Saturday, 17 March 2012

Downton Abbey: Cultural Necrophilia?

Downton Abbey has proved immensely popular with everyone but historians. Simon Schama condemned the series as an exercise in "cultural necrophilia", serving up a "silvered tureen of snobbery", while Jennifer Newby accused it of hiding the "grubby" reality of service in a 1900's household, where servants "stank" and were regarded as domestic appliances. Others have responded by defending the show as escapist fantasy. Such controversy has stirred up precisely the kind of questions this blog aims to explore.

For a start, I think the show is more ambiguous than either of these arguments suggest. On the one hand, it has many wonderful moments. The first episode, for example, begins with a beautiful, sweeping opening shot in which the young kitchen maid Daisy makes her way around the house blacking stoves and lighting fireplaces. The camera pans away from this arduous physical work to take in the freshly starched valets and butlers, touching on class differences within the servant body. Indeed, the head footman's desire to rise up through the servant ranks makes him a more interesting and complex character than any in the Crawley family.

Other characters, however, are not so fully fleshed out. Most of the kitchen staff are created in the Upstairs, Downstairs mould, and the head butler Mr Carson is a typically staunch defender of the household hierarchy. Together they continue a tradition of jolly, content downstairs servants and loyal, content upstairs workers (at least in the first episode - I can't comment on the rest of the series yet).

These servants, it seems, are the ones which really annoy Schama and Newby. The historians share the belief that historical drama should depict its subjects as they truthfully were, and in the case of servants apparently this means resentful, angry and dirty. Schama insists that history is "meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane." But this assertion begs a question - who is to say what a 'truthful' depiction of a servant would look like? And is it ever possible to depict servitude 'truthfully', without any historical or moral bias?

Such questions are of course fundamental when thinking about the relationship between art and reality in its broadest terms. But the popularity of shows such as Downton, at a time when more and more families are employing domestic workers to cope with the exigencies of modern life means they are especially pressing and important.

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