My wife and I have recently got into Downton Abbey. Whilst the rest of you were watching it over the last couple of years it somehow passed us by, and so we are now watching the DVD box set, kindly loaned to us by a friend.
I love the history, but especially the characters and the interplay within the social classes (the upstairs ‘Toffs’, and the Downstairs ‘Oiks’).
There’s a whole society there in the house, an entire ecosystem built on hierarchy from the scullery maid right up to the Lord and Lady. And within each strata there are rules and strict protocols, taboos and principles that run high and deep. The roles are defined, limits are set and boundaries are drawn, and everyone knows their place.
The cook and her underlings are not allowed upstairs and don’t even get to eat with the downstairs elite – the valets, footmen, maids and butler. The housekeeper is boss of the women – maids, cooks, cleaners. The valet looks down on the footmen, junior valet aspires to become senior valet, senior valet aspires to be butler, and in fact everyone looks up to the butler, the CEO of Downstairs.
Upstairs life is more comfortable. A place where Downstairs people do everything for you, they fetch and carry, they hang on your every word, why they even dress you. And yet upstairs there is much more sadness, loneliness and isolation. Many of the Upstairs folk have very little to do, it’s all done for them. In fact the daughters seem to have one task which is to marry a rich man to carry on the heritage, extend the bloodline and pass the wealth onto the next generation and safeguard the family name. The happiest, kindest spirit Upstairs was the youngest daughter Sybil, and it’s no coincidence that she was the one to break from convention, someone who married for love, who worked out of passion and lived her life out of desire.
Upstairs people all drink like bloody fishes too. Wine with every meal, whisky after every meal, and when I say meal I really mean feast. Feast upon feast. Cooked breakfasts and banquet supper seem to be a daily occurrence, washed down with several bottles of fine wine, book ended either side by copious whiskies and brandies.
Nevertheless it’s life Downstairs that leaves me feeling nostalgic. I don’t care too much for the elitism above, I don’t want to be lord of any manor, if for no other reason than I could never, ever, have another man dress me. We always see the cufflinks being fastened, but we all know, moments earlier, the Valet was politely asking the Lord to ‘raise ones right leg’ so the underpants could be dressed.
“Sir seems to be hanging a little too far to the right today, Downstairs, if you see what I mean?”
“Downstairs? What, in the kitchen?”
“No m’Lord, *cough*, I mean in the old trouser department, please, allow me …”
What a truly horrendous prospect. But it’s not just the thought of having a man valet that puts me off, it just seems a lot more fun Downstairs, for that’s where the real community exists.
Downstairs you do an honest days work, you get paid, you eat to refuel, you go to bed to rest, you get yourself undressed because you still have your pride and integrity intact. OK there’s some bitchiness down there, and politics, and back stabbing and the like, but everyone has a role to play, everyone Downstairs is an important cog in the machine, whereas Upstairs that isn’t the case. Lord Grantham became depressed during The Great War as he had no role to play – he was too posh to serve and roamed his estate like a lost soul, at one point crossing the rubicon by snogging one of the maids.
The modern equivalent of Upstairs is celebrity stardom. In 2013 most 14yr old kids are dreaming of winning X-Factor. There’s very little hierarchy left in modern society, anyone can be anyone and we all aspire to be celebrities. We watch people move Upstairs before our very eyes, be it X-factor, Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent, … and then we watch as they lose all grip on reality, watching them crash and burn. Car crash TV. Modern living.
If I had a choice I would wish to be Downstairs. I couldn’t be a Footman as I would spill the wine, and I couldn’t be a Valet as I couldn’t ever, never, not ever, dress/undress another man. I would like to be a Ladies Maid but I would never get past the CV stage, so I would instead aspire to be the Butler although that would take years, and so in the meantime I would want to be the Chauffeur with his clearly defined job description and a shiny classic car. And a hat. And gloves.
We don’t necessarily need a staircase. All anyone ever needs in life is purpose.