The season finale of the third season of the hit British TV import Downton Abbey aired in the U.S. this Sunday with a record 8.2 million viewers tuning into PBS. The show is set in the early 20th century and centers on trials and travails of the inhabitants of the fictional English country estate of Downton Abbey (the real life Highclere Castle): the aristocratic Crawley family headed by the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and their servants. The third season picks up in early 1920 and ends in late 1921 as the pace of societal change accelerates and the future of the way of life at places like Downton is increasingly in question.
Much has been written on the appeal of the show to a modern audience. Many have discussed how the show gives voice to a yearning for a more polite, mannered, and graceful society in our increasingly informal and even vulgar age. Others have described the fascination of watching this transitional period unfold as a traditional society gives way to the modern world. Downton often seems to be a strange and even bizarre place to us, but at the same time we recognize familiar social changes already well underway that will come to shape our world, from women’s suffrage to the emergence of a more meritocratic society. Numerous other aspects of the show have captured the attention of us sophisticated moderns, including issues of social class, courtship and sexual mores, and the fashion of the times, from white tie and tails to evening gowns (and even a brief appearance of pantaloons!).
One idea in Downton Abbey I feel is often overlooked is one of the most omnipresent, if subtle, themes in the entire show: community. Whether we side with the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by the British National Treasure Maggie Smith) in pining for a more dignified age or are ready to join Lady Sibyl (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) at the barricades, one thing I think most viewers would agree on is that Downton Abbey depicts a world with a sense of community we have largely lost today. This is not to say that the world of Downton is ideal or superior to our own today. The world of Downton suffers from injustices that have long since been redressed. But that does not mean this (obviously fictional) portrayal of a past age has nothing to teach us or has no advantages over our own era. It would be hard to argue that we have not lost some of the important aspects of community that thrive at Downton, however flawed it may be.
The creator of the show, Julian Fellowes (now a life peer with the title Baron Fellowes of West Stafford), is himself a prominent English Catholic and the show has repeatedly touched upon Catholic issues, so perhaps I’m not too far off in seeing echoes of Catholic teaching in the nature of community at Downton.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a good primer of the Church’s views on community in Part Three, Section One, Chapter Two: The Human Community. There is a great deal this relatively short chapter teaches us about community and much of it can illuminate the world of Downton Abbey, but its understanding of the nature of human society has special resonance.
Following Aristotle, the Catechism makes clear that man is meant to live in a society with others and states that for man, society is not “an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature.” The Catechism goes on to define society as:
a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future. By means of society, each man is established as an “heir” and receives certain “talents” that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop.
Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but “the human person . . . is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions.”
By this definition, Downton Abbey is a society itself and it’s easy to see why. The house and estate are in many ways almost self-sufficient entities. The family and their servants and tenants all live in the main house, the larger estate, or in the village and together perform many of the necessary functions of society internally. The Downton estate is clearly a large group of people who are bound to each other by a “principle of unity”: the maintenance of the estate to earn their livelihoods and raise their families.
Downton Abbey makes visible certain realities or ideals about the nature of society that have been obscured or perhaps even lost in our more rootless and atomized modern world. The first is that a society is “a group of persons” and these people are bound to each other in a particular way: “organically.” The Catechism sees society as an organic entity, rather than one that is constructed in an abstract or artificial manner.
Drawing on Edmund Burke’s view of an organic society, true society “grows” out of the traditions, beliefs, and experiences of the people that make it up rather than being imposed by a preconceived, theoretical plan detached from practical reality. It is a “living” organism where the parts are related to one another and make up a larger whole that grows and changes in a gradual manner while still remaining itself. Downton in large part exemplifies this view of an organic society. Its very existence is the result of centuries of convention and adaptation that have slowly adjusted to shifting political, social, and economic circumstances. Although no society can or should be wholly “organic” (Downton Abbey itself did not merely sprout out of the ground and while the servants become an integral part of the household, many have no previous connection to the estate and some will leave for other jobs), Downton is nevertheless a concrete example of this vision of society.
In addition, Downton is clearly a society that “endures through time” and “gathers up the past and prepares for the future.” The Crawley family goes back generations as stewards of the estate, a point Lord Grantham makes forcefully when he tries to explain to his eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), why she cannot inherit Downton and it must go to a cousin who is heir to the title. Lord Grantham states, “My fortune is the work of others, who labored to build a great dynasty. Do I have the right to destroy their work, or impoverish that dynasty? I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner. I must strive to be worthy of the task I have been set.”
The nature of the Crawleys’ position as aristocrats in charge of an estate like Downton constantly causes them to look to their past and because of that past, plan for the future. In Democracy in America Volume 2, Book III, Chapter II, Alexis de Tocqueville makes the point that:
Among aristocratic nations, as families remain for centuries in the same condition, often on the same spot, all generations become, as it were, contemporaneous. A man almost always knows his forefathers and respects them; he thinks he already sees his remote descendants and he loves them. He willingly imposes duties on himself towards the former and the latter, and he will frequently sacrifice his personal gratifications to those who went before and to those who will come after him.
“Aristocratic nations” obviously have a number of negative effects on the well-being of societies, including inequality, a lack of opportunity for advancement, and often limits on liberty. However, Tocqueville’s description of the positive influence an aristocratic mindset has on one’s attitude toward the linking of one generation to another is repeatedly illustrated in the lives of the Crawleys (as well as other families on the estate). Whether they are looking back on their ancestors as Lord Grantham does in his speech to Lady Mary or looking forward to their posterity in the hopes for an heir after she (very fortunately) ends up falling in love and marrying the heir to the estate, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the Crawleys are always aware of the past and future of their family. The characters are not only bound to each other, but to their ancestors who have long since died (and whom they may have never met) and to their posterity not yet born (many of whom they will never know). They are heirs to the fruit of the work of their forebears, which they must act as good trustees of so that it can be passed on to their children.
And while the Crawleys are by far the most prominent family tied to Downton, they are not the only one. Many of their tenants and farmers likely go back generations as well, living on the estate and farming the same land. They “belong” and are “bound” to the estate just as the Crawleys are. The same reality of being tied to both one’s posterity and ancestors plays out in the lives of all the families on the estate. Being in the same spot and part of the same community for generations makes one more aware of one’s family’s past and future since the deeds and legacy of the past are still concretely present and are the substance of what will be passed on to future generations. This awareness sparks the willingness to sacrifice and be good stewards of the past for the future that Tocqueville speaks of.
All of this says a great deal about what a society is, but the Catechism also discusses what man’s role is within it. Through society “each man is established as an ‘heir’ and receives certain ‘talents’ that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop.” Discussing social justice and “Equality and Differences Among Men,” the Catechism develops this idea, saying that “‘talents’ are not distributed equally” and that these differences in distribution “belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods…”
In a world as stratified and rigid as that of Downton Abbey, the question of possessing different talents and positions in society is fraught with questions of prudence, fairness, and social justice that are beyond the scope of this piece. But the idea that we all have different and complimentary roles to play best suited to our talents is still an important concept at work in any society and is most eloquently expressed in the show by one of the most unlikely characters: Thomas Branson (Allen Leech), the family’s socialist and Irish republican chauffer who (much to Lord Grantham’s dismay) marries the Crawleys’ youngest daughter, Lady Sibyl, and after her death in childbirth ends up running the estate as its agent (got all that?).
After Lord Grantham feels that Matthew, who has saved the estate by investing a great deal of money and becoming an investor, and Branson are leaving him out of Downton’s future in their plans to modernize the estate and save it from approaching financial ruin, Branson persuades Lord Grantham of the wisdom of the changes saying, “Every man or woman who marries into this house, every child born into it, has to put their gifts to the family's disposal.” Branson convinces Lord Grantham that others using their talents and abilities to serve Downton and the family benefits everyone and in no way disrespects the role Lord Grantham has and will continue to play, even if that role changes or is diminished as time moves forward.
All this discussion of the nature of community and society at Downton Abbey helps address the question of the larger purpose of this society. Discussing the nature of society, the Catechism says that a “community is defined by its purpose” and that the human person is the “subject and the end of all social institutions.”
Later in the Catechism, it states that “Each human community possesses a common good.” This common good “is always oriented towards the progress of persons: ‘The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around.’ This order is founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love (emphasis mine).”
In the finale of season three, the Crawleys’ visit Duneagle Castle (Inveraray Castle) in the Scottish Highlands, home of the Marquess of Flintshire, Hugh “Shrimpy” MacClare (Peter Egan), and his wife, Susan (Phoebe Nicholls), and daughter, Lady Rose (Lily James). “Shrimpy” and Susan’s marriage is rocky at best and only made worse by increasing conflict between the spirited Rose and her strict mother. When it is decided that Rose will stay at Downton while the MacClares go to India on a diplomatic posting, Shrimpy explains his hopes for Rose’s stay at Downton to Lord Grantham’s wife, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), saying, “What I want is for her to know that family can be a loving thing. Love is like riding, or speaking French. If you don’t learn it young, it’s hard to get the trick of it later.”
Ultimately, Downton is about the people who live there — a point Lord Grantham makes repeatedly from a sense of noblesse oblige. In the end, after all the talk of class, land, tradition, politics, economics, and all the rest, the real test for Downton as a society is whether it fulfills its purpose as a place where the Crawleys and the people of the larger “family” of the estate can, as the Catechism says, “reach the fulfillment of the human vocation.” Downton is meant for man, not man for Downton. Since Downton as a community is a figurative “family” made up of many literal families, it makes sense to describe it as a “school of love” meant to teach its residents (in the words of the Catechism) that: “Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving: ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.’” If Downton can teach that “family can be a loving thing” and serve as a place where the human person can progress in virtue and fulfill their vocation, then its long line of custodians and workers have not labored in vain.
– K.G. Montgomery