February 4, 2014

"Downton Abbey" and the Modern Age

by the millions tuned in to watch the premier of Downton Abbey’s fourth
season, eager to enjoy the continuation of the saga of the Earl and Countess of
Grantham and their household. According to press reports, 10.2 million
Americans watched the first episode, catching up on developments since the end
of the third season, which ended with yet another tragedy, this time the death
of heir Matthew Crawley. But the heir did not leave without leaving an heir,
and so the story continues.

do Americans have any idea what they are really watching?

millions of Americans who are now devoted Downton fans are drawn, no
doubt, to the story and all of its twists and turns. They are captivated by the
historical drama and the grandeur of Highclere, the real-life estate of the
Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and the setting for Downton Abbey. They
are intrigued by the hierarchies of the noble house and its inhabitants, with
the nobility upstairs and the servants downstairs. They are amazed by the
lavishness of the estate, the period dress, and the class structure of the
society. They enjoy the quality of the acting and the quaintness of the habits
portrayed. They must appreciate the attention to historical detail, right down
to the soaps used and the dishes served. Many are likely to be unrepentant
Anglophiles ( I include myself amongst them) who enjoy the look into the
history and drama of our English cousins.

stories, captivatingly written by Julian Fellowes (also rightly known as Baron
Fellowes of West Stafford), are quite enough to hold the attention of a
vast American audience. Critics rightly suggest that some viewers watch for the
storylines, and others, rather less interested in the soap opera character that
also marks the series, watch for an escape into history. Whatever the reason,
they keep watching.

yet, most viewers are likely unaware of what they are actually seeing. They are
not merely watching an historical drama: they are witnessing the passing of a
world. And that larger story, inadequately portrayed within Downton Abbey,
is a story that should not be missed. That story is part of our own story as
well. It is the story of the modern age arriving with revolutionary force, and
with effects that continue to shape our own world.

is set in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Though by season four King George V is on the throne, the era is still
classically Edwardian. And the era associated with King Edward VII is the era
of the great turn in British society. The early decades of the twentieth
century witnessed a great transformation in England and within the British
Empire. The stable hierarchies of Downton Abbey grew increasingly unstable.
Britain, which had been overwhelmingly a rural nation until the last decade of
the nineteenth century, became increasingly urban. A transformation in morals
changed the very character of the nation, and underlying it all was a great
surge of secularization that set the stage for the emergence of the radically
secular nation that Britain has become.

should note the almost complete absence of Christianity from the storyline. The
village vicar is an occasional presence, and church ceremonies have briefly
been portrayed. But Christianity as a belief system and a living faith is
absent—as is the institutional presence of the Church of England.

life is also virtually absent, which amounts to a second great omission. The
epoch in which Downton Abbey is set was a time of tremendous political
strife and upheaval in Britain. The Earl of Grantham would likely have been
quite distressed by the rise of the Liberal Party’s David Lloyd George as Prime
Minister. The right of women to vote was a recent development, and the
political waters were roiled by high unemployment and a faltering British
economy. The signs of the Empire’s disappearance were there for all to see,
even if most among the elites did their best to deny the evidence. The great
landed estates were draining their lordly title holders of precious capital,
and the economic arrangements that allowed the nobility to live off of their
estates would never return. That is why so many English lords looked for rich
American women to marry.

great moral revolution was also in full sway. Birth control was increasingly
available and openly discussed. In 1930, the Church of England would become the
first major Christian church to endorse the use of contraceptives. Sexual
morality was changing with a lessening of sanctions on premarital sex and
adultery. Calls for liberalized divorce laws became more frequent. Many argued
that the working class should have the same access to sexual liberty that the
nobility seemed to allow themselves.

yet, the secularization of the society was underneath it all. Christie Davies,
author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, gets right to the point:
“Behind the strange death of moral Britain lies the strange death of Christian
Britain. Even in 1900 the leaders of Christian Britain feared that such a
decline might take place.”

and theologians debate just how Christian the Britain of Queen Victoria really
was, but the fact is that within the Church of England liberal theology was
very much in control, with the Broad Church party setting the course. The
literature of the late Victorian age and the age of Edward reveals ample
evidence of what the poet Matthew Arnold would express in “Dover Beach.” In
Arnold’s memorable words:

Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore;
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

historian Jose Harris of the University of Oxford explains, “A more common
response, however, was not outright loss of faith but dilution, adjustment, or
diversification of religious belief into something that was often much more
nuanced and nebulous than had been common in the early Victorian age.” He also
described the age as one marked by “the increasing vagueness and indeterminacy
of religious belief.”

of churchgoing fell—and they would fall further in decades ahead. The
unspeakable tragedy of World War I seemed to add impetus to the loss of faith
and theological certainties. A great spiritual void appeared in Britain long
before the signs of such secularization would appear on American shores. But we
can now see that the early decades of the twentieth century, including the
so-called “locust years” in Britain between the two world wars, were a crucial
turning time within that society. Those years set the trajectory that produced
the Britain of today.

are countless lessons for American Christians to observe as we watch Downton
. But we ought not to miss the larger story of which tales like Downton
are only a part. The world that was passing away was not only a world of
footmen, but also of faith. Britain would never be the same again, and that loss
of faith and certitude would eventually become a tide that would sweep across
every aspect of British culture.

course, Downton Abbey did not stay in Britain, and that is true of the
larger story as well. That larger story records a great shift in worldview, not
merely a social transformation. The consequences of that larger story far
exceed the story of a great English house and its inhabitants. In that sense, Downton
is a parable of sorts—a parable that can teach us a great deal.

am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at [email protected] Follow
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Davies, The Strange Death of Moral Britain (London: Transaction
Publishers, 2004), p. xxiii.

Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914, The Penguin
Social History of Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 171, 175.