To the Manor Borne
If you’re a 99-percenter who wasn’t to the manner born, upstairs-downstairs fiction can bear you to the manor, at least in your imagination. Phenomenally popular Downton Abbey proves the genre’s perennial appeal, setting servants against masters while bringing them together via sex and other means. British country houses are archetypal battlegrounds for class love-and-warfare, although it also occurs in London townhouses (Upstairs, Downstairs) and even—more gently if less genteelly—on Long Island estates (Sabrina).
For a gentleman, the most intimate relationship in his life is not with his wife or mistress(es) but with his valet. (Anglophiles will know the word is to be pronounced VAL-et, not val-LAY.) In Downton Abbey, valet John Bates’s lameness, his ongoing spats with two other servants, and the several skeletons in his closet cause no end of upset for the Crawley household. But with a few lapses and sometimes against his wife’s wishes, Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville), remains Bates’s loyal protector. (Their attachment was cemented during the Boer War, when Bates served as Lord Robert’s batman, or personal servant, and we’re meant to understand that such bonds are indissoluble.) In the television series Jeeves and Wooster—first broadcast on the British ITV network and adapted from the Jeeves stories and novels by English humorist P.G. Wodehouse—the valet Jeeves (Stephen Fry) is in every sense except the marital the better half to his purported master, Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie). Watching upstairs-downstairs dramas, one always wonders who’s really in charge—the staff or those they serve? But in Wodehouse’s comic tales and the TV program based on them, one never has the slightest doubt.
Robert Altman, peerless director of ensemble comedies and dramas (MASH, 1970; Nashville, 1975; The Player, 1992; and Short Cuts, 1993, among others), outdid himself with his 2001 film Gosford Park, an uneasy comedy of manners that, midway through, becomes a murder mystery. (The woefully inept police don’t discover whodunit, but we do.) Set on a British country estate on the occasion of a shooting party (the era is the mid-1930s), Gosford Park reveals the grotesque inequality of the master-servant relationship: While masters know virtually nothing about those below stairs, servants know virtually everything about their masters. The film abounds with emotionally complex performances, including those by Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith—in magnificent form as the crotchety, vain Countess of Trentham, a role bearing distinct resemblance to her Downton Abbey dowager character. Nominated for seven Oscars (including supporting actress nods to both Mirren and Smith), Gosford Park won just one: the original screenplay award, to writer Julian Fellowes, who a decade later created Downton Abbey. Also an actor, Fellowes not only has played a titled nobleman (in the 1999 BBC series Aristocrats) but is one in real life: Baron Fellowes of West Stafford.
Gosford Park spotlights the British class system’s myriad cruelties—not just those the haves inflict on the have-nots but also the meanness the members of each class commonly exhibit toward one another. Those below stairs can be just as snobbish and obsessed with the minutiae of their social hierarchy as those above; meanwhile, among the gentry, life can be awfully tough if one lacks good looks, a stylish wardrobe or—most crucial—enough money. The dim prospects faced by a girl of good breeding who, however, is plain and poor provide the premise for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. A Gothic romance with an improbable happy ending, Jane Eyre earns its classic status via its nuanced portrayal of its heroine—a rebellious but principled young woman who refuses to let her low station defeat her—and through its ruthless accounting of the costs of caste. It’s also a page-turner, and Jane Eyre’s spookiness and cliffhanger plot twists make the story irresistible to filmmakers. Jane Eyre has been adapted for the screen no fewer than 16 times—most recently in Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 version, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as the object of her passion, Mr. Rochester.
Just because you haven’t grown up in the manor doesn’t mean you can’t get in. You may marry into it. All it takes (according to fable) is devotion and determination—though beauty, charm and a posh accent help. Jane Eyre possesses the first two (they help her land her man, if not his ill-fated mansion), but Audrey Hepburn, as the title character in Billy Wilder’s 1954 film Sabrina, has all of them in spades. Sabrina Fairchild spent her teenage years pining for David Larrabee (William Holden), the devil-may-care scion of the Long Island industrialist family that employs her chauffeur father. Sabrina is beneath David’s notice—until she sails off to Paris for cooking lessons and a makeover. When she returns—très sophistiquée and equipped with more Givenchy gowns than can fit in her luggage—David is smitten. An amusing plot twist involving shattered champagne glasses spoils their romance but doesn’t bust the social-climbing ladder. (Without giving too much away, let’s just say David has an older, stuffed-shirt brother, played by Humphrey Bogart.) Wilder’s Cinderella story is completely implausible but entirely enjoyable; a 1995 remake, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Julia Ormond, Greg Kinnear and Harrison Ford, is just implausible.
Sabrina’s stodgy, class-conscious chauffeur father (played by British character actor John Williams) lives by the adage “There’s a front seat and a back seat and a window in between.” But the glass wall separating the classes can, as Sabrina proves, be broken. Ironically, in upstairs-downstairs soap operas it’s often the chauffeur who does the smashing. In Downton Abbey, that would be Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Crawley family’s hunky, cheeky driver, who flirts with extremist politics (bolshevism) and more than flirts with Lord and Lady Grantham’s impetuous youngest daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). And in the BBC’s new Upstairs Downstairs series, which began airing in 2010, chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson)—hunky, cheeky and a dabbler in extremist politics (fascism)—becomes the lover of Lady Agnes Holland’s young, impetuous sister, Persephone (Claire Foy). Detect a pattern here? Soap operas depend on stock characters, and randy, smart-alecky chauffeurs and sexually and politically rebellious young ladies are nearly as thick in the servants’ quarters and drawing rooms as officious butlers, capable housekeepers, irascible cooks and, of course, doughty dowagers (e.g., Eileen Atkins’s Lady Maud Holland in the new Upstairs Downstairs’ first season and Maggie Smith’s Countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey).
In a fevered essay published in The Daily Beast and Newsweek in January 2012, British historian Simon Schama jeers at Americans’ appetite for the “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery” that Downton Abbey, in his opinion, dishes up. Schama can certainly turn a phrase—but what a killjoy. Downton Abbey’s considerable pleasures, which he seems temperamentally unable to acknowledge, are those any well-crafted soap opera provides; one doesn’t have to yearn for an old-school class system to relish the goings-on. Schama is especially galled by Downton Abbey’s misuses of history, but again he misses the point. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, its predecessor BBC soap opera, Downton Abbey mines modern British history not to increase viewer awareness of tragic events (which Schama would approve) but simply to stoke the plot. The sinking of the Titanic, World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic are among the horrendous occurrences that figure in both programs; to complain that the shows don’t treat them seriously is like berating the HBO soap The Sopranos for being soft on the Mafia. True, but so what? “History,” as T.S. Eliot wrote, “has many cunning passages”—some of which lead to wickedly good (if intellectually suspect) entertainment.
Not all the romances blossoming in upstairs-downstairs dramas violate class boundaries. Sometimes servants—and masters too—appropriately cleave to their own kind. One of Downton Abbey’s most appealing plotlines concerns the below-stairs romance that develops between Lord Grantham’s valet, John Bates (played by Brendan Coyle), and head housemaid Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt). Despite their dewy-eyed mutual devotion, Bates and Anna don’t have an easy time of it: Their dream of togetherness is constantly bedeviled, in the best soap-opera fashion, by Bates’s breathtakingly wicked wife (Jane Wenham), who likes making his life hell and so refuses to divorce. That’s great melodrama, but more profound by far is the tale of unrequited love told by the wistful, despair-inducing 1993 Merchant-Ivory film The Remains of the Day (based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel). In service at the great house Darlington Hall, the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), gradually falls in love with the butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins). Though he can scarcely acknowledge it, Stevens loves her too. What keeps them apart, tragically, is propriety itself: The two don’t dare risk declaring, or even fully understanding, their feelings because to do so would break the unwritten but all-powerful code that rules their lives.
To watch The Remains of the Day and then any episode of Jeeves and Wooster is to dive from the sublimely serious into the ridiculously trivial. In the Merchant Ivory film and the British television series, the manservants excel at single-mindedly serving their impossible masters, but the masters occupy different strata of impossibleness. In Remains, the butler, Mr. Stevens, keeps Darlington Hall in well-oiled working order and cannot conceive of questioning, much less disobeying, Lord Darlington—even when the latter’s decisions are morally repugnant. A Nazi sympathizer, as were many upper-crust Britons during the 1930s, Darlington (played by James Fox) demands Stevens dismiss two refugee Jewish housemaids, and Stevens—though uncomfortably aware that the maids may be deported back to Germany—dutifully complies because he believes his employer “understands these things” far better than he. Jeeves, valet to the young gentleman Bertie Wooster, is under no such illusion. Wooster is a cretin and a wastrel—fond of liquor, puerile hijinks and himself—and Jeeves makes it his job to rescue Wooster from the messes he inevitably creates. This is comedy, of course, so the question of why the clever, tasteful Jeeves so devotes himself to the idiotic, crass Wooster remains unasked.