Pity the poor Granthams. Yes, I know, it’s easy to make sarcastic fun of their problems: the common Irish son-in-law who fancies a mere school teacher with a mind of her own; the brooding, and unmarriageable, daughter who can’t seem to find her place in the world—or in the family; the insubordinate servant who has it off with a house guest above his station. All that and more, plus a new Labour Party government (led by an illegitimately born Scotsman, no less!)…well, it’s enough to make one gulp one’s sherry instead of sip it like civil people do.
Americans wouldn’t tolerate such a class-based society. After all, our ancestors fled the Mother Ship in search of better lives. Here, we had no use for the upper crust who could barely butter their own toast. Here, we dressed ourselves, cooked for ourselves, and were allowed to start our businesses. Yet my how we Americans love our British period serials depicting the stark class differences of yore, the terribly down and out and the terribly Downton Abbey. Dickens tales satisfy our morbid shadow sides, while making us thankful we never lived in such conditions. And when the ragamuffin inherits fortune, we fantasize about experiencing a similar fate…minus all the poorhouse drama leading up to it. At the top of the stairs, the Bellamys, Darcys, and Granthams rule the country between hosting hunting parties, influencing politicians, and making an occasional charitable visit to the tenants to see how they’re getting on.
Why do the TV lives of the poor and wealthy captivate Americans so much? British period dramas about the middle classes are as rare as the dowager in a bathing costume at the beach. Granted, there’s not much excitement to be had in the lives of people with no servants to boss around or a simple shop to run, where the tragedy of the day is running out of tinned beans. But don’t their lives matter? After all, without the middle class, whom would the Granthams have to perpetually look over their shoulder at in fear of their challenging the status quo? It keeps a man on his toes, what! Besides, it’s a bit unsporting to pick solely on the non-threatening bottom-step masses, not to mention risky since the servants could easily hawk a loogie in your caviar or steal your jewels.
No, Americans wouldn’t tolerate a class-based society, but who hasn’t done her genealogy secretly hoping to find a lord in the walled garden? I keep waiting for a registered letter telling me I’m the rightful heiress to a pile like Highclere Castle. I once experienced a version of that fantasy when for two years I lived on a 200-acre British estate in a 22-room, 18th-century manor house. We residents—all middle class folk—served both upstairs and downstairs, and we had our share of theatre on both ends of the staircase. Misguided antics and illicit congress, though not de rigeur, were not uncommon, albeit the latter never while the house was burning down. However, a similar thing did happen to me that happened in last night’s episode. Except that when someone ran through the building my future husband and I were about to have sex in and was shouting FIRE!, he and I still had most of our clothes on. We were also social equals, saving us the bother of having to flee before breakfast the next morning or getting sacked. The “fire” turned out to be nothing more than a lot of smoke coming from the chimney. (Our heat came from a 100-year-old wood-burning boiler, a relic from the days when many a poor servant had to stoke it 24/7.)
Maybe our captivation by these programs is really a longing for simpler times, when families ate non-GMO food—together—around the dinner table—and technological progress meant one person in the village had a telephone. Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that too many of us live ordinary lives in ordinary places with ordinary problems. We don’t need television to remind us how boring we are. Let’s face it, not being tragically poor or haltingly rich, the middle class doesn’t blow our kilts up. And, admit it, we like knowing the dirty little secrets of the wealthy and rooting for the underdog not-so-much. It’s middle class power!
I wonder whether in 100 years our descendants will watch American period dramas depicting the extinct middle class doing battle with providers of wireless communications (Dickens’s Fagin), fighting for fair wages from The Man (Scrooge), and struggling with work-life balance, blended families, and paying basic bills (Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit). Or will we, the middle children of an exceedingly large family, simply die out, our only shred of relevance the renting of our McMansions—now crumbling from poor workmanship—to a TV production of the good old days of the 21st century?