In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey‘s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey‘s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”