Just as there is a yawning gulf between “Gone With the Wind” and the harrowing “12 Years a Slave,” there is a yawning gulf between the Panglossian PBS soap opera of manners and the dehumanizing life most servants led.
In “Castle Rackrent,” an 1800 work that was a pioneer of the historical novel, Maria Edgeworth skewered her own British landlord class for viciousness to the Irish peasantry. Speaking of the grand lady of the house, Edgeworth wrote: “She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent, and all fast-days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together, we put a morsel of roast beef in her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh’s dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it unfortunately reached my lady’s ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced, as soon as she could walk, to do penance for it, before she could get any peace or absolution, in the house or out of it.”
Niall O’Dowd, the founder of The Irish Voice, IrishCentral.com and Irish America magazine, asserted: “For this generation of Americans, the ‘Downton Abbey’ ‘Yes, m’Lady’ servants are the equivalent to the old minstrel shows on the Bowery. It reflects the colonial cringe, casting an ameliorating light over a period that was full of pretty desperate stuff for people trapped in a rigid, notorious caste system.”
We believe in upward mobility. Yet some of the new American moguls are taking on the worst traits of the old British class system: Silicon Valley’s up-and-coming tech titans who complain about having to look at the tatty homeless spoiling their San Francisco “utopia.”
I relented on “Downton” when I read Alessandra Stanley’s review in The New York Times last week pointing out that the allure “isn’t Anglophilia or a vestigial yearning for a monarch” but the fact that it’s a “show about class differences that panders to contemporary notions of democracy and equality.”
Watching the saga from the beginning this week, I saw the extent of the subversive fantasy: The servants rule the masters. The bad ones manipulate the lords and ladies into doing their bidding. And the good ones instruct and nag their superiors into making the right moves in their royal lives, both personally and professionally. In Sunday’s season premiere, Lady Mary frostily informed Carson the butler that he had overstepped the mark in urging her to move past her grief over her husband’s death and get more involved in running the estate. But she soon humbly apologized for having the cheek to criticize Carson’s cheek. The marble beauty in long black gloves melted into sobs in his arms and then bucked up to rejoin the world.
The butler did it.