Aristo Fetishism in Downton Abbey


“Property is theft.”

— Proudhon

I’m sure we all have better things to do than watch that emotionally involving, spacey-fiction  example of Disraeli-era “one nation” Tory-conservative spin, Downton Abbey.

The Big House is where the nice, kind, decent, pragmatic, charitable liberals just by chance happen to be the rich folks upstairs and the reactionary, even stuffier, tradition-upholding homophobes lurk down in the scullery.   I love Carson the butler (brilliantly played by Jim  Carter) as the avatar of the “deference vote” that keeps Britain’s big and little c  conservatives in power.  Really I do love Carson.   SOMEONE has to uphold standards when Lady Mary screws a (gasp)Turk to death, Lord Grantham makes passes at the maid over whom he has total social and economic power, a gay footman actually wants sex, Lady Edith is having it off with an adulterer, and a stylish – kindly – way of life is, sadly,  passing, passing into the sunset, a victim of menacing Armageddon, a future Labour government with its socialistic death duties.

Here’s the thing they omit from this stupendously successful tosh.  Summer or winter in real life you freeze your bum off in those big draughty impossible-to-heat halls.  I’ve been there.  Now try to imagine an episode at the Abbey where the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives: a young American reporter (me) so morally soft, O GOD THE HORROR!,  he has along with him his own Valor paraffin heater.  Can you just hear hear Maggie Smith sniffing?  Shirley MacLaine was one American Jew too many.  But this is too much: bringing your own central heating!!!!

That was my experience when for a period I was “taken up” by the English lower aristocracy and higher gentry in their Downton-style country houses for shootin’-and-huntin’ weekends and sometimes longer.   The real life OR Book Going Rougeversions of Lord Grantham were gracious and charming…until they spied my Valor heater in hand.  (And also until mine host lent me his Purdy over-and-under when I shot off 50 shells and not a single partridge fell out of the sky.)  For one thing, burning paraffin awfully smells up the place.  For another, the very existence of a Valor is a rebuke to a stately, ordered, stoical way of life where enduring cold used to be, and perhaps still is a mark of upper class virtue.

Ben Disraeli, who more or less invented the “One Nation” wheeze, was one of the more clever prime ministers.  (And Jewish yet!)  One Nationism trumpets a view of “organic” society in which we all, regardless of political disagreements, have our God-given parts to play under the paternalistic  guidance of a wise and tolerant Lord Grantham clone.  (UK’s current leader David Cameron claims Disraeli is his favorite politician.)  Nation matters more than class.  Indeed, this patrician-conceived “philosophy” – a pragmatic response to lower class turbulence – is trotted out periodically when, in the good old Yorkshire/Lancs phrase, “there’s trouble at t’ mill”.  That is,  the restless natives threaten to riot.  As soon as the proles cool off it’s back to free market capitalism.  Tick tock.  Like a cuckoo clock.

Disraeli, the Tory genius at muffling class hatreds in periods of quasi-revolt, is a direct ancestor of the Tory peer Julian Fellowes – Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford – the writer-genius of Downton Abbey with his incredible talent for keeping plot lines unfouled (well, almost) and lack of talent for creating real human beings on the screen.  Reality is not what we want in a stylish soap, is it?

Parenthetically, Julian Fellowes battled successfully against a change in rules of royal succession so that his wife, a distant relation of Lord Kitchener, could become a Countess.  In his private life no One Nationer he.  But in public he sounds almost like Rodney King after he was beaten up by Los Angeles cops.  “Can we all get along.”

In response to critics who crabbed about Fellowes fawning over his own class in Downton Abbey, he pleaded that “it is possible for us all to get on, that we don’t have to be ranged in class warfare permanently.”  Right on, Julie.

Why is Downton Abbey so popular?  Of course it has nothing to do today’s rage of the 99% against the one percent which, as in Disraeli’s time, threatens to get out of hand.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.


Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce