Step back in time, if you will, to a day in which strict rules of decorum and narrow understandings of gender largely determined the roles that women could play in society. It was a time when a woman’s career choices were severely limited, especially if she was married and had children, a time in which marriage to the right man was the best route to a comfortable future, when contraceptive choices were limited, when a premarital sexual relationship meant everlasting shame and out-of-wedlock pregnancy utter ruin.
If that invitation reminds you of the television miniseries Downton Abbey, then you may be one of the millions who have found their hearts and imaginations captured by its scripted evocation of Edwardian England. Or, you just as easily may have been reading about the recent controversies over contraception and women’s health that are inflaming American politics this year: the heated rhetoric of the GOP race for president, the debates over the impact of “Obamacare” on religious freedom, the attempts to limit abortion rights by enacting “personhood” amendments to state constitutions, and other political and moral issues that especially affect American women.
Downton Abbey, the saga of the grand estate of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, has been something of a guilty pleasure for British and American audiences. The miniseries premiered on the British network ITV in 2010 and on PBS in January 2011. The beautiful setting, compelling characters, fine acting, exquisite details, and soapy storylines have made it appointment television for millions and the subject of much water-cooler (i.e. online) gossip after each episode. The first season introduced viewers to all the characters who circle about the central plot dilemma: how to keep the estate within the Crawley family after the male heirs apparent are lost in the sinking of the Titanic. Each episode disclosed rumors and secrets about the relationships between the family and the staff in a world where the old class lines are beginning to break down.
In the second season, Britain becomes embroiled in World War I, and the quality of the story telling is diminished somewhat by an overload of competing plot lines. Perhaps screenwriter Julian Fellowes is penning a sly love letter to the traditional melodrama: A disfigured Canadian soldier with amnesia appears claiming to be one of the lost heirs. The heir apparent is paralyzed in battle but stages a miraculous recovery, whereupon his beautiful young fiancée tragically dies of the Spanish flu, freeing him to marry the woman whom he secretly loves. The youngest Crawley daughter becomes involved with the family chauffeur.
Fellowes does wring honest emotion out of what might otherwise be hoary and shopworn complications. More importantly, he uses these incidents to illustrate the disruptive power of war. Rejected for military service, Lord Crawley seeks a new purpose in life and becomes briefly smitten with a maid. The lord’s wife reluctantly allows Downton Abbey to serve as a rehabilitation hospital for recovering war veterans but fears losing control over her home and family. The heir apparent’s expectations for love and family are threatened by his paralysis. The war disrupts the servants’ attempts to balance their lives and settle their affairs. The family and its retainers intermingle, mourning the dead and celebrating unlikely marriages as the world turns upside down around them.
In season two, the breakdown of the old social order is undeniable as both rich and poor chafe against their assigned social roles. Old assumptions make little sense as nearly every character is forced to adjust to wrenching changes. Even Lord Crawley’s heretofore unyielding mother—played with witty gusto by the incomparable Maggie Smith—learns to adapt to this new world, displaying wisdom and foresight about what must be done even when the available choices are distasteful.
One of the beauties of Downton Abbey—and perhaps a reason why it is so popular—is that it does not attempt to make any direct parallels between the world it inhabits and ours. It is content to show us another world seemingly very distant from our own without compelling us to see our own reflection in it. This year the Crawleys of Downton Abbey may be the only members of the “1 percent” to whom the “99 percent” have shown an unabashed love. We romanticize a culture where intimate relationships between aristocrats and servants are unacceptable, and we choose not to envision the servants staging an “Occupy Downton Abbey” protest or demanding the enactment of same-sex marriage.
Still, if we choose to do so, we may notice that the social conditions depicted in the series—the economic inequalities, class resentments, gender roles, and laws and norms of marriage—are a mirror to the zeitgeist of our own time. And we may ponder how our reactions to these conditions compare to those of a century ago. After all, what is the Occupy movement if not a real-time reaction by those who call themselves the 99 percent against the roles to which they have been relegated by a social structure that favors the very rich?
Downton Abbey may magically transport us back to 1919 England, but the recent political debates over contraception and women’s health issues drag some of us back to 1959 America. We now take it for granted that women should be the agents of their own medical and reproductive decisions, rather than objects of legislation and control by men. And so it is little wonder that we bristle when a Congressional hearing on women’s health includes no women on the first panel of religious leaders called to testify (to be fair, the second panel did include women). And we are appalled when a political surrogate for presidential candidate Rick Santorum makes a moldy, sexist joke about birth control. We sense we are slipping into a dismaying kind of time machine, carrying us back into a more repressive era, one without the costumes and accents and soundtrack of Downton Abbey, but where women’s places in society were still largely determined by men and a good marriage was still a woman’s best promise for a comfortable life.
In some respects, Downton Abbey is an entertaining time machine in its own right, yet one that does not evoke a false nostalgia for its rarified world. Rather, by allowing us to recognize ourselves without feeling smug about our supposed cultural progress or assuming one-to-one equations between its world and our own, the series invites us to consider the possibilities of genuine social progress. By detailing how people struggle to adapt to an evolving world where old lines of gender and class are fracturing, we may find reasons to be hopeful about our own time and place. In its characters who often respond with grace, not fear, we may see our better selves.
The battle over birth control and women’s health is discouraging because it suggests that we have not evolved nearly enough. We are closer than we want to believe to the social norms of 1959 and 1919, and our preemptive culture wars are initiated by those who want to force us back into outmoded value systems. But in their misbegotten efforts to rebuild social structures that harmed so many and recover a cultural ethos that no longer exists, today’s culture warriors ignore one of war’s great lessons: in launching a crusade against a perceived evil, we can wreak even greater havoc and destruction. Without offering us any overt moral lessons, Downton Abbey suggests that it is lives well lived, regardless of class or gender, that are the best security we have in a world that is continually being recreated.
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.