Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton: What Downton Abbey Can Tell Us about Class in America Today

In season two of Downton Abbey, the inimical Dame Maggie Smith (who plays the “Dowager Countess”) finds out that one of the family’s servants will be allowed to live out his final days (after suffering an incurable war wound) in the family’s lavish second floor quarters. The Countess is displeased by this and opines that “It always happens when you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink.”

If you are a fan of the show, one of the 7.9 million US viewers who watched Downton Abbey kick off its third season on PBS earlier this month, you know full well that the “little people” in this early 20th century British world—the kitchen maids, ladies’ maids, footmen, valets, chauffeurs, cooks, housekeepers, and butlers—have very little power. They scheme and scrap for the merest improvements in pay and job title. A few of them rise above their station, but class divisions are brutally enforced, and if anyone seems deluded with power by “strong drink,” it is the titled and wealthy upstairs residents who are served an impressive array of wines and spirits on a nightly basis.

I am a fan of the show, transfixed by the class differences represented in the series which tries very hard—from the dialogue, the sumptuous costumes, and the setting—to be about another time and place. But is it? Let’s look at a few of the myths that swirl around Downton Abbey and consider what we can learn about the real history behind the show— and about ourselves.

Myth #1. Noblesse oblige, the idea that nobility must act nobly, was an effective system for class management in late Victorian England. In Downton Abbey the nobles are incredibly kind to their servants. In one episode, Lady Grantham catches the kitchen staff setting up a soup kitchen (with stores from Downton Abbey) for unemployed WWI veterans. Instead of firing her staff, Lady Grantham offers to help. In another episode, as Lady Grantham is battling the Spanish flu, Lord Grantham starts a series of clandestine make-out sessions with the new maid, a war widow named Jane. She has a smart son but no connections to get him into a good school. Lord Grantham realizes that he cannot continue the affair, and Jane nobly resigns. But not before Lord Grantham gives her some financial and string-pulling aid that will help her son get a good education. In the world of Downton Abbey, servants are cared for, and sometimes even cherished.

But what about the real life English servants who toiled under the staircase in the first quarter of the 20th century? According to a California blogger the gap between rich and poor in England a century ago was frightful. The effects of poverty and malnutrition produced a five-inch difference in average height between rich and poor young men! As for the secret lives of servants, the long running British series Upstairs, Downstairs as well as Downton Abbey were both “inspired” by the real-life memoir of a servant girl, Margaret Powell, born in 1907. Her 1968 best seller, Below Stairs (recently released in the US), gave a much more negative and varied portrait of English employers. In one kind family, like that of Lady and Lord Dowell, servants received gifts of silk underwear at Christmas time. But the servants in Mrs. Hunter-Jones employ were issued thin straw mattresses (not a perk), older servants were “accidently” left out of family wills and left to age with nothing, and female servants were often impregnated by a male member of the employer’s family and cast out. Powell recalls, as one reviewer explains, “how easy it was for the master to manipulate the servant.”

Finally, according to historian Jennifer Newby, the servants on Downton Abbey are far too clean and well rested to approach the standards of historical realism. Most servants of the period had limited access to bathing facilities, and they were forced to work from before dawn until long after dark with few breaks. Instead of getting their own servants’ party on Christmas day (as they are permitted in Downton Abbey), one servant whose diary Newby read described eating Christmas dinner “on the draining board, by the sink (again).”

Myth #2. The class hierarchies in Downton Abbey are a relic of a distant place and time. As a writer for Bitch magazine explained, “what Downton Abbey…offers for the modern viewer is the idea that, today, class differences have been overcome.” Indeed on Downton Abbey the bleak separation between “upstairs” and “downstairs,” the great divide in speech, dress, quarters and manner, seem utterly remote to our American sensibilities. We still believe that in America of all places a child born into a poor or working class family can rise—with relatively frequency—to become rich and famous (or at least middle class). Ironically, however, The New York Times reported just a year ago that social mobility in the United States is lower than it has been in decades and that it is lower in the US than in Canada and all of Western Europe. According to a study from 2006, only eight percent of American men born into the lowest fifth of American society were able to rise to the top fifth, compared to 12 percent in Britain and 14 percent in Denmark.

Myth #3. Americans don’t have servants. First of all, yes we did. In addition to the US being a slave holding society for more than 300 years, many 19th century immigrants to the US worked as servants, as Daniel Sutherland has shown.

And, second, yes we do. The 2010 the Census Bureau reported that there were more than 700,000 nannies alone working in the US, a number which is certainly much smaller than the actual number, since so many domestic workers receive pay “under the table” and/or are undocumented immigrants.  According to a shocking 2012 report on the state of domestic workers in the US today, 67 percent of live-in domestic workers are paid below their state’s minimum wage, and nearly half are paid less than is required to support a family. 65 percent do not have health insurance. Many work without contracts, without a day off, and with numerous work-related pain and illnesses—including sleep deprivation. They encounter unreasonable requests from employers, about which they remain silent: “91 percent of workers who encountered problems with their working conditions…did not complain because they were afraid they would lose their job.” These jobs are especially abusive, the report explains, because of the intimate nature of the work. The report described one awful (but not atypical story) of a live-in nanny who was given no bedroom of her own and was forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor—in between the children she cared for during the day.

Yesterday during his inauguration, President Obama said, “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.” But she does not—not today. In the US we have a large and growing underclass that has virtually no hope of advancement. We have servants that we mistreat as badly as any ruling class has ever done. And the noblesse oblige of Downton Abbey is either an aberration or a complete fiction—perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Julian Fellowes’s vivid, and narratively compelling, imagination. Through Downton Abbey we transport ourselves back to a glorious past that never existed, and, at the same time, we escape from own brutal, unequal, and empire-crumbling present.

If that strikes you as too extreme, consider this. The Earl of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed, and who actively campaigned to have the series filmed there because he needed the money, thinks that people love Downton Abbey because “they miss the feudal system…because the feudal system made people feel secure.” And if that sounds too extreme, consider this. Recently a group of economists determined that Tsarist Russia distributed its wealth more equally than we do in America today.

Perhaps I am being too defeatist? If so, I can’t help it. As the Dowager Countess says, “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s terribly middle class.”

Kathy M. Newman