In a recent interview with the New York Times, published after the Downton Abbey Season 5 finale aired on PBS, series creator Julian Fellowes offered a reminder of his conservative worldview. It came in the course of his remarks on Anna, the loyal and beloved Downton maid who can’t seem to shake her bad luck.
“Anna is one of the most admirable characters in the series,” said Fellowes. “She’s come from a tough childhood, we know now, and yet she hasn’t allowed it to distort her. We live in this great excuse generation, where nothing’s ever your own fault and everything’s always because someone was terrible to you. I think that our lives are the result of our own choices, and when I see that in action I really admire it.”
For those unfamiliar with his background, Fellowes is a lifelong Tory and a member of the British House of Lords. He’s not noisy or obnoxious about politics, which explains why many Downton fans are unaware of his views. But when given the opportunity, he will let them be known.
In a 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal, for example, Fellowes explained that a central message of Downton “is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don’t have to be ranged in class warfare permanently — that for the general public, the fact that people are leading different lives with different economic realities and different expectations is perfectly cope-able with.” In the United Kingdom, he added, “we’ve had a century of being encouraged to dislike each other. And I suppose Downton is in a different position to that.”
In a 2011 New York Times Magazine interview, Fellowes defended the show against charges that it romanticizes or sugarcoats Britain’s Edwardian-era class structure, noting that Downton portrays its characters as human beings rather than crude, one-dimensional stereotypes. “I think one of the things we got right with Downton was that we treat the characters of the servants and the family exactly the same,” he said. “Some of them are nice, some of them are not nice, some of them are funny, some of them are not, but there is no division between the servants and the family to mark that.”
I shared my own thoughts on Downton’s depiction of the old aristocracy in a 2013 National Review piece. Here’s how it concluded:
A melancholy aspect of Downton is that it illustrates why the Edwardian social order was unsustainable, both morally and practically: The ancien régime is shown to be incompatible with burgeoning demands for greater mobility and equality, and also with postwar economic realities. But the series also reminds us that, amid the rigid class system, the pervasive sexism, the staggering wealth disparities, and the desperate poverty, there were certain shared values that forged a common British identity. Over the past century, the blurring of class distinctions, the empowerment of women, the rise of the meritocracy, and the eradication of extreme indigence have all made the United Kingdom a better place. And yet, the erosion of those Edwardian values — and that common identity — has contributed to the fragmentation of British society and the loss of cultural cohesion.
It is easy to understand why Americans would relate to a show that (1) highlights shared values during an age of stark inequality and (2) depicts a once-mighty empire whose long-term decline has already begun (even if few people realize it at the time). The economic and social inequality of 2013 America is small beer when compared with the inequality of 1913 Britain. On the other hand, the divergence in basic cultural mores between the upper and lower classes — especially regarding marriage, divorce, and parenting — is far more pronounced in Obama-era America than it was in Downton-era Britain.
Indeed, the cultural inequality of modern America — the type of inequality documented by Charles Murray, Kay Hymowitz, Heather Mac Donald, and others — becomes more alarming by the day. Downton Abbey allows us to gawk at a world in which, as Theodore Dalrymple has observed, “butlers and footmen appear far better dressed than today's billionaires.” No wonder so many Americans find it irresistible.