Apart from one housemaid who learns to type and becomes a secretary and the uppity Irish nationalist chauffeur who runs off with daughter number three and becomes a journalist, few escape from domestic service. They accept their place downstairs in the great house. No one would even think of joining a union, even if there was one to join.
In some ways, there's as little freedom upstairs as downstairs, particularly for the women. At least the men can manage the estate and go off to war. The women are expected to lead almost exclusively social lives, with a dash of charity work. They visit other houses and host visitors, cultivate musical talents, go to London for "the season," spend an excessive amount of time getting dressed for dinner, and then retire as a group after dinner while the men drink port and talk about important stuff.
To the credit of the creators of "Downton Abbey," all the women emerge as strong characters, rather than mere adornments to the scene like the furniture and dinner table settings. Some even rebel by taking a job, running off with the chauffeur or rolling in the haystack with a tenant farmer. But all face consequences for breaking social conventions.
It's also heart-warming to see how kind the folks upstairs are to those downstairs. They pay for medical operations and children's education and even stand as character witnesses in a murder trial. Unfortunately, the benevolence of Lord Grantham and his kin was not typical of the landed gentry of the period who, with honorable exceptions, kept their servants and tenant farmers firmly in their place, and could fire them or evict them from their land at will.
"Downton Abbey" is good TV (if a bit soapy) but it should not make us nostalgic for a world where hereditary social class and privilege were the norms, and most people accepted their place in society. Even for the period it depicts, it's not realistic. Most people in Britain did not live in great houses, either upstairs or downstairs, but in crowded, dirty industrial cities or in rural poverty. And while the aristocracy continued to dominate politics, a growing middle class challenged its economic dominance. The real wealth was not in the great estates but in mining and manufacturing, the dark satanic mills of northern England.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a "Downton Abbey" fan. I'll be glued to the TV every Sunday night through the third season. But the social order it depicts is as undesirable as that of "Buckwild."
Mould, of Charleston, is an emeritus professor in media arts and studies at Ohio University and a former newspaper and TV journalist in the U.K.