Friday, February 17th, 2012

'Downton Abbey' and Sympathy for the Rich

James Fenton's highly enjoyable attack on "Downton Abbey" is… highly enjoyable. He may be largely right, that the soap opera has churches composed of the wrong stones and that certain behaviors are… at least improbable. (Also, sure, we all know the "burn victim" mini-plot was an episode of scripting derangement.) But Fenton's Englishness makes obscure to him the American love of the show, and so he goes far astray in his central criticism.

Here's where he's so very wrong:

I mention this apparently gratuitous detail in order to underline the central point of Downton Abbey. The (fictional) Earl of Grantham has three daughters, none of whom can inherit either the title or the estate or—a detail that may seem recondite—the fortune their American mother (played by Elizabeth McGovern) brought with her when, like Consuelo Vanderbilt, she rescued the said abbey and its impecunious family years back. The American money has been “contractually incorporated into the comital entail in perpetuity.” This entail “endows both title and estate exclusively to heirs male.”

To most people this kind of legal technicality may belong to a remote world. But we may suspect that when the Kitchener-Felloweses sit down to dinner, this theme of injustice (the couple thwarted of any prospect of the Khartoum title) won’t go away. And if you feel from time to time that the television series is attempting to enlist your sympathy for a cause that, in your own life, might rank as a low priority (the perpetuation of a gigantic nineteenth-century house and estate)—that is indeed the case.

There could be no greater misunderstanding of the American experience of this, at least. (Those forced to reside in England may relate differently; the English have a class-consciousness and resentment that, in America, we stifle with our inherent belief that we are all rich, or at least, are about to be.) But nothing raises an American hackle like inheritance, estate taxes, wills and family squabbles over family legacy. Americans want nothing more than to keep money in the family, even if they don't have any. And Americans, at least, naturally and even thoughtlessly identify with the inheritance plot, not least because of the estate being propped up by the American investment of capital via marriage. This is even while Americans retain a reflexive dislike of the rich, of course. We're a complicated and nuanced people! Or stupid. Hard to say.

29 Comments / Post A Comment

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

I'd go with easily led.

@dntsqzthchrmn He's a very canny marketeer that Fellowes. America is giving a terrible man exactly what he wants.

ohpioneer (#90,432)

Okay, for Downton Abbey followers who decide to read the original article… SPOILER ALERT! Ack! I wish I hadn't read it.

@ohpioneer. The article did reveal plot, but the item I assume you're referring to was pretty much telegraphed in last week's episode. I can live with the advanced knowledge.

ohpioneer (#90,432)

@NotAndersonCooper I, however, cannot. Just warning for those of us who like to be a little aloof.

@ohpioneer Downton Abbey spoilers are, in general, a very big issue on the internet right now.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@NotAndersonCooper There is no such thing as "last week's episode". What's "last week" for you, is last year for those in UK, and next month for those of us behind on our DVR list. Plus, there are many people just catching on to the first season on Netflix. In short: no spoilers without alerts, EVER!

@Niko Bellic: What about the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights that folks are catching on Netflix for the first time. Does the no spoiler rule still apply?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@NotAndersonCooper I just added that to my queue, so zip it up!

@Niko Bellic: Agreed! But it won't hurt that I tell you it's super heathery.

LondonLee (#922)

You just love Heritage Porn

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Keeping money in the family is also a them on Revenge, which has gone amazingly unremarked-upon in these quarters since October. (Yes, I will threadjack in order to get Revenge back in the spotlight!)

re: (Also, sure, we all know the "burn victim" mini-plot was an episode of scripting derangement.) Yes, yes it was.

freetzy (#7,018)

@NotAndersonCooper At least he was dealt with promptly.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

"A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural." – Karl Marx, Communist Thomas Jefferson, American.

(Further reading)

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

I laugh at criticism of "accuracy" of shows like Downton, The Wire, or The Sopranos. It wasn't meant to be a fucking documentary. What makes Downton better than the rest of TV is it's superiority in the way it's characters resemble living people in the complexity of their personalities, not in how they resemble nobility in their wardrobe or financial affairs.

I think I've said before that, in principle, I avoid watching war movies, biographies, and period dramas, because they tend to just put together a bunch of costumes, sets, and historical documents, and call it a movie, while no amount of "accuracy" or "authenticity" can ever compensate for the lack of the art film making (or even script writing). Then something like Downton comes along, and it's a worthy watch in spite of the fact that it's a combo of the worst of these genres, and then some fool comes along to put it down because it doesn't stand up to his completely worthless knowledge of the history or whatever, which anybody with Wikipedia access can skim through within minutes (if they found it a worthy way of spending time).

deepomega (#1,720)

@Niko Bellic Correct on all points. What makes Downton better than other shows with similar settings or plot developments (I saw someone compare it to Desperate Housewives?) is that all the characters exist as people with inner lives and opinions and conflicting goals and alliances. LIKE REAL PEOPLE.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@deepomega I feel the exact same way about Real Housewives of Atlanta.

deepomega (#1,720)

The parts of the show that feel strangest to me as an american are the ones where lack of ambition is rewarded. Hard to go into detail without spoiler alerting, but basically every character who tries to actively improve their social or financial status is contemptible and villainous.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega "Knowing your place," it's called, and they still have it I think.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

"We're a complicated and nuanced people! Or stupid. Hard to say." Hmm…I'll go with "stupid." (Not mainly because we like "Downton Abbey," however; that's certainly among the least of our follies.)

Somewhat against my better judgment, I recently watched a couple of episodes of this at a friend's apartment. Having dim memories of "Upstairs, downstairs," to which my mother was devoted, I'm inclined to say "Downton Abbey" is "Upstairs, downstairs" in the countryside and with boys kissing. 40 years later, it still sells.

jfruh (#713)

There's also the sexism angle! Why shouldn't ladies be able to inherit money, if not titles?

Also, is that really how it worked in practice? I know peerage inheritance rules are usually determined by ancient traditions (although when created they could specify that ladies could inherit, that didn't happen very often), but I would have thought that by WWI at least money and land could be straightforwardly left to anyone via a will. (I haven't watched the show, I'm just going by the description here.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

@jfruh It's never been entirely uniform. Entailments etc. were made in order to ensure that large estates wouldn't be divided up or taken out of the family by marriage, but each heir (provided he inherited the whole pile) could change the rules for his own heirs.

scrooge (#2,697)

I can't take seriously the criticism of a man who not only ate his own dog but also is/was friends with both Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. He probably made it up about the dog (obvious grandstander), but still…

Rollo (#3,202)

@scrooge I thought he wrote some good pomes, though

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Yes sir.

Vulpes (#946)

I'm really tired of ponces like Sciama and this guy telling us what British shows we can't like. Leave your class resentments in Britain! We have our own, which aren't the same!

I don't get why so many snooty Brits with plummy accents are so concerned if we like to look at rich people in pretty clothes instead of chimney-sweeps dying at 14 of black lung. If I wanted to watch poor people, I'd go look in my bathroom mirror. Leave me be to look at the fancy people!

All it is is a different way about yelling, "What about the Kurds?!"

SeanP (#4,058)

Downton Abbey is that thing I keep seeing on Tumblr about the cats, right?

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