5 Covert Conservative Lessons in Downton Abbey
"An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer."
January 10, 2013 - 12:00 pm
Last Sunday, the long-awaited third season of the ITV hit Downton Abbey finally premiered on American television. Just in case you weren’t one of the record 7.9 million viewers tuned in to PBS that night, Downton Abbey tells the story of the aristocratic Crawley family, living on an expansive British estate along with their faithful (but occasionally treacherous) servants and their silent yellow Labrador Retriever named Isis. Lord Grantham and his American wife, Lady Cora, like many (stereotypical) aristocratic British drama families, gave birth to three daughters and no sons, and therefore must scheme and manipulate in order to keep the estate in the family.
Season 1 Recap: Titanic sinks, heir is dead, Turk in the bed, blind cook, slippery soap, baby blues, enigmatic valet, conniving servants, family scandal.
Season 2 Recap: WWI, manor hospital, faceless stranger, sham wedding, real funeral, real wedding, fake elopement, another funeral, enigmatic valet, conniving servants, family scandal.
If you just realized you’ve been missing the “next big thing,” it’s not too late to catch up with the series that has quadrupled the regular PBS audience and doubled the Season 2 premier even though the entire season has already aired in the UK. Amazon Instant Video has both Seasons One and Two available…free if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
You can also watch the first episode of Season 3 there.
When Season 2 ended, we saw distant cousin (and reluctant heir to the estate) Matthew Crawley propose to Lady Mary, daughter of Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham. As Season 3 unfolds, we find the family trying to return to their lives after the turmoil of the Great War years. The family is now busily preparing for the much-anticipated wedding. Unfortunately, the family’s opulent lifestyle is about to unravel and we discover:
5 Covert Conservative Lessons in Downton Abbey
Warning: Plot spoilers below.
#1 The Lord of the Estate Thinks It’s Too Big to Fail
Early in Episode 1 we learn that Robert Crawley invested nearly all of the estate’s holdings in a Canadian railway scheme which “everyone” said “couldn’t lose.”
George Murray, Crawley’s lawyer and a trustee of the estate, reminded Crawley that he had advised him against the scheme, but Crawley insisted that he knew better:
We knew hard times were coming for estates like Downton and this investment would make it safe for the rest of time.
While Crawley’s investment strategies would likely qualify him for a position in the Obama administration, his reaction to the loss of his fortune — or rather, his wife’s fortune — doubles down on the failure,
I won’t give in, Murray. I’ve sacrificed too much to Downton to give in now. I refuse to be the failure. The Earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out.
That’s a fine sentiment and we would admire the earl if he proposed an actual strategy to take responsibility for his poor decisions or if he at least considered Murray’s advice: “I hate to state the obvious, but if there’s not enough money to run it. Downton must go unless you break it up and sell it off piecemeal.”
Perish the thought!
Instead, Crawley takes a “too big to fail” approach: “No. I have a duty beyond saving my own skin. The estate must be a major employer and support the house or else there’s no point to it.”
This is exactly what we see with our own lords and ladies of the Administrative Estate on the American side of the pond. They understand that there would be no point to Big Government — indeed, no point to their existence — if the Administrative Estate is broken up and we “sell it off piecemeal.” Like the servants in Downton Abbey, so many are so dependent on the American Administrative Estate that no one has the courage to be the “earl who dropped the torch” and as a result, We the Servants continue down this Road to Serfdom. Like Downton, the whole American enterprise is essentially bankrupt, but none of our “masters” seem willing to “state the obvious” and admit that “there’s not enough money to run it.”
Will Lord Grantham ever face the reality of his dire financial situation? Will the lords of our American Administrative Estate? Stay tuned.
#2 It’s a Matter of Taste Rather Than Law
The Granthams dress for dinner every evening, the rules of propriety governing every aspect of the meals, including the topics of conversation. When Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine), arrives from America, she brings her progressive (some would say vulgar) American style to the Crawley table. Mary, newly returned from her honeymoon in the south of France, innocently asks about her mother-in-law Isobel’s recent activities.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve found myself a new occupation,” says Isobel. “Cousin Violet doesn’t think it’s quite appropriate.” Indeed, she has been rehabilitating former prostitutes.
Violet, the dowager countess of Grantham, is appalled. “Can we talk about it afterwards?”
Martha seizes on the opportunity to disrupt the stuffy meal: “Are there still forbidden subjects in 1920? I can’t believe this.”
Violet simply says, “I speak of taste rather than law.”
There are two important lessons in Violet’s simple sentence. The first is that we don’t need a law to regulate every matter of taste and opinion. We live in a country (and the Brits are way ahead of us in this) where the language and motive police have an increasing presence in our lives. It began in our universities with speech codes and now the mission creep is spreading into the general culture. We must continue to recognize these oppressive free speech violations and oppose them at every turn.
At the same time, we live in a era of cultural degradation and it seems that nothing is “sacred” anymore. Conservatives should strive to raise the bar in our culture, behaving civilly (and teaching our children to do the same), so that we may enjoy the benefits of civil society. By and large we already do this, but let us make sure the generation that follows us is not ignorant of faith and morality, etiquette, fine art and music, classic literature, and other elements previous generations considered to be essential to the development of every young person in society.
If we raise our children on a steady diet of Jersey Shore, Lil Wayne, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, we should not be surprised when they imitate these tasteless, vulgar role models in their adult lives. Let us instead aspire to motivate our children to follow in the footsteps of gentlemen like George Washington, who transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation as a young schoolboy in Virginia. How much better our society would be if we all followed simple rules like:
1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
2. When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.
3. Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.
4. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet.
June and Sugar Bear, for the sake of world peace, PLEASE READ THAT BOOK!
#3 – I’m an American. Have Gun, Will Travel
When Lord Grantham, a Brit, tells Lady Cora that he squandered her (American) fortune on an ill-conceived Canadian rail scheme, she suggests that it was foolish to invest in one industry. Completely distraught, he hangs his head and weeps.
Lady Cora comforts him with, “Don’t worry about me, I’m an American. Have gun, will travel.”
Unlike her weepy British husband, Cora is willing to face the challenges of their (relative) poverty with American grit and determination. She later tells her daughter, Lady Mary, that her American father and brother shouldn’t be expected to bail the family out: “Quite enough of my father’s money has already been poured into Downton. Why should Harold lose half his inheritance because of our folly?”
Mary is appalled that Cora expects Lord Crawley to take responsibility for his own financial blunders. Cora dismisses her daughter, saying that it’s not like they would be “going down the mine.” She reminds her spoiled offspring that since the war, “a lot of people live in smaller houses than they used to.”
“What are you afraid of?” Cora asks. “If we sell, we move to a smaller house and a more modest estate.”
Mary, typical of the entitled class, cannot accept the prospect of forced austerity and snarls,“Which only goes to show that you’re American and I am English. I should be countess of Grantham one day and in my book the countess of Grantham lives at Downton Abbey!”
In Episode 1, the American Lady Cora stands in stark opposition to other members of her family as a role model of conservatism, willing to live within her means and to face the consequences of her husband’s poor financial decisions.
Stick to your guns, Lady Cora!
#4 Victimology Works
This is not a conservative message at all, but nevertheless, it’s a lesson conservatives need to learn. In Episode 1, Lady Sybil returns with her commoner husband, Tom Branson (the family’s former chauffeur), an avowed socialist Republican and supporter of Irish independence. At dinner one night, Sybil’s former suitor, Larry Grey, slips a drug into Branson’s drink, causing him to loudly and offensively spout political epithets during the dinner hour. Just as he is about to be ousted from the table and perhaps the manor altogether, Grey’s treachery is revealed and Branson becomes the victim. The turn in Branson’s fortune is instructive:
Sir Anthony Strallan [to Larry Grey]: I saw you. You put something in his drink, didn’t you? Just before we came in.
Lady Sybil [not daring to believe her own husband?]: It’s not true, is it Larry?
Lady Edith: What a beastly thing to do!
Larry Grey: Oh, come on, Edith. That’s not like you. You could always take a joke.
Lady Mary: A bullies defense! Listen everyone! Mr. Grey has given my brother-in-law something to make him appear drunk.
Aunt Violet: Could it be drink?
Lady Mary: No, not a drink. Some horrible pill. Sybil, take him upstairs. Tom has been the victim of a cruel prank which I know you will all be kind enough to forget.
Aunt Violet: Forgive, perhaps. Forget, never.
Lord Newton [to his son]: Is this true, Larry?
Larry Grey: I don’t know why you’re getting hot under the collar. He’s just a grubby little….
Lord Newton: Be silent this instant, sir! [to Branson and Sybil as he is being taken out] I apologize for my son, Mr. Branson, unreservedly. I only hope you’ll recover before the wedding.
Matthew: I hope so too, because I want him to be my best man.
Isobel: Bravo! Well said!
Lady Sybil: Do you really mean it?
Matthew: Honestly, I’ve told you before. If we’re man enough to take on the Crawley girls, we have to stick together.
Lady Mary: Thank you, Matthew. Thank you so much!
Except for Violet, everyone at the table excused Branson’s boorish behavior, even though he had just insulted them with words they knew reflected his true beliefs. Liberals do this to their own all the time. Anytime there is a hint of a scandal or incompetence — or even when there is a major moral failure — leftists find a way to play the victim card and magically turn bad behavior into a triumphant moment. Bill and Hillary Clinton. Susan Rice. Barack Obama. They are professional victimologists, and the Right has not yet found a way to effectively neutralize what is essentially a clever marketing strategy. Though we cannot and must not use the technique the way liberals do, we must find the antidote to “victimitis” and stop allowing ourselves to be endlessly victimized by this false narrative-peddling. At this point, we should not be surprised when we see it and we should at least find ways to talk around and over the Left’s victim-messaging or we will continue to be banished to the servants’ quarters of the political world.
FLASHBACK 2007, the dizzying Obama Double-Reverse Victim Card. You have to admire the epic hubris:
#5 “Nothing Succeeds Like Excess” Only Works on PBS
In order to convince Grand Mama Martha Levinson that she should provide stimulus money to bail out Downton Abbey, Violet and Mary plan an extravagant dinner and invite all the beautiful lords and ladies in the neighborhood. The plan is to “put some locals on parade” and show Levinson the real “point of Downton,” similar to what President Obama does when he wheels his human props out for a photo op in the White House Rose Garden. When Mary and Violet inspect the dinner table, Violet exclaims, “Nothing succeeds like excess!”
Mary says that surely her Grand Mama will see the importance of the estate and give generously to support it. Violet warns Mary to “never mistake a wish for a certainty.” She signals an important conservative lesson in Episode 1 because as they inspect the fine china and crystal goblets, below the dining room in the bowels of the estate, the makings of a disastrous evening are unfolding.
The servants, already short-staffed because of ongoing budget cuts, just discovered an oven in disrepair. The “mutton is raw” and “there will be no souffles.” Mrs. Patmore exclaims, “We’ve got twenty lords and ladies in the drawing room waiting for dinner and we’ve got no dinner to give them!”
Meanwhile, we find servants at war, resulting in missing coats and shirts for Matthew and Lord Crawley, who must appear at dinner without the required white tie. Lord Crawley says, “I feel like a Chicago bootlegger!” Fortunately, Grand Mama Levinson saves the day by ordering an indoor picnic. She instructs the servants to gather all the cold foods they can find in the larder: meats, cheeses, fruits… she thinks of it as a grand adventure! She terrifies Mary and Violet by “ordering” the guests to serve themselves and wander the rooms of Downton with their food. Cora, with her can-do American spirit, joins in the fun, exclaiming, “We’ll all pull together and it will be great fun,” but nevertheless, they don’t succeed in persuading Levinson to bail out the bankrupt estate.
What an apt metaphor for our opulent, bloated federal government. Upstairs, the lords and ladies of the Administrative Estate spend like there’s no tomorrow, really seeming to believe that “Nothing succeeds like excess,” continuing to buy fine china, crystal goblets, bridges to nowhere, Martian meals, and robotic squirrels. Meanwhile, We the Servants struggle to keep the manor running as it slowly deteriorates before our eyes, the victim of lousy investments, repeated failed stimulus packages, and most of all, crushing, unsustainable debt.
Looking ahead to Episode 2, we should expect to see more of the tug-of-war between sensible, conservative austerity and various members of the Grantham family scheming and lobbying for bailouts and support from friends and relatives. Also, don’t be surprised to see the heavy sympathy card played for poor Mrs. Hughes as she faces breast cancer without the benefit of Britain’s fine National Health Service. Surely a humane society must provide socialized medicine for its citizens! Isn’t it the only civilized thing to do?
Previously from Paula at PJ Lifestyle: