Americans by the millions are still tuning in to watch Downton Abbey — now in its fifth season — eager to enjoy the continuation of the saga of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their household. According to press reports, 10.1 million Americans watched the first episode, apparently quite ready to be transported by drama into another place and time. This season, one looming issue is the arrival of a socialist government in London.
But, do Americans have any idea what they are really watching?
The millions of Americans who are now devoted Downton fans are drawn, no doubt, to the story and all of its twists and turns. They are captivated by the historical drama and the grandeur of Highclere, the real-life estate of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and the setting for Downton Abbey. They are intrigued by the hierarchies of the noble house and its inhabitants, with the nobility upstairs and the servants downstairs. They are amazed by the lavishness of the estate, the period dress, and the class structure of the society. They enjoy the quality of the acting and the quaintness of the habits portrayed. They must appreciate the attention to historical detail, right down to the soaps used and the dishes served. Many are likely to be unrepentant Anglophiles ( I include myself amongst them) who enjoy the look into the history and drama of our English cousins.
The stories, captivatingly written by Julian Fellowes (also rightly known as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford), are quite enough to hold the attention of a vast American audience. Critics rightly suggest that some viewers watch for the storylines, and others, rather less interested in the soap opera character that also marks the series, watch for an escape into history. Whatever the reason, they keep watching.
And yet, most viewers are likely unaware of what they are actually seeing. They are not merely watching an historical drama, they are witnessing the passing of a world. And that larger story, inadequately portrayed within Downton Abbey, is a story that should not be missed. That story is part of our own story as well. It is the story of the modern age arriving with revolutionary force, and with effects that continue to shape our own world.
Downton Abbey is set in the early decades of the twentieth century. Though by season four King George V is on the throne, the era is still classically Edwardian. And the era associated with King Edward VII is the era of the great turn in British society. The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a great transformation in England and within the British Empire. The stable hierarchies of Downton Abbey grew increasingly unstable. Britain, which had been overwhelmingly a rural nation until the last decade of the nineteenth century, became increasingly urban. A transformation in morals changed the very character of the nation, and underlying it all was a great surge of secularization that set the stage for the emergence of the radically secular nation that Britain has become.
Viewers should note the almost complete absence of Christianity from the storyline. The village vicar is an occasional presence, and church ceremonies have briefly been portrayed. But Christianity as a belief system and a living faith is absent—as is the institutional presence of the Church of England.
Political life is also largely absent, addressed mainly as it directly affects the Crawleys and their estate. This amounts to a second great omission. The epoch in which Downton Abbey is set was a time of tremendous political strife and upheaval in Britain. The Earl of Grantham would likely have been quite distressed by the rise of the Liberal Party’s David Lloyd George as Prime Minister. The right of women to vote was a recent development, and the political waters were roiled by high unemployment and a faltering British economy. The signs of the Empire’s disappearance were there for all to see, even if most among the elites did their best to deny the evidence. The great landed estates were draining their lordly title holders of precious capital, and the economic arrangements that allowed the nobility to live off of their estates would never return. That is why so many English lords looked for rich American women to marry. Some of these developments are addressed in the series, but not with the depth of concern that shook the British noble houses into crisis.
A great moral revolution was also in full sway. Birth control was increasingly available and openly discussed. In 1930, the Church of England would become the first major Christian church to endorse the use of contraceptives. Sexual morality was changing with a lessening of sanctions on premarital sex and adultery. Calls for liberalized divorce laws became more frequent. Many argued that the working class should have the same access to sexual liberty that the nobility seemed to allow themselves.
And yet, the secularization of the society was underneath it all. Christie Davies, author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, gets right to the point: “Behind the strange death of moral Britain lies the strange death of Christian Britain. Even in 1900 the leaders of Christian Britain feared that such a decline might take place.”
Historians and theologians debate just how Christian the Britain of Queen Victoria really was, but the fact is that within the Church of England liberal theology was very much in control, with the Broad Church party setting the course. The literature of the late Victorian age and the age of Edward reveals ample evidence of what the poet Matthew Arnold would express in “Dover Beach.” In Arnold’s memorable words:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore;
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
As historian Jose Harris of the University of Oxford explains, “A more common response, however, was not outright loss of faith but dilution, adjustment, or diversification of religious belief into something that was often much more nuanced and nebulous than had been common in the early Victorian age.” He also described the age as one marked by “the increasing vagueness and indeterminacy of religious belief.”
Rates of churchgoing fell—and they would fall further in decades ahead. The unspeakable tragedy of World War I seemed to add impetus to the loss of faith and theological certainties. A great spiritual void appeared in Britain long before the signs of such secularization would appear on American shores. But we can now see that the early decades of the twentieth century, including the so-called “locust years” in Britain between the two world wars, were a crucial turning time within that society. Those years set the trajectory that produced the Britain of today.
There are countless lessons for American Christians to observe as we watch Downton Abbey. But we ought not to miss the larger story of which tales like Downton are only a part. The world that was passing away was not only a world of footmen, but also of faith. Britain would never be the same again, and that loss of faith and certitude would eventually become a tide that would sweep across every aspect of British culture.
Of course, Downton Abbey did not stay in Britain, and that is true of the larger story as well. That larger story records a great shift in worldview, not merely a social transformation. The consequences of that larger story far exceed the story of a great English house and its inhabitants. In that sense, Downton Abbey is a parable of sorts—a parable that can teach us a great deal.
This is an updated version of an essay first posted on Friday, January 10, 2014.