The Exoticism of Politeness: Why We Are Fascinated by Downton Abbey

Is it any wonder that we’re captivated by Downton Abbey’s denizens, who constantly ask each other, “May I have a word?” before they even speak? And before they sit down with anyone, be they family, friend or foe, they offer them tea. Tea! How strange, and irresistibly civil, that seems to us today.

lady mary, downton abbey, mary, mister pamuk
“I’ll be ruined and notorious!”

“I’ll be ruined and notorious!” cries Lady Mary during Downton Abbey’s infamous Mr. Pamuk crisis. Yet the goal of the famous, or would-be famous, today is to be as notorious and outrageous as humanly possible. The more scandalous their behavior, the more attention we lavish upon them. How much more pleasant would our popular culture be if the likes of Miley Cyrus, Niki Minaj and the Kardashians would stop trying to shock us and just give everyone a rest?

There are many reasons why Downton Abbey is the highest rated drama in the history of PBS, with 10.1 million American viewers tuning in for January’s Season Five premiere. It’s beautifully written, acted and directed, and filled with grandeur, glamour and dishy drama — not to mention the Dowager Countess’ deliciously witty bon mots.

Although the show can be a painful reminder that my life is dreadfully understaffed, there’s a reason why American audiences are especially drawn to the saga of the Crawleys and their army of servants.

In our no-rules, no-roles culture of un-civil discourse, the phenomenal appeal of Downton Abbey is our fascination with, and secret longing for, a time when rules, roles, behavior and decorum were rigid and fixed. In our current age, dignity is in short supply, but whether they reside upstairs or downstairs, the show’s characters are nothing if not dignified.

downton abbey, servants, pbs, downtown abbey
We should all have an army of overly polite servants, no?

We Americans pride ourselves on leading the world with our freedoms of expression, our personal independence and our “you can be anything you want to be” attitude (we even call it The American Dream).

But much has been lost along the way to achieving that freedom of expression. Click on CNN at any time day or night and see how our social and political discourse has deteriorated into verbal food fights. And don’t get me started on that ideological mud-wrestling pit known as FOX News.

Elected officials today clamor to make the most incendiary, offensive public statements they can think of — in order to be quoted on every cable news show, blog, Twitter and Facebook feed. A glance at the comments section of any online story or post proves that the Internet has given every nut job a public forum to freely spew their ignorance and/or hate.

Reality TV shows, such as the multitude of Real Housewives series, have plunged us into a world of rich folks behaving badly: an endless stream of catfights in Cartier. But the aristocrats of Downton Abbey live in mortal fear of impropriety and scandal.

downton abbey, downtown abbey, countess dowager, maggie smith, using a telephone,
The Countess Dowager tries out a telephone for the very first time.

Downton Abbey’s writer/creator Julian Fellowes constantly toys with themes of the rapidly changing world of the early 20th Century. This includes the unwelcome introduction of newfangled contraptions such as electric lights and the telephone, of which the Dowager Countess exclaims, “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”

It’s great fun to watch the aristocratic fuddy-duddies contend with these new technologies, including Lord Grantham’s disdain for the wireless (that’s a radio to you and me), which he insists is a fad that won’t last.

The focus of Season Five, set in 1924, appears to be the recently un-corseted women of Downton coming into their own and challenging the social restrictions that had previously rendered them powerless.

Lady Mary willfully dabbles in (gasp!) premarital sex, with the aid of (gasp!) birth control – which she of course sends her lady’s maid Anna to purchase. There are hints that the Countess Cora may feel the stirrings of her own independence, and even the kitchen maid Daisy is studying to (gasp!) make a better life for herself.

The irony of the series — which immerses us so completely in its Edwardian values and mores — is that as we watch its characters move towards the modern world, through our 21st Century eyes, we realize that some noble and valuable elements of their old world are doomed to be lost.

As the show’s historical advisor Alastair Bruce explains in the fascinating documentary The Manners of Downton Abbey (above), the Edwardian era’s stifling etiquette and decorum came from the aristocratic belief that manners are what held everything together. Their rigid roles and rules reflected their struggle to achieve moral correctness and perfection.

There’s no question that freedom from repressive attitudes towards gender, class and sexuality have made our lives better today. But the “struggle to achieve moral correctness and perfection?” When’s the last time you heard anyone talk about that on CNN or the Internet?

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Adam Sandel is a screenwriter, playwright, and journalist who lives in San Francisco. He teaches Literature, Critical Thinking, and Mythology and Folklore at De Anza College and Berkeley City College.