The Real Fantasy of Downton Abbey

by Anne Helen Petersen

Warning: light spoilers.

Bitching about Downton Abbey has become a new cultural pastime: It’s horrible, it’s melodramatic, Julian Fellowes is a hack, if they kill one more person I’m quitting for good…..

….and yet we don’t. It’s like the Valentine’s Day candy corn I’ve been devouring for the past week: so cute, so sweet, so makes me want to barf. But I can’t resist! Here I am, even paying for episodes so that I can watch at the gym, even though they’re available on public television. Usually, we watch a show once it’s gone bad for one of three overarching reasons:

1) Emotional investment in the storyline;


2) Really hot guys;


3) Escapist fantasy.

I guess some people might be invested in Downton’s storyline, but it’s hard to get invested when it’s now possible that any character — even foundational ones — might be unceremoniously killed or become victims of unspeakable violence, with the sort of narrative motivation that 8-year-olds construct when writing plays to put on for their parents. I’m not emotionally invested in any of the characters because Downton has so unequivocally signaled that if I do, that character will then be narratively punished.

And as for hot guys, let’s be honest: we liked Matthew because we liked the romance. There hasn’t been a legit hot dude on Downton since Mr. Pamuk, and clearly Lord Dimples is going to do something horrible to Mary and/or be secretly super poor and/or actually be gay (keep quiet for now, Brits and Bittorrenters).

So we watch for Escapist Fantasy, but it’s not the dress and posh porn that most people think. I mean, it’s those things in spades, but that’s not enough, frankly, to sustain the voracious global audience. But I think the fantasy is much more complex — and somewhat more subtle — than most understand.

Consider the cast: it’s soap opera-esque in its breadth, but there’s no single character with whom we’re invited to closely identify. Any attempt to argue for Lady Mary is nullified by her sheer inconsistency: she’s neither a legit bitch nor a palatable Mary Sue, but she’s not a “complex” or “human” character so much as three different ones depending on Fellowes’ mood. Downton might not have a main character, but it has loads of interesting female characters: they may not all merit their own spin-offs, but I find Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, Daisy, Anna, Gwen, Lady Sybil, Lady Edith, Lady Mary, Lady Cora, the Dowager Countess, and even Aunt Rosamund interesting, even if their storylines are often a bit too pat.

You have a bunch of interesting women whose lives are almost entirely circumscribed to the domestic sphere — planning/making dinner, making beds, doing hair, taking care of children. They may not be rich or privileged, but Downton suggests that life for these women is rewarding one.

Then you have an entirely separate set of interesting women who may spend a lot of time in the home, but whose lives are thoroughly un-domestic: their primary concerns are being beautiful, being social, and maintaining relationships. All leisure, all the time — even if that leisure is slotted into “work”-type activities like “having luncheon with the men who farm our land” and “hosting a fabulous soiree.” And these women are also all happy (save when in unfortunate mourning) — even Edith!

But what the narrative elides is that these women might be happy, no matter their class status, because no single one of them has to “have it all.” In this way, the characters of Downton, like the characters of any upstairs/downstairs drama, represent the fantasy of a pre-integrated domestic/social lifestyle — the beautiful, simple days before women had to be perfect mothers, housekeepers, beauties, sex objects, and career women all at once.

Each woman of Downton has part of it all; they’re parts, in other words, of a have-it-all whole.

Take Lady Cora, for example, whose primary duties are talking with her family, sleeping in the same bed as Lord Grantham, worrying over her daughters’ marriages, gossiping with her ladiesmaid, going to luncheon, dressing for dinner, and party-planning. She’s got the social component of having it all down.

Add in Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore, who run the house, execute the dinner plans, and delegate tasks. They fill in all the remaining domestic components of “having it all,” and do it with flair, extreme competency, and authority.

You can do this for the rest of the female characters with ease:

Lady Mary + Anna + Nanny = One contemporary soccer mom
Lady Edith + Daisy = One contemporary academic ball-busting single women
Lady Sybil + Gwen + = One class-crossing hopeful yet doomed romantic
Lazyass Sybil Replacement Character Lady Rose + Ivy = One sorority sister girlfriend

With this equation in mind, you can see why no one’s that interested in Cousin Isobel. For all of Isobel and Rose’s superficial progressivism, Isobel is the most modern and middle class on the show, which is another way of saying she’s synthesized: she’s got some money and some social life, but not much; she has some domestic skills and thus spends most of her time telling her servants to stop serving her. She’s everything all the time: jack of all domestic and social trades, master of none. Which, combined with her age and lack of Maggie Smith-ness, makes her fundamentally secondary to the Downton narrative.

•••The reason the phrase “have it all” is so infuriating is because there’s no such thing: you can’t be all things to all people in all spheres of your life, and to keep writing about its existence is to keep disciplining women for not achieving it. No one can be a domestic perfectionist, the life of the party, the doting mother, the effective businesswoman, and have the body of a ’20s flapper with triceps, so in our quest to achieve all of those things at once we often end doing most, if not all, poorly.

There are few pleasures as pure as doing a single thing well. The wealthy didn’t get servants because they hated to cook or hated babies, per se, so much as they wanted to be in charge of fewer things: they just kept all the clean and sedentary life tasks for themselves, and gave all the rest to their employees. And that ability to only focus on a few things — to live, in some ways, like a privileged college student — and see them done with skill and satisfaction, that’s tremendously beguiling, and certainly provides sufficient joy as to erase any number of narrative inconsistencies.

Crucially, it’s not as if we’re just jealous of the Ladies. Fellowes’ sunny treatment of the living conditions of the servant class makes their lives almost as attractive, even if only in their simplicity, as those of the women upstairs.

Of course, this is all very pre-feminist, some might even say regressive. First and second wave feminism was always implicitly working towards removing the bifurcation between the domestic and the public. The right to vote, after all, was the right to be a citizen — to hold property and, by extension, to become a member of masculine society, which meant finding employment and meaningful work outside of the home. To live, in other words, the way men had for centuries.

But you take the woman out of the home while simultaneously breaking down the class divisions that had structured modern life, and suddenly there’s no one to bear children, let alone take care of them, or make dinner. When we’re all taking the (historical) role of men, who’s left to take the (historical) role of women?

So women sucked it up and did both, and usually did both less than perfectly — to great cultural and personal anxiety. And for all the rise in stay-at-home Dads and paternity leave, that anxiety, coupled with the class restratification of the last 20 years, has meant the wide-scale reinstatement of a servant class: nannies, housekeepers, personal assistants, and gardeners, the vast majority of whom aren’t living the satisfied lives of their Downton Abbey antecedents.

The fantasy of Downton Abbey, then, is of two sorts. For those exhausted with the attempt to synthesize, it’s straight-up, totally logical, pre-feminist escapism… and for those who’ve already desynthesized, a similarly logical way to feel better about it.

And there’s nothing wrong with escapism — we all do what we need to do to get by in this life — so long as we recognize that Downton, and the escapism it offers, isn’t the illness but the symptom of a world of contradictory, wholly impossible expectations for the contemporary women.

Previously: A Tribute to Top of the Lake’s Robin Griffin, Made of China and Steel

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here, and you can read the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series here.