Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: The Niceness Syndrome -The Toast

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Previous installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].

Downton Abbey has become a show about fundamentally nice people. The villains were never all that villainous, it’s true; but O’Brien is a distant memory (fired in India?) and even Thomas, cleansed, apparently, by Baxter’s generosity, is now fighting on the side of the angels. The Dowager Countess didn’t begrudge Isobel a change in rank; she was just going to miss her friend. Even Lady Mary’s acid jibes about her sister Edith seems stagey rather than deeply felt.

On an interpersonal level, there’s something fairly charming about the idea of a show depicting good people trying to do the right thing by each other. The problem is the context. Downton strips its characters of historical attitudes and dilemmas that might make them seem less than acceptable in early twenty-first century terms. In so doing, it prevents them, equally, from being relevant to the actual challenges of being a good person in our own time—a problem, I should say, that has certainly not grown easier since 1924.

Take the discussion, last week, about Amritsar. In April 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a peaceful, but banned, demonstration in the city of Amritsar, located in Punjab in then-British India. The demonstrators had gathered in a square with only a few exits; Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire at those exits, ceasing only when ammunition was exhausted. The British inquiry recorded 379 killed and 1,200 wounded; the Indian National Congress estimated that 1,000 were killed. The incident was heavily publicized and widely discussed, and the word became shorthand in discussions of governing the empire.

The conversation at Rose’s wedding accurately captures two of the major British reactions to the massacre. On the one hand were those, like Lord Sinderby and a majority of the House of Lords, who agreed with Dyer when he said he was doing “my duty—my horrible, dirty duty.” A defense fund was set up for Dyer, who was ultimately censured and forced to retire by the House of Commons. Our favorite Earl, of course, sided with Rose’s father, Shrimpie. They took the other stance acceptable in the British establishment: that Dyer’s actions were a shocking aberration. Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for War, called Amritsar “an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” Both Shrimpie and Robert are somewhat unusual for taking this view, which was not the default either among the British in India or among the aristocracy at home.

Bullet-marked wall at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar Bullet-marked wall at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar

But my problem with the exchange is not about historical accuracy; it’s about historical myopia. There was a third opinion on Amritsar: that is was not exceptional, but representative of the systematic violence underpinning the British Empire. Mahatma Gandhi, then emerging as a leader for Indian self-rule, wrote: “We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.” Likewise Labour MP Ben Spoor: “Amritsar was not an isolated event any more than General Dyer was an isolated officer.”

If it all sounds a lot like the current debate about police violence in the United States (defense funds and all), well, I’d argue that’s exactly the reason to study history. We’ve been here before. Lord Grantham is, realistically enough, humane enough to condemn Amritsar, but too blinkered to recognize that it’s a manifestation of a brutal system in which he’s complicit. But instead of portraying that position, the script edits out the larger context, and the conversation is just another slam-dunk for a Downton hero demonstrating his modern, progressive outlook at the expense of a very marginal ‘villain’ indeed.

The Christmas special this week was an episode of reconciliation. Lord Sinderby is finally won over to Rose when she demonstrates her loyalty to covering up an old dalliance of his; Lady Edith’s single motherhood is accepted by Tom and by Robert; the prickly Russians are reunited; Denker and Spratt are ordered to bury the hatchet; even Mary holds Edith’s hand in the moment of remembrance for their dead sister Sybil. Anna and Mr. Bates are both out of prison, and the closing shot of their embrace as the household sings “Oh come let us adore him…” gives credence to the notion that, from Julian Fellowes’s perspective, Bates is the dark hero of the whole series. (A brief digression on that subplot: Anna’s prosecution has suggested both a level of surveillance and an investment in solving the mystery of death officially ruled accidental that I find unbelievable. Someone turned up a ‘record’ of the watch being called and then turned away for a domestic dispute in a working-class house twenty years ago? Really? On the other hand, the Irish and British police were co-operating fairly well in 1924. The year before, the British state deported a large number of Irish republican dissidents living in England essentially at the new Irish Free State’s request, so Bates’s Irish hide-out is not as safe as everyone seems to presume.)

The most revealing reconciliation was that between Lord Grantham and Tom Branson, who is planning to move to Boston. Sobering up briefly, Lord Grantham makes a speech at the Christmas party expressing his gratitude to Tom for helping Downton “navigate the choppy seas of the modern world.” Privately, Branson admits to his father-in-law: “And yes, I will think of Downton as my home. And that would have amazed Sybil, I’ve no doubt about it.” Lord Grantham, uncharacteristically sentimental, cites the Latin tag “in vino veritas,” but “amor vincit omnia” would be another apposite slogan for the moment. Love and perseverance have won out over class prejudice and politics.

Of course they have: how could they not, in a family as nice as the Crawleys have become? Lady Mary even schemed with Barrow to get Branson served politely by the rude butler Stowell, for heaven’s sake. Prejudice and nastiness have been decidedly outsourced at Downton: only new in-laws and their dodgy servants can be really terrible, before they, too, are tamed. And ultimately, that’s why the season’s reconciliations are touching rather than satisfying. Downton externalizes the crimes of the past rather than asking us to realize that even ‘good’ characters can be complicit in bad systems from which they benefit. This is historically inaccurate, as the Amritsar case suggests. But it’s also inaccurate on a human level. Most of us watching Downton are more “Crawleys” than not in a global sense, consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s goods and pleasures; we are all, too, hampered in various ways by limited perspectives and prejudices, simply because we’re human. Being good to those close to us, being kind to those near us, are crucial imperatives, but they do not erase the effects of our positions within systems of power and oppression. Downton gets close to showing us that, but consistently retreats in favor of niceness and keeping its characters unrealistically ‘clean’ even in the dirtier patches of the past.

This season ends in December 1924; my dearest hope for the future (apart from a college degree and a girlfriend for Daisy) is that we get to see Downton riven by the general strike of 1926, which would ask characters to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to unity and amity across class differences. Until then, my thanks to all who have commented: like Carson, I raise a class of Margaux to you!


Derek Sayer, “British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919-1920,” Past & Present 131 (May 1991)

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