'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.