This week I have decided to stray from my normal political banter to share one of my current favorite shows. Downton Abbey is a television series which is produced both by Carnival Films of the UK and WGBH Boston, Massachusetts. The setting of the program revolves around a fictional estate named Downton Abbey which is located in the North Riding of Yorkshire. It was created and largely written by actor and writer Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey is currently in production of its third season and premiered in the United States on PBS on January 9, 2011.
The series begins during the Edwardian Era in England and the year 1912. The main focus of Downton Abbey is a vivid portrayal of the lives, romances, scandals, and secrets of the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff which keeps the estate running every day. The audience is captivated by a detailed sequence of happiness and heartbreak with each of the characters in the story.
Downton is the home of the Crawleys, who have been the Earls of Grantham since 1772. The scenic estate is emphasized throughout the home in elaborate in the family drawing rooms, libraries, and bedrooms, all of which look over the vast landscape. The servant staff also lives on the property in their own quarters. Regardless of whether a character is a Crawley or a servant, there are rigid social hierarchies that all are impacted by.
There is a range of motivations and dreams amongst the servant staff at Downton. Some are extremely loyal to the Crawleys and view working at Downton as a way of life. Others, looking to climb up the social ladder, view Downton as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, everyone enjoys the adventures inherent with working at Downton and is aware of privileged information within the family.
The plot thickens and social norms are challenged when members of the Crawley family and their servant staff are called to serve during World War I. Their lives become even more intertwined and many are concerned that life as they know it will be changed forever.
The two clips immediately above are meant to show the distinction between Season 1 and Season 2. I have focused on clips from two episodes. The first is Season 1 Episode 1 and the second is Season 2 Episode 4. It is going to be very difficult for me not to spoil the plot but I am going to try. I want you all to become fans. The younger blonde man at the table during the first clip is Matthew Crawley. He is the third cousin, once removed, of the Earl of Grantham (Robert Crawley, the older man in the clip). Matthew is also the presumptive heir to the title and the estate. Prior to the death of the previous heir, Matthew was not a gentleman. He was a middle class man working as a lawyer.
I have chosen to focus on this element of the plot because it is an example of the intersections of Business, Government, and Society in a more historical context. I must add; however, that this is just one story line in the series and that there are many twists and turns along the way. If I wrote about all potential applicable plot moments from the show, this would be the longest blog post ever.
The Edwardian era was a very intriguing time in English history. In many ways, it is the perfect example of how business, government, and society intersect. At the onset of this period, the British social hierarchy was very strict. Nevertheless, towards the end of the era (technically around 1914) there were economic and social movements pushing for reform which eventually lead to more opportunities for social mobility. The changes resulting from these reforms included more attention paid to socialism, poverty, women’s rights, and rapid industrialization, leading to economic growth. The changes were further expedited by World War 1. Downton Abbey is accurately impacted by these new developments as the Crawley sisters took different jobs during the war. Also, in the second of the two clips above, the heir of the estate, Matthew Crawley, is fighting alongside William Mason, the footman.
So now that we have identified social and economic movements which greatly impacted historic hierarchical structures, we must ask ourselves: “What was the motivation behind these reform movements?” Government appears to be the answer. At the beginning of the period, a war being lead in South Africa began to divide society into anti-war and pro-war parties. These tensions were further exacerbated by charismatic leaders who led the liberal movements against conservatives who remained in power. The Crawleys, with the exception of their daughter Sybil, financially supported the conservative government officials. The conservative unions promoted Tariff Reform to enhance Great Britain’s economy. Liberals spoke out against tariff reforms in the interest of working class people and eventually went on to win the election in 1906 easily. Unfortunately, the liberals in government weren’t able to pass their most extreme programs because the House of Lords was controlled by conservatives. This eventually led to a “hung parliament” in the election of 1910. The governmental frustrations within Great Britain and the liberal rise to power spurred the reform movements which resulted in the changes seen at places like Downton Abbey.
As a result, Downton Abbey represents the complex relationship between Business, Government, and Society accurately in many ways. While watching the show, it is very easy to get caught up in the drama and ignore the motivating factors that have created an environment such as Downton Abbey. A close look at the history; however, clearly shows direct links to our course. Whether one broadly examines the intersections of the course themes or evaluates the importance of having a Sociological Imagination, Downton Abbey never disappoints.