Many critics have chalked up the craze for Downton Abbey to nostalgia for a time of simplicity and aristocratic elegance. But Downton Abbey resonates because of present dilemmas, even if they are set in the past. It relentlessly focuses on a central, if not the central, problem of our time and of modernity in general—how to adapt social norms in ages of ever faster technological change.
Technological transformation is the major theme of Downton Abbey. The landed aristocracy is giving way to a new urban middle class whose wealth comes from industrialization. Because of downsizing, even the marriages of aristocrats must be lived at closer quarters and become more companionate, giving rise to a felt need for closer forms of courtship to assess compatibility. Last week’s episode introduced the radio, which permits the King to speak to his subjects, but begins the process that Walter Bagehot feared would let light on the “magic of the monarchy” and so dissolve the majestic mystery that preserves the loyalty of the realm.
Major characters in the series embody very different attitudes toward tradition and change. Earl Grantham, the family patriarch, wants to keep up the “old ways” as he calls the enduring norms of a rural life where aristocrats were in charge. His allegiance to tradition is mostly emotional but he does intuitively grasp that tradition is to be valued because it can capture in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the unanalyzed experience of the human race. “ His butler, Carson, is even more dead set against change, symbolizing the staid British yeoman. By contrast some characters have substantial reservations about the old ways. Mrs. Crawley, the mother of the distant cousin and middle class solicitor who was Lord Grantham’s heir, is the spokesman for claims that various traditions offend abstract principles of justice and should be discarded.
But it is Lady Mary Crawley, Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, who is the heroine of the series, because she best balances tradition and change. She marries Matthew, her distant cousin, symbolizing the growing union between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy that is necessary for continued social stability. Unlike her father, she is open to making the estate more efficient, the better to preserve it. After Matthew dies, she goes on a week’s holiday with her next serious suitor, contrary to convention, to give them a better sense of marriage would work out. She makes use of another relatively modern invention to avoid the consequences that a younger sister suffered from a more passionate and less deliberated affair.
A message of the series is that Lady Crowley represents the best of the British upper class’s capacity for integrating the new ways with the old. With cut glass diction, Mary is cold and clear eyed, lacking much idealism or warmth. But that is also the character of British empiricism as opposed to the continent’s enthusiasm for more abstract ideas that could not easily be merged with the settled practices. It was just such unsentimental calculation for the right blend of tradition and change that permitted Britain to avoid violent revolution for close to five hundred years.