The Humanism of Downton Abbey

Are you a fan of Downton Abbey? AHA’s Brian Magee identifies the humanistic elements of the popular British television show.

The growing popularity of the British television program Downton Abbey (shown in the U.S. on PBS) has resulted in an increasing level of analysis of the program’s characters and plot lines, including many humanists who can’t help but notice the absence of religious themes. For those who enjoy human relationships without the interference of a religious framework, the program offers many intriguing lessons about humanism and humanist values. But, while Downton Abbey has moments where humanist ideals are exercised—as is the case with any good drama—they are certainly not always in play as the program follows the Crawley family into the 20th century, led by Robert Crawley, the 5th Earl of Grantham.

The most obvious of the program’s non-humanist traits are the strict class distinctions as exercised 100 years ago. Several ongoing stories within the program are based on the fight upper-class members to keep the lower classes in their place as the new century and the First World War bring pressure to change. The eventual marriage of a Crawley family chauffeur to the youngest of the earl’s daughters, Sybil Branson, is a major story line that would not be possible if class lines weren’t so strict. It therefore provides many opportunities for the show’s characters to explore breaking down class barriers. For example, even when eventually invited into the family structure as a supposed equal, the character of the chauffeur, Tom Branson, lives unhappily in a perpetual middle ground between the aristocracy and the relationships from his lower class past. While some are making an attempt to help him adjust, the strict class structure that continues to exist fights against these efforts.

Strict gender roles are also a pervasive in the culture of the time that gets addressed in several ways. There is a brief storyline about a maid, Gwen Dawson, who is eventually able to leave the abbey after getting a job as a secretary, one of the few jobs available to women of the time. But she feels the need to hide her ambition while learning to type and has to make clandestine plans to show up for interviews, albeit with some “inside” help from some members of the Crawley family and their staff. This plot point allows viewers to get a small taste of the difficulties facing women of the time with even modest ambitions.

In another glaring example of strict sex roles, it is made clear in several episodes that only male heirs are able to properly inherit the Downton Abbey estate, with the dowry of the earl’s wife, Cora Crawley, also no longer legally hers after her marriage because it, too, legally belongs to the estate, which can only be inherited by a male. It would be tough to find a humanist who would approve of this today.

Edith Crawley, another of the earl’s three daughters, is playing the role of the woman who seems stereotypically destined by become the dreaded “old maid.” She is left at the altar by an older man she desperately wants to marry, and her current prospect is someone who is not a member of the aristocracy and is married to a woman who is in a mental hospital with current law prohibiting a divorce. This part of the story is one that, again, shows the narrow space women were allowed to occupy without scandal.

When the character of Ethel Parks, another maid, has an affair with a British army officer stationed at Downton Abbey while it was being used as a hospital during World War I, she is immediately fired. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she is shunned by pretty much everyone, becoming a sex worker at one point before eventually giving the child to his paternal grandparents to raise. She does end up getting some periodic help from Elsie Hughes, the abbey’s head housekeeper, but the help has to be done in secret.

One of the characters that seems to have an attitude and story lines most easily tied to humanism is Isobel Crawley, the widowed mother of Matthew Crawley, the distant relative who ends up being the heir of the estate following the deaths of other family members on the Titanic. She is much more politically liberal than the rest of the Crawley family and often finds herself at odds with the family matriarch, Violet Crawley, the earl’s mother, who is desperately trying to maintain an outdated way of life for the aristocracy and provides most of the program’s few comedic moments. Isobel Crawley works as a nurse during the war and ends up going to France to work for the Red Cross with some in the family glad to see her go. When she returns, she ends up working to help sex workers (and other women who are also in need of help) rather than living the leisure life of comfort available for her taking. When her son dies, she is distraught and, in a nice humanist turn, her antagonist Violet Crawley becomes a comforting voice to help her see how she is needed and should continue her important work helping others.

The way the single known gay character is treated is certainly not worthy of much humanist praise. The character of Thomas Barrow has risen to the position of under butler, but not after a scenario where he is “outed” and is threatened with losing his job without a reference after ten years working at the abbey. The comments of the other characters about his sexual orientation are mostly hostile or cold and indifferent, with only a rare supportive action or word, and never done publicly. It’s also interesting to note that this single gay character is the one given perhaps the worst attitude of any of the show’s characters and is generally disliked for his antagonizing ways.

Mary Crawley, the oldest of the three daughters, eventually marries Matthew Crawley and has a son, who becomes the infant heir to the estate after his father’s death. Her character has to face a potential sex scandal when, in an act of sisterly vengeance, Edith purposely tells others about Mary’s one-night stand with a Turkish visitor to the abbey (before her marriage) who dies in her bed. This information is strategically hushed, which, if made public, would inhibit her ability to marry “properly” and cause the entire family a great deal of shame.

The only story line of any religious significance concerns the baptism of the child born to Tom and Sybil Branson. Tom is not only from the underclass, but is also Irish and Catholic, both major differences from the Crawley family. He and Sybil, who died in childbirth, had decided to have their child baptized in a Catholic church in Ireland where they moved after getting married, but they had to return to the abbey in England before the child’s birth. The Crawleys, being English and Anglican, began to question Sybil’s commitment to the plan after her death. But Sybil’s mother, Cora Crawley, ended up talking her husband, the earl, into dropping the matter and not fighting an eventual English Catholic baptism. There was no discussion of foregoing a baptism altogether.

While the world of Downton Abbey has little in common with the society we now live in only a century later, it explores aspects of the human condition that all humanists will find familiar because the characters problems are handled without tapping religious ideas. We have every right to look at the many anti-humanist aspects of their actions and cringe, but we can also learn how far we’ve advanced in such a short time.