When my wife told me that she wanted to start watching Downton Abbey, I was a little reluctant. Although I enjoy reading the Brontes and Dickens, I’m not usually enthralled by TV period dramas. That said, after sticking with it for a season, I started to enjoy it for several reasons…
Before I get onto them, I want to talk about StrengthsFinder. When I got my results from Gallup’s personality profiling tool, I learned that Futuristic is one of my strongest themes. This means that I’m always looking ahead, and can picture fairly vividly what it might look to take certain turns in life. I gravitate towards ideas about the future, so am more naturally engaged by Sci-fi than by period dramas.
But there’s something interesting about Downton: it’s all about change.
After a few episodes I began noticing the overarching narrative: a traditional aristocratic family in the first part of the 20th Century coming to terms with a rapid succession of changes.
Transitioning from Honour to Guilt
Right now I live in the Middle East. The dominant culture here leans towards collectivism and honour much more than the individualism and guilt of my birth culture. People recognise themselves first and foremost as members of a particular group – usually a family or tribe. Even in Europe, Middle Easterners can learn a lot about each others’ history by exchanging last names.
Honour is a big part of collectivism. What one person does affects the standing of the group as a whole, so it’s important to make decisions that honour your family.
The family in Downton Abbey are on the knife edge between collectivism and individualism, and this is incredibly interesting. An example of this from season 5 is when Lady Mary decides to stay at a hotel in Liverpool with her potential fiancé in order to decide if she wants to marry him or not.
In the collectivist mind, this is outrageous. Think of the damage she could do to her family! But Mary is making a decision that she believes is in her interest as an individual.
Of course, because she is still living in an honour culture, her grandmother goes to great strains to cover up Mary’s behaviour, in order that the family, and her future prospects, are not harmed.
Embracing The Other
One of the intriguing things about the Crawley family is that they are continuously faced with opportunities to accept or reject people who are outside of their social sphere, and who others would consider outcasts.
One of the first of these is Tom Branson, the socialist chauffer who wins the heart of Lady Sybil. The family are faced with a choice: lose Sybil, or accept Tom. To begin with they reject Tom and push away their daughter, but over time, and with the untimely death of Lady Sybil, they begin to accept Tom as one of them.
As time goes by, the Crawley family become adept at absorbing people from outside into their family, whether it be ex-convicts working as servants, nouveau riche businessmen, or Lady Rose marrying into a Russian Jewish family.
The Best Educated Are Not Always The Best At Embracing Change
It’s easy to think that society’s elite are the best suited for embracing change. They’ve been to the best schools, had access to the most information, and been exposed to the highest standard of art and culture. However the Downton story shows that these things don’t automatically result in people with open minds.
In reality, Lord Grantham has been raised to maintain a system. His goal is to maintain the honour and reputation of his family, and that means stewarding Downton well. He and his butler, Mr Carson, are kindred spirits. They see the world that was as the way it should be. If possible, they must uphold the old ways and traditions.
But the world is changing and the foundations of the old system are beginning to crumble. The finances of the aristocracy are no longer entrenched. The working and middle classes are asking for more opportunities and exerting themselves politically.
For each character in the series who is intent on maintaining the norm, there is another who embraces change. The Dowager Countess has Mrs Isobel Crawley, Lord Grantham has Tom Branson, Mr Carson has Mrs Hughes. Each of these relationships is a mix of polar opposite attitudes to change, and extreme fondness for one another.
Why is this important to the future?
Each of these themes is important to our world at the moment: Exploring honour culture should help us better understand the challenges refugees face when coming to terms with European society.
As our cities and towns become increasingly multicultural, it’s good to ask ourselves if we will open the door to embrace and include the outsider, even if it means that we may be changed in the process. Check out this small town in Finland that did just that.
And when we see the entrenched elite squirming at the rise of new leaders from more ordinary backgrounds, we can remember that they’re not always the best suited for facing change. We mustn’t fear change just because they do.