Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Guest Essay: Class Lite

By Robert Erwin
Guest Essayist

Few of the viewers enthralled by the teledrama Downton Abbey will come right out in favor of exploitation and domination. Their reluctance could cause uneasiness, because much of the story to which they are riveted has to do with the relationships between masters and servants in class-bound Edwardian England.

Not to worry. Clever scriptwriters sprinkle signs throughout Downton Abbey that the upper-class characters care about their servants and have at least a rudimentary sense of fairness. And the scriptwriters humanize the lower-class characters with plenty of intrigue, romance, and ambition. Furthermore, they omit or skirt around a good deal of drudgery. No one is emptying chamber pots, blacking boots, getting up at dawn to light fires.

Yet if the aim had been to document rather than entertain, daily life and routine attitudes in the great house would look rather different. Even ordinary objects such as books and apparently innocent activities such as reading would be saturated with class discrimination.

In the real world from which Downton Abbey was extracted, servants were expected to dust books but not read them. Because of the menial tasks in which they were engaged, their hands might be soiled and in any case were thought very likely to be coarse.

A hundred years or so before the period in which Downton Abbey is set, there had been more or less practical reasons for the dust-but-don’t-touch rule. Relatively rare and expensive, bound in leather and printed on heavily taxed rag paper, a book was classified as an owner’s asset or investment. Because schooling for common people was skimpy, most servants in the earlier period had no use for books except damaged or discarded ones from which paper might be taken to line pie pans or wipe spills.

With the spread of schooling and the coming of wood-¬pulp paper and mechanical presses, there was still the matter of privilege—important enough to keep the rule in force. From the master’s viewpoint a servant leafing through a book was shirking his or her rightful labor. Meddling with a gentleman’s books was regarded as offensive as eavesdropping on his conversations. If servants read books of their own in their little rooms at night, the master and mistress assumed they were probably reading trashy adventure stories and romances. If any such literature percolated upward to younger members of an aristocratic family, those youngsters would be told that reading of that sort was as bad as associating with low, vulgar companions.

If you want to pass time scoping out the clothes of yesteryear and seeing pretty good actors simulate flirtation, anguish, etc., fine. Go on watching Downton Abbey as you have been. If, however, you want to get a fuller sense of the time and place to which Downton Abbey refers, you might start by thinking about objects and protocol you hardly noticed before.

Books certainly. (If any are shown—the British landed gentry were not known for intellectual zeal.)

That rug at the bottom of the screen. Was it looted from some corner of the Empire? Somebody on staff has to brush it every day before dinner.

Those bedsheets that flash by in sickbed scenes. Were they made with cotton grown by American sharecroppers? Somebody washes them by hand in a tub.

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