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How "Downton Abbey" Is More Democratic Than We Are

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Every Sunday night, the mega-carriages drop millions of us off at "Downton Abbey," the hit PBS series about an aristocratic family, its English country estate and the complexities of being Them at the dawn of the 20th century. We revel in the patricians' finery, their posture, their free time and their skill at draping the sharpest remarks in tempered rhetoric. And we marvel at their access to over a dozen specialized servants meeting every need. The servants live off the kitchen or with the horses.

Americans may regard this polarized class system -- the grandees versus the grunts, with lots of subclasses in between -- as foreign to our supposedly democratic culture. In modern America, rich and poor wear jeans, and they call one another by first names. Paid helpers at home generally don't wear uniforms. Few these days would refer to housecleaners as "maids."

But in one major way, the world of "Downton Abbey" was far less class-stratified than 21st century America: the matter of who fights and dies in wars. More on that to follow.

The series started last season with the Titanic's sinking and, with it, two key male heirs. Women may not legally inherit the estate, and the current inhabitants, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, have only daughters. Thus, the property will be passed on to a male cousin working in town as a solicitor.

We waltz through the romantic tangles, scandals, family spats and larger social strife. In "Downton Abbey," these pleasures and pains affect both the leisured masters and the harried servants.

The grand rupture is World War I. The ghastly killing fields of Flanders and the Somme rain grief on all classes under the towers and turrets. Historically, the upper classes suffered most. 

"Not since the Wars of the Roses had so many patricians died so suddenly and so violently," scholar David Cannadine wrote in his book "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy." "And their losses were, proportionately, far greater than those of any other social group."

Since the 1880s, he explained, the aristocrats had been attacked as idle parasites, living off their land monopoly and inherited political power. The war in 1914 gave them a chance, Cannadine wrote, "to demonstrate conclusively that they were not the redundant reactionaries of radical propaganda, but the patriotic class of knightly crusaders and chivalric heroes, who would defend the national honor and the national interest in the hour of its greatest trial."

And they did. During the first five months of the war, six peers, 16 baronets, 96 sons of peers and 82 sons of baronets perished in the mechanized slaughter. Within two months, one Lady Desborough lost two sons in France. They died one mile apart.

How many children of our economic elites fought in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not many. Few of them served in the military at all, even in desk jobs as noncombatants.

Back at the quiet splendor of "Downton Abbey," the domestic dramas continue. The Countess of Grantham, the earl's rich American wife (Elizabeth McGovern), plays her kindly and pragmatic role. The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) delivers devilishly funny lines, spitting out "a job?" as a four-letter curse.

We know that the advantaged world of "Downton Abby" is going down. That does not necessarily mean its privileged inhabitants won't find happiness. But we'll have to wait and see.

From each week's opening shot of the dog's rear end to the fade-out close leaving only suspense, we'll be there on our sofas. Meanwhile, mega-carriages stand waiting for our return to the era of crop tops and binge drinking on Facebook.

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