get a nuanced critique of socialism in this show.

And speaking of non-nuanced characters…

Lady Sybil

I’m going to say something controversial here – so I’d just like to remind the reader that I don’t actually hate lady Sybil, there’s nothing there to hate, and that’s the problem. Because lady Sybil, or at least how she is presented in the show, is insidious

Okay put down those pitchforks, let me explain myself. What do you think of when you picture Lady Sybil as a character? No, not her death or the fact that she ran away with the chauffer – those are things she did. I’m talking about her innate character, who she was as a person – that’s right, she was nice and cared for the less fortunate. Certainly not bad traits to have as a character by any account, but it’s interesting to note that unlike her sisters – who began the story as Bitch one and Bitch two – Sybil doesn’t have anywhere to go from there. She remains nice and concerned for the less fortunate right up until the day she died, but those two attributes were never expanded upon.

And what’s strange is if they had been, then Sybil could have been one of the most interesting characters on the show. In fact, the beginning of season two even looks like it’s going that way – with Sybil unfulfilled in her life and deciding to train to be a nurse. But the fact is, we never see that training – she just goes off one day to her nurse school, and the next time we see her, boom she’s a nurse and working with Doctor Clarkson. Imagine for a moment a version of Downton Abbey that let us see that transition, that showed us Lady Sybil’s struggles with the hard manual labor that was now required of her, or her difficulties relating to the other nursing students because of the differences in their class. Imation a Lady Sybil that grows from this, that realises that her privileged upbringing has not only left her unfulfilled, but woefully ignorant of the suffering others.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just the socialist in me, but wouldn’t that be a much more interesting story line, then oh no she ran away with the Chauffer.

And speaking of the Chauffer, as I mentioned in Branson’s own segment wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to show actual romance blooming between them – rather than just the claims of love from Branson’s side, and then suddenly after the war is over, they decide to elope. That’s not a story that’s an afterthought. But then again, falling in love and conducting a secret romance with a man who was not only of a lower social standing than her, but her actual servant, would require Sybil to show that she needed growth as a character. Closest we come to is a brief scene when Sybil shows how ignorant she is to what the British Government have put the Irish through, with the truly atrocious line of:

‘I know we weren’t our best in Ireland.’

Which could have been interesting, but again we never follow up on it so nothing really happens. And Sybil can remain just good, no need of a noticeable change in her demeaner, no need to face hard truths of her world. Just nice Sybil, who was a good person, who everybody loved and wasn’t it so sad that she died.

Now I know what you’re thinking, sure Wee Lassie, that sounds like a kind of dull character but where does the insidious part come in? Well, think of it, Wee Reader, think of a character who wasn’t just been born into wealth but the kind of upper-class near royalty elite that derived their power from the continuous degradation of the lower classes. Now think of that character, true they are innately kind, but even an innately kind person raised in that world would take on some uncomfortable beliefs. And yet we’re never really shown that in Lady Sybil, she’s not even mildly unpleasant, which is really kind of weird, especially when you consider how her sisters first started.

But then again as with most creative decisions we can trace this back to the underlining message that governs all of Downton Abbey. That is, that the system of the elites ruling and lording over all is not inherently broken and based on a warped sense of superiority. No, the system itself isn’t broken, it’s just that the good elites are no longer in charge. Perhaps Lady Sybil herself would find this idea abominable, but that’s the story her character helps to preserve. The fair elite, the kind Millionaire, the good king – all fictions, all completely unable to be true in the system in which they were created.

Well, I hear you say, that was certainly an impassioned argument against the dangers of inborn power structures, and British nostalgia for them – but that little story at the beginning about the girls with their faces painted with blood…what was that? And how did it have anything to do with the rest of the post? And I say – why thank you, I was hoping someone would bring that back up again. That story was to help with a little trick I use when watching these kinds of shows. Because Downton is certainly not alone in its nostalgia for this kind of world, it’s just one of the most obvious because it’s so badly written. Particularly by the time the film came out.

But other shows with a similar thesis can often sneak under the radar, with deceptive tricks like better writing, deeper characters, and actual plot. Think of shows like The Crown: which on the surface is showing some of the darker more messier elements of the royal family – my favourite episode is the one when old Uncle David is shown to be a Nazi sympathiser – but at its deepest core, it’s arguing that the Royal Family are not only still relevant, but needed, in British society.

Which in 2021, is not true – they don’t even really rule us anymore, not officially anyway, which to my mind is kind of the only point to royalty. I mean they’re a mode of Governance, if they no longer Govern then why are they still here?

But regardless, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to tell people to just not watch shows like the Crown – I even get the appeal of Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith is a blast, and the soap opera storylines do pull you in. But the fact still remains that they have terrible messages about the way the world should be run – and thus I recommend that the next time you find yourself watching one of these shows, for whatever reason, remember that odds are likely these people have gone fox hunting some time in their life. Which if you will recall means that they’ve not only had their faces painted in blood, but left it on long enough for it to dry and flake off.

I’m not saying do it all of the time, just some – and you’ll find suddenly they don’t seem so regal anymore.

It’s just a thought.

If you’ve enjoyed this long-winded rant on the deeply broken basis for Western society masquerading as a rant about a terrible period drama, why not follow the wee blog if you haven’t already. Also check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, and Goodreads. Also don’t forget to click the button down below to support this blog on Kofi. And remember to sign up for the Wee Mailing list before November 12th to find out the 12 video essays I found the most fascinating/distracting during this terrible time on earth. I usually try to have the mailing list posts have something connecting them to the main blog post they’re advertised on, but I was just so sick of Downton Abbey by the time I finished this article, that I just couldn’t anymore. So enjoy this list instead. Until next time Wee Readers stay safe, stay vigilant and have a very bonny day.

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24 thoughts on “Blood Soaked Through: Downton and the lie of British Nostalgia

  1. I much preferred Upstairs Downstairs which I began rewatching after Downton hit it big. It works for me in a way Downton didn’t — it was overall better dealing with class and women’s issues, I think though that’s not the main draw.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Now that I’m thinking about it, I remember reading that Fellows’ wife would have inherited some sort of title/estate if not for the same rules bedeviling Lady Mary. Hence what one viewer found to be his interest in the technicalities of the law.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bored the living shit out of me when I was forced to watch it at work. Literally 20 minutes went by and in that time NOTHING HAPPENED. Literally nothing fucking happened. Some posh old woman chatted, someone got out of a car….fuck me I could have been watching some serious paint dry in that time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve only seen the first season of Downton…and I am going to leave it that way, lol. Great post! Sybil could have been awesome, had they added some flaws and developed her a bit more. I think my favorite from what I saw was Daisy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We deer hunters in the American South get our faces smeared with a deer’s blood when we kill our first buck (or doe). If we shoot at a deer and miss, we get our shirttails cut.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the rant. It gave me a good laugh on a wet morning and reminded me of a time I visited Belvoir Castle.
    It’s a fairly representative example of aristocratic wealth and privilege from the ‘good old days’ made even more boggling when I happened upon an enormous dining table ladened with massive solid silver candle holders that were paid for, it seems, by some generation of grateful peasants from the estate. It seems that the aristocrats weren’t the only idiots from that gilded age.

    Liked by 1 person

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