Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Sarah Bunting, Fictional Class Warrior

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The season of Downton Abbey currently airing is set in 1924. Unlike some of the past seasons, the outside world is impossible to ignore. Ramsay MacDonald has become the first Labour Party Prime Minister ever. Economic realities are squeezing the Crawley’s household staff. Penniless displaced Russian nobles have washed up in England.

And here comes Sarah Bunting sharing her abundant opinions. Sarah has a talent for wearing out her welcome, not only with the Crawleys but with many viewers as well.

Being a fictional character in a melodrama, Sarah would not merit extensive comment if she were not representative of real people who lived in Britain at the time and can still be found there today. Allow me to introduce Polly Toynbee:

By comparison, Downton’s conservative aristocrats would have been far more abusive – verbally and actually: mocking, sneering and complaining about their servants was standard Edwardian and inter-war conversation. Instead we see the Crawleys’ deep concern for their staff’s welfare, compassionate when one is charged with murder and another revealed as jailed for jewellery theft. In life, they would have been turfed out without references at any whisper of scandal.
— “What if Downton Abbey told the truth about Britain?”, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/22/downton-abbey-truth-about-britain

I’m sure some were abusive, small-minded and self-absorbed. Like any population, I would expect a wide variety of behaviors. As for the subset who were as described by Ms. Toynbee, really, who wants to watch them?

The British person who wants stories with cardboard, one-dimensional characters — brave, downtrodden, horny-handed working-class heroes and smug, nasty rich brats — can obtain these in abundance from The Guardian. Really, Polly, is it wise to cultivate competition for your audience?

Downton Abbey humanizes aristocrats, domestics and socialist agitators. Set in the years during and after World War I, it exposes those characters to forces of social, economic and political change for which they were completely unprepared. Gwen, Thomas, Daisy, Moseley and Shrimpy illustrate the gains and losses that these forces have wrought.  At its best, the series makes us care about the characters. Judging by the following it has, the series has been rather successful at that.

Being Lord Robert

The milieu in which a man such as Robert would have been raised was a shame culture, where honor was emphasized (Civilian America in 2015, by contrast, has a guilt culture; we are bereft of shame). There were relatively small circles of people with whom one had to get on, so reputation was critical. Whatever you were really like as a man, there were definite expectations of your behavior. Nobody cared a fig about authenticity; you were to do what was expected of you, even if you had to bend yourself into a pretzel to do it. Whereas we deplore a phony, the man of honor expects proper conduct in public, whatever one was like behind closed doors.

A man who failed to meet these expectations was a cad: “a man whose behavior is unprincipled or dishonorable.” Once your reputation was ruined, there was no retrieving it. There was no possible option to move to another part of the country and start afresh. However, a duke who was a cad was still a duke, entitled to all the accompanying prerequisites and social standing. He might be someone you would never speak to but he could still walk into a public ceremony in front of you.

The distinguishing hallmark of a person of social standing was leisure. It would not do for a man to shovel coal into his own furnace or for a woman to cook her own meals (and for a gentleman to cook his own meals — don’t even go there). One had servants for that. When Matthew, who is the heir apparent, announces his intention to work at a local law firm in season 1, it is not well-received. Matthew originally does not want to have a valet, but Robert prevails upon him to keep Moseley on, as much out of obligation as personal ease.

It wasn’t right, Carson. I just didn’t think it was right.
— Robert, series 1 episode 1, having reversed his decision to dismiss Bates

Even when the nobleman was serving as an army officer on campaign, it was unthinkable for him to be without a servant. A gentleman would not pitch his own tent or saddle his own horse. The officer would select one of the soldiers under his command to serve as his batman: a combination of valet, horse groom and gofer. A batman was expected to do anything the officer did not have time to do for himself, did not know how to do for himself or simply did not want to do for himself. In Downton Abbey, Bates had performed this role for Robert in the Boer War.

If you must know, when I think of my motives for pursuing Cora, I’m ashamed. There’s no need to remind me of them.
— Robert, series 1 episode 1

How representative is Robert’s character of an English lord at that time? To what extent does he vary from the norm? I shall have to leave that question to others whose experience includes encounters with earls and viscounts. I can say that he demonstrates the noblesse oblige, honor and self-examination that the aristocracy espoused, however much living examples did or did not live up to these standards.

If I’d screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I’d have been hoarse within a month.
— Robert, series 3, episode 8

The British upper class standards emphasized tight emotional control. A man with Robert’s background and upbringing would strive to react with equanimity to whatever life could throw at him. His boat is not easily rocked, but Sarah has the knack.

Sarah and Robert

Sarah has lived in a world that Robert has never seen. She would likely have experienced real hardship. She is earnest in her convictions. She is apparently a very effective teacher. Were she a real person, it would undoubtedly chafe at her to see leisured people who don’t have to concern themselves with issues that confront her every day. She is also strident, very tiresome and does not know when to climb down from the soapbox.

All I’ve proved is that Lord Grantham would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave.
— Sarah, season 5, episode 4

Serfs? You said it, not me. Not only have you verbally identified yourself as a serf, but your behavior is dishonorable. The word cad derived, a hundred years earlier, from caddie. When a person insults a man under his own roof, attributing beliefs to him without even knowing him well enough to speak from fact, in his code she demonstrates that she is only fit to carry his clubs, not to play the course as an equal. Sarah should be — and I mean this in all the richness of the word that the foregoing discussion entails — ashamed of herself.

With communist takeovers and revolutionary terror in Russia and Hungary quite fresh in everyone’s mind, Sarah’s remarks are quite threatening. Many enlightened people hoped for change, just as they had in the early years of the French Revolution. Defenders of the revolutionaries excused the casualties, saying, “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

I have seen the future, and it works.
— Lincoln Steffens, 1919, after touring Soviet Russia

Seen across the gulf of the past 90 years, this viewpoint is also rather naive. However, people in 1924 didn’t fully understand what was going on in the Solovki Special Purpose Camp, pilot project for the Gulag. We now know that revolutionary ardor is not a justification for upturning a society. Maybe we should have known earlier, because we were told:

All you intended when you set us a-fighting was merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, so that you might get up and ride in their stead.
— John Lilburne, 1646, at his trial in the House of Lords

Sarah and the Exiles

One can view the Russian aristocracy as a ruling class gone horribly wrong. While they were “dancing and shopping and seeing their friends,” millions of people whose lives they influenced lived in poverty and squalor. Finally, the nation stumbled into a modern war with a feudal economy. Germany held France and Britain off with one hand for three years while battering Russia into submission with the other. There were aware, committed members of the aristocracy who wanted to reform Imperial Russia, but not enough of them.

Sarah would see the Russian exiles getting a taste of how the other half lives. Now you have nothing, just like the people you lorded over all those years? Cry me a river.

To Robert, this is uncharitable. Whatever they have or have not done prior to the Revolution is water over the dam now. These people are here, living in poverty. There is no reason to be unkind to them and certainly none to pour salt in their wounds.

Later a real Russian would write, of a person much worse than any of these exiled nobles:

No, I have no intention of forgiving everyone. Only those who have fallen. While the idol towers over us on his commanding eminence, his brow creased imperiously, smug and insensate, mutilating our lives—just let me have the heaviest stone! Or let a dozen of us seize a battering ram and knock him off his perch.
But once he is overthrown, once the first furrow of self-awareness runs over his face as he crashes to the ground—lay down your stones!
He is returning to humanity unaided.
Do not deny him this God-given way.
— Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 3, p. 436.

Sarah and the Future

People like Sarah and Robert would stand together to defend Britain, and the liberal state with it, in 1940. They would then allow the country to become such a mess by 1979 that Margaret Thatcher was needed to save the country from itself. I doubt that either Robert or Sarah would have had a good word to say about the Iron Lady. Robert would have found her ungenerous and objected to her readiness for conflict. Sarah would have vilified Lady Thatcher on class principles.

The obvious musical reference for Sarah is to the Beatles’ Revolution. But that has already been done, so I am going in a slightly different direction.

And there’s always a place for the angry young man
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes
So he can’t understand why his heart always breaks
And his honor is pure and his courage is well
And he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man
— Billy Joel

The strident polemicism of Sarah is alive and well. Take it away, Polly:

Downton rewrites class division, rendering it anodyne, civilised and quaintly cosy. Those upstairs do nothing unspeakably horrible to their servants, while those downstairs are remarkably content with their lot. The brutality of servants’ lives is bleached out, the brutishness of upper-class attitudes, manners and behaviour to their servants ironed away. There are token glimpses of resentments between the classes, but the main characters are nice, in a nice world. The truth would be impossible without turning the Earl of Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, into villains, with the below-stairs denizens their wretched victims – a very different story, and not one Julian Fellowes would ever write.
— “What if Downton Abbey told the truth about Britain?”, The Guardian, loc cit.

Not only would Julian Fellows never write the story Polly Toynbee wants, but we would never watch it. I see no purpose to devoting an hour a week to watching a story about servile victims, abusive villains and abrasive proletarian rabble-rousers behaving in entirely predictable ways toward one another, with no complexity, no richness of character and no possibility of redemption. I would rather have a root canal.

The class warriors, like the post-restoration Bourbons, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It’s all about class divisions. Life is materially determined. The rich, who never deserve their station, continue to exploit their downtrodden, wretched victims until we, the Enlightened Ones, march to power and put everything right. The history of the twentieth century, in which many eggs were broken and no omelet was made, just a mess on the floor, is conveniently overlooked. We just have to try harder next time.

Then and Now

Prior to World War I, it is evident that most of the country across all social strata believed that the men of the gentry and nobility ruled the country because they were most fit for it. After World War I, there was a crisis because many of the young men from the upper class had not come back from France. Who was going to run the country? The experience of seeing Britain continue to function without them changed people’s minds about the inevitable necessity of having the “toffs” in charge.

There were some desperate rearguard actions where people attempted to preserve the social order. One notable instance was by the English educational psychologist Cyril Burt. During the 20s and 30s, Burt conducted studies by which he concluded that he proved that IQ was genetically heritable, thus supporting the idea that breeding mattered. After his death in 1971, investigation concluded that he had cooked his data to support the conclusion he wanted to reach.

Downton Abbey gives us a chance to look at a lost world and examine what happened to it. When the series is firing on all cylinders, it provides human examples of change bringing good and bad effects into people’s lives. Gwen got a chance to prosper by leaving domestic service. Moseley, not so much. Daisy is gaining confidence. Carson, not Lord Robert, is asked to be on the war memorial committee. Shrimpy and Susan might actually go public with their marital dissatisfaction, in violation of the code. Robert has to worry about where the money is coming from to support his obligation to convey the property to his heirs intact. Even Edith, who in prior times would have been destined to be a spinster aunt, might hope for a fuller life. We can see the consequences of change and consider what we have gained and what we have lost.

Americans are drawn to Downton Abbey, just as we are fascinated with the British Royal Family. It’s something we don’t have, with a heritage and deep roots. The closest thing we have to a castle is Fort Ticonderoga.

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.
— US Constitution, Article I, Section 9

There is a reason that this prohibition exists. We don’t want to have a society based on inherited privilege. However, there are still issues important for us in the picture of life shown in Downton Abbey. Our error was that we thought, with those words in the Constitution, that we had dispensed with the nobility. In fact, given our political aspirations, what we need is for a majority of the voters to be noble. Not by birth but by behavior. Noble in outlook, in worldview, in standards of honorable conduct in the public square.

 

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Written by srojak

January 29, 2015 at 2:15 pm

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