The Literary Pedigree of Downton Abbey

January 20, 2012 | 7 books mentioned 9 6 min read

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.

coverIn 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.)

coverThe 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.

covercoverGranted, 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.

covercoverBut 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.)

coverOr, 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.

coverThe 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!”

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party is another fine modern day take
    on the British aristocracy, set in 1913 just before the Great War
    changed everything.

  2. Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter and his middle class Oxfored educated adored one, Harriet Vane. The most romantic and intelligent man and woman in the most intense courtship with the least amount of physical love and yet possiblythe most amount of eroticism..

  3. How about “The Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate”? Again, aristocracy in decline, but great fun.

  4. As mesmerizing as the costumes and aristocratic trappings of “Downton” are to its American audience, I’d suggest that an even more compelling element of this mini-series is its depiction of loyalty. Lord Grantham is loyal to his beloved Downton and the aristocratic system that created it—so loyal that in the opening scenes he refuses to challenge the family entail, even if doing so will benefit his own daughter. The servants, at least the ones we like, are remarkably loyal to their family, even though their lives are long days of tedious tasks. Carson is almost a father figure to Mary and Anna has never spilled the beans about the mysterious death of Mr. Pamuk (it took Mary’s catty sister Edith to do that, which suggests that there’s more loyalty up and down the scale than across it). And even that resentful lemon-sucking lady’s maid O’Brien is now being “redeemed” by the screenwriters, refusing to join Thomas in any plot against the family, due to her guilt at causing Lady Grantham’s miscarriage. The family members are equally loyal to the servants. Bates is hired by Lord G. for his meritorious war service and retained as valet despite questions about his ability to physically handle the job. Mrs. Patmore, the cranky cook who is clearly “getting on,” receives an eye operation at a London hospital, all at the expense of her aristocratic boss. How refreshing for us to step into a world where there’s a bottom line other than the almighty dollar, where employees are not discarded like scrap metal the minute they can be replaced by a machine, where everyone from top to bottom of the social ladder values traditions. Intuitively, we understand that those traditions are deeply rooted in the land and the system of intertwined effort it takes to sustain and nurture an estate like Downton. Let’s face it: even B-list 21st century celebs have more cash in the bank and millions to roll in than the Crawleys of Downton. But they don’t have the “class” because they don’t have loyalty to anything other than themselves.

  5. I hadn’t seen it until last night although I’d read about it enough to follow the storyline pretty easily. It’s a good show, but I don’t see it as any more literary than the lone soap opera (of the dozens I’ve followed since a boy in the 1950s) that I currently watch, “General Hospital,” although the production values are many times better.

    It seems to me to be basically trash, and that’s why it’s so popular. I will continue to watch it.

    When I watched “The Forsyte Saga,” the original one, as a teenager back in the 1960s, it affected me a great deal. I’ve read both “The Forsyte Saga” and “A Modern Comedy” trilogies several times and even the third one, “The End of the Chapter,” dealing with the Forsytes’ collateral relations. Despite Virginia Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Galsworthy had many virtues as a novelist although he’s basically a great popular, rather than literary, one. Yet he does deal with themes — admittedly, sometimes handedly — like the role of the artist, aestheticism in the face of capitalism — that seem absent in the heavily plot-driven, tchtotcke-driven fetishism of “Downton Abbey.” (The fetishes are better on “General Hospital,” just as they were on “Love of Life,” “Another World” and “As the World Turns” half a century ago.

    And in the early 80s, “Brideshead” was similar, but again Waugh is dealing with material that this current Britsoap doesn’t come near. I could have a two-hour discussion with two Jesuit priests about “Brideshead Revisited,” which of course is a classic Roman Catholic novel, as well as filled with literary set pieces and symbolism that you won’t see in the story of the family on “Downton Abbey.”

    It’s a lot closer to another “Masterpiece Theatre” show I loved, the decidedly middlebrow “Upstairs, Downstairs,” an unapologetic unliterary soap opera not based on a book but an idea by two English actresses looking for a TV vehicle for themselves.

    Now it’s time to turn on today’s “General Hospital” to see who survived Friday’s horrific car accident and if Maxie, having lost the baby she was carrying for her best friends, will replace it with one she got while with her drunk ex-boyfriend, whose current girlfriend lies dying in the road. And will Johnny, having admitted killing Starr’s baby and boyfriend when he shot out his grandfather’s tires, rat on Starr’s father about his switching Sam’s baby with the dead one from his sister-in-law?

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