Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Panning for gold in the past: Downton Abbey and the uses of nostalgia


Have you ever actually seen an old maid hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning? I have. If you grow up in semi-rural Kent, and your father is a parson, you do occasionally see such things, not least if – like me – you rather enjoyed hiking to Holy Communion through the early morning mist yourself. 

It was Orwell who invoked that image as an icon of the eternal England. Nowadays it is usually mentioned jokingly or derisively; when John Major cited it in the 1990s he was roundly mocked. As is well known, Good Things in Britain began in 1948 with the foundation of the NHS, before which all was darkness and misery, so to mention Orwell’s vision In The Current Year without a eyeroll and a knowing wink is to invite the charge of “harking back to a non-existent golden age". 

Ah yes, the golden age. Accusations of ignorant, heedless nostalgia are part of the stock in trade for critics of social and cultural conservatism.  A recent example came from Tanya Gold, writing at the increasingly unmissable UnHerd. In her sights is Downton Abbey, the posh soap opera that has now made the transition to the big screen. Ms Gold regards Downton as reactionary propaganda, portraying a fantasy world of well-meaning aristocrats served by cheerfully subservient domestics displaying what Bertie Wooster used to call the “feudal spirit". Apparently, people like it because it is a throwback to a time when people knew their place, and uppity women and minorities were kept firmly in theirs. Not only has Downton encouraged people to like the Queen and to view the aristocracy with affection, but it has contributed to the “miasma of snobbery, nostalgia and brutality” that led to the Brexit vote. 


I am not going to defend Downton as gritty cinema verité. Julian Fellowes is not Ken Loach. Personally I rather enjoyed it, as a bit of undemanding Sunday night nonsense, and it’s worth noting that its storylines did touch on the darker side of life in the early twentieth century – the dangers that attended childbirth, the unfair limitations on women, the difficulties of reporting sexual assault, the secrecy and unhappiness forced on gay men. However, it was fundamentally preposterous and in later years almost comically melodramatic. I’m not sure the programme can really avoid the charge of being, if not exactly reactionary propaganda, then at least pretty sympathetic to the social structures it portrays. A case in point is the way in which the writers tamed Tom Branson, the erstwhile chauffeur and later son-in-law of the Crawley family. In the space of a few years Tom is transformed from Fenian socialist firebrand, complicit in the burning of Anglo-Irish stately homes, to tweedy land agent for a large aristocratic estate.


I am interested, however, in the charge that nostalgia – i.e. reflecting warmly on times past – is purely a negative or useless preoccupation. It is true that conservatives do frequently have an unrealistic and naïve view of the superiority of the olden days. We do sometimes slip into a kind of all-encompassing grumbling dissatisfaction, a semi-ironic performative Meldrewism, which doesn’t take seriously the benefits of the modern world and which erases from view the technological and moral deficiencies of the past. But it does not follow that looking back in time for inspiration and guidance is always and everywhere suspect. It’s unjust and boring to deploy the charge of golden age-ism against all conservatives who praise some aspect of the past. Is it, for example, mere golden age-ism for someone to look back wistfully at a time, not very long ago at all, when a reasonably thrifty family with a single earner on a modest wage could buy a decent family home? 

Or take crime. In the second half of the twentieth century, rates of recorded crime in England and Wales increased roughly eightfold, from not much more than 1000 crimes per 100,000 people in 1950 to over 8000 crimes per 100,000 people at the turn of the century (in the early 1990s the rate touched 12000 per 100,000 people). Crime has fallen somewhat in the last two decades - though the decline is levelling out and violent crime appears to be rising - but it remains much higher than it was sixty years ago. Homicide in England and Wales has doubled since the early 1960s, while in the same period the population of England and Wales has increased by only one third – and it is worth noting that the vast improvements in trauma medicine in the last half century mask, to some extent, the increase in would-be murderous assaults.

Now of course there is a nuanced story behind these figures. Analysis of crime statistics over time is complicated, not least due to changes in recording practises (although this is a two-way street; it’s far from clear that modern recording is impeccably reliable). It has also been suggested that the true rate of crime in the past was higher than official figures suggest, for example because low-level violence like pub fights, now recorded as affray or common assault, often went unrecorded, or because the police did not take domestic violence as seriously as they should have done. It’s true as well that car crime, which accounts for a significant proportion of overall crime in modern times, was much lower in the immediate post-war years, because there just weren’t many cars around. It might be plausibly argued that the reason why acquisitive crime was so low in those years is that there just wasn’t a huge amount of stuff that was both portable and worth stealing, compared to more recent times.

But even with all those caveats it is clearly the case that Britain in 1950 was generally much more orderly and safe than Britain in 2019. You may think that we paid too heavy a price for that safety and order in repressive social policies, or that crime rates are only one aspect of the pleasantness of a society, but you cannot escape the facts. It strikes me as eminently reasonable, therefore, to look back at the 1950s and to conclude that, purely as far as crime and public order were concerned, things were in fact better then. 


For the thoughtful person, a logical next step from that conclusion might be to wonder why that was so, and whether there are any lessons that we in 2019 might be able to learn. Yet moderns seem reluctant to ask such questions. It is this lack of curiosity about the achievements of our forebears that I find so strange when talking to people whom I shall, for want of a better term, call liberals.  

Conservatives are often accused of being incurious. This isn’t quite right; it might be better to say that we ask different questions than liberals. I am often surprised by the things about which liberals don’t appear to be very curious – e.g. how did the Victorians actually achieve significant and lasting reductions in crime and disorder in a time of widespread serious poverty? Why didn’t crime increase significantly in Britain during the depression of the 1930s, when unemployment was in excess of 10% for the entire decade up to the Second World War, at one point reaching 22%? (By way of comparison, during the recent financial crisis unemployment peaked at about 8%). Why has the taboo against the public use of the F-word eroded so badly (noticeably so just in my adult life, i.e. in the last twenty years)? Why must all police officers now wear stab vests on duty? Why has discipline in schools deteriorated so badly?    

Or to give a concrete example from my own experience: when I lived over the road from a municipal cemetery, I became mildly preoccupied with the fact that there were metal grilles over the stained glass windows of the beautiful Victorian Gothic chapels of rest. Had they always been there? I considered that unlikely. If not, when had they been installed? And why? What had changed in society which meant that stained glass windows in cemetery chapels needed to be protected in such a way?  

One might raise similar questions about all sorts of social and cultural phenomena. Liberals, in my experience, can be uncomfortable with these lines of inquiry. Not only because they are viewed as “right-wing” concerns, and so not part of polite discussion on the left – thanks, ideological clustering! – but also because they are not really amenable to empirical analysis. They cannot be neatly analysed and quantified in the artificial categories of the social sciences. Opponents of conservatism roll their eyes when we insist on the old cliché that “not everything that counts can be counted” but it is absolutely true. Just because they lack the conceptual vocabulary and mental furniture to consider questions of manners and morals does not mean that those questions are unimportant.   

I’m not saying everyone has to agree with socially conservative analysis; rather that you must accept that there are serious and searching questions to be asked about what exactly we can learn from the past. It is not invariably unreasonable to think that people who lived long ago knew things that we have forgotten, even though they didn’t have Uber and the Pill, just as we have improved in some respects on the society they inhabited. It’s all very well to pat ourselves on the back for getting things right that they got wrong, but equally important to ask ourselves what they got right that we are getting wrong. 


So, back to Downton Abbey. It attracted about ten million viewers for most of its UK run. I cannot tell you why each of those ten million people watched it without asking them individually, but I think there is perhaps a more charitable answer than that offered by Tanya Gold. 

In the show, we see a world which is orderly and predictable. The people who live at the Abbey and in the village are part of a stable community, rooted in custom and place and history. There is a rhythm to the year, based not only on the church and on the commemorations of national history, but on the inescapable realities of an agricultural community – planting, harvest, haymaking and so on. Employment at the Big House offers status and a position, even for those very low in the social hierarchy. They have the opportunity to feel part of a great enduring institution – the Downton estate. There is a very interesting vignette early on in the series involving Matthew Crawley and the valet Molesley. Crawley has given up his middle-class life as a Manchester solicitor to live at Downton as the Earl’s heir following the death of the intervening heirs on the Titanic, and is uncomfortable with the idea of having a valet. He wants to do without Molesley, until someone gently explains to him that if he does so it is a tremendous blow to Molesley’s sense of dignity and purpose, and may result in Molesley becoming unemployed. He has been introduced to the idea of noblesse oblige, that those who have the great fortune to be part of an elite have moral obligations to those who have not been so lucky. There are similar examples throughout the series of the family safeguarding the interests of their employees. No doubt such aristocratic benevolence was far from universal, but there is little reason to think that it was especially unusual. 

In this connection it is interesting to consider what happened when the post-WW2 Labour government, in the shape of Minister of Fuel & Power Manny Shinwell, took the decision to destroy a large part of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate for coal-mining. The President of the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers personally wrote to Clement Attlee in an attempt to stop the vandalising of the estate, as the owners, the Fitzwilliam family, were well-known for their decent treatment of workers. I would note also that a common theme in the memoirs of those from elevated social backgrounds who served in the First World War, like Harold Macmillan, is how the comradeship of the trenches increased their understanding of the middle- and working-classes, and helped to (comparatively) increase solidarity between classes in the inter-war period.  


It is not surprising, then, that the world of Downton Abbey is an attractive world – and the reasons for this are not necessarily sinister. Of course audiences are attracted by a vision of people who find meaning and purpose in institutions larger than themselves, who are part of a settled community with shared traditions and expectations, who are in touch with the patterns and cycles of the natural world, and who can look to local elites for solidarity and aid. All of those are things which are under threat in modernity. 

The obvious response to this part of my argument is that it’s all very well to praise stability and order and continuity, but what about people who feel frustrated and smothered by those things? The oddballs, the artists, the sexually unorthodox, the freethinkers; shouldn’t they have a chance to kick against stasis and convention? And doesn’t modernity provide a wonderful chaos for people to make their own way in the world free of oppressive social expectations? Doesn’t the liberalised, internationalised economy free us from dependence on the whims of Nature, and from the gilded cage of the tied house and the lifelong affiliation to the same estate?  

Well, yes it does. It would be foolish to deny that. No serious person would claim that there are no benefits to modernity and that there were no horrors in the past. But life is about balance. Man does not live by freedom alone. A friend of mine refers to modernity’s “incomprehensible prison of choice”, a phrase which catches very well a dilemma of the human condition – we want order and freedom, love and passion, commitment and options, stability and change. Part of dealing with this fundamental tension is learning to look back honestly at the past, to discern what was good, and perhaps even to retrieve it. It is bad, as I have said, for conservatives to indulge in sweeping self-indulgent romanticisation of the past, but the opposite error – a sweeping and self-righteous scorn and hostility to the very idea of learning from the past, what Roger Scruton calls the culture of repudiation – is just as serious.


  1. I've long wondered why there seems to be no middle ground between suffocating repression/oppression for 'The oddballs, the artists, the sexually unorthodox, the freethinkers,' and dismantling any moral or social hierarchy which doesn't give those categories equal moral standing and validation.

    Why can't we allow for the humanity and dignity of people who (by choice or otherwise) lay outside of the mainstream while still acknowledging the fact of the mainstream as majority and dominant mode in society? Why must the options be so totalizing?

    -Nathan (i.e., @sideoutpar)

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