The lure of Downton Abbey

Which event was more culturally significant: the airing of the Downton Abbey Series 3 finale in the U.K. on November 4 last year, or Barack Obama’s reelection in the U.S. on November 6?

It’s a ridiculous question, of course, but I ask it to expose what I think is an unfortunate tendency among amateur cultural analysts like myself: we tend to regard the goings-on in halls of political power as more important indicators of where a culture is going than the stories that are capturing the hearts and minds of its people. Arguably, the opposite is true: the stories are more culturally formative than the political events. (I might suggest that the drop in viewing from 37.8 million Americans to 20.6 million between President Obama’s first and second inaugurations illustrates this – the story was more captivating in 2009.)

On to the real reason for this post: I’m interested in why so many people (including myself) have fallen for Downton Abbey. Various answers come to mind. The storytelling is good, the casting is (in my judgment) outstanding, and visually the show is enormously pleasing.

I’d like to suggest another feature that may be attracting people to the series, and urge that God’s people in the 21st century sit up and take a cue. The feature I have in mind is decorum.

Downton Abbey is the story of a British aristocratic household in the early 20th century. As such, it is permeated by a very rich, at times nettlesome, but by no means harsh or cold formality. The problem of social stratification does arise more than once as we follow both the lives of the aristocrats themselves and those of their body of household servants, but the formality to which I have referred exists – and “works” charmingly – on both of these levels. The servants dress just as formally as the lords and ladies, albeit much less lavishly. They address each other by their appropriate titles (“Mr. Carson” [does anyone know his first name?] or “Mrs. Hughes”) as surely as they address their superiors as “m’lord” and “m’lady.” Conversation on both levels of society, and across the levels, while not stilted, is bounded by strict propriety even when parties are thoroughly aggravated. Informality and rudeness are simply not tolerated; there is an unapologetic keeping up of appearances, though due to the character of (most of) the characters this doesn’t degenerate into rigid stuffiness or stifling of candor. Parties do disagree – sometimes vehemently – but not at the cost of decorum; and when decorum is breached, there is great cost indeed (one thinks of Lord Grantham’s brief “forgetting of himself” in Series 2).

I’m persuaded that part of the Downton attraction, at least in North America, is that we suffer from pathological informality, indecorousness, and incivility; and deep down, when exposed to the beauty of manners – dare I say, cultured ways of behaving – we realize we’ve lost something precious. We’re not yet such brutes as not to see that wholesome propriety is refreshing. The splendid respect, for example, with which Lord Grantham and his daughters address each other, even when provoked, or with which John Bates and Anna Smith carry off their romance, cannot fail to resonate. It’s magnificently human.

I know this may sound outrageous, but I think one of the best ways for Christians to contribute to the healing of modern cultural ills is to work on their manners. We North Americans do love our freedoms, our rights, our independence. We get real itchy when someone tells us we ought to obey rules, especially if they can’t show us chapter and verse. We don’t want those fancy-dancy Old World ways imposed on us. And I guess it’s true – there’s no law that says you have to wear a tie to dinner or church; comb your hair when you get out of bed; keep your elbows off the table and thank the host for dinner; address your elderly neighbor as “Mr. Smith”; refrain from using certain words and phrases in polite company; or even make sure your company is polite. You can be as informal, indecorous, and uncivil as you darn well please.

But I’ll tell you where this is going. I live in a part of the country where Christian thinking was jettisoned long ago, and the remainders of Christian civilization have slowly but surely followed. And while sin isn’t any more sinful than it used to be, it has a lot fewer cages now. It’s on the loose and everywhere to be seen. I stopped at a four-way stop the other day, about the same time as another vehicle driven by an elderly man. In an attempt at courtesy, I waved him through. Instantly, he began gesticulating wildly, and in a most unflattering manner, indicating that he was most certainly not going to go through, and that I needed to get my posterior in gear. Finally, I pulled through, treated to more hand signals to my right. All I could think was: “Here’s what an old man acts like who’s lived his entire long life in a place where people don’t have manners, where he’s had to deal every day with rudeness and incivility.” It was incredibly sad.

I see the effects of the loss of decorum, the loss of civilized manners, especially when I do family counseling. People haven’t learned the art of conversation, so they can’t articulate things clearly. This is frustrating enough; but to compound matters, the moment either party feels frustration, all responsibility to maintain control, respectfulness, or even basic courtesy, is out the window. It’s considered okay to raise your voice to ridiculous decibel levels, spew profanities (I’ve even heard Christians defend spewing profanities in the name of Christian liberty), say horrible things you don’t mean and will (hopefully) regret an hour or two later, and – if things are exasperating enough – throw objects or engage in other forms of physical violence. And these aren’t even the abuse cases! Human character without the discipline of decorum slides into putridity.

It may not sound like a big deal to teach your child to say “please” when he asks for the carrots; or to close her eyes, fold her hands, and sit still during family prayers. It may not seem like a big deal that your children say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” when given a directive. I suppose it’s no sin to forego such formalities. A life without decorum isn’t so much immoral as it is immature and brutish. It lacks the infrastructures on which excellent virtue can be framed. And couldn’t we then say that, at some level, to be uncivil is to be unholy? Here I think Downton has something important to teach us, as do all great stories that exhibit the compelling beauty of decorum.

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