Updated: May 13
Even though they are decades apart, the fictional universe of Downton Abbey has a curious relationship with our Coronavirus age.
A huge global hit following its debut in 2010, and a reassuring streaming presence during lockdown, ITV’s television drama Downton Abbey has seduced millions of loyal viewers over the years.
Running over six seasons, and including a successful post-series movie, the hit drama quickly built a feverish international fan base and generated a slew of catchphrases and memes, as well as industry awards in the process.
Seemingly a cultural world away from 2021, Downton Abbey has proved to be intriguingly prescient regarding the new social order now emerging on the back of the Covid-19 crisis, as well as offering tantalising glimpses into the epoch that may be about to open up.
Created and co-written by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey is set largely on a fictional Yorkshire country estate between 1912 and 1926. The series centres on the travails of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic staff as their post-Edwardian world is shaped and shaken by historical events. These include the First World War, Spanish flu, the Marconi scandal, Irish War of Independence, formation of the Irish Free State, Teapot Dome scandal, 1923 general election and Adolf Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch.
A recurring theme throughout the series is the rise of the working class during the interwar period and the adaptation of the British aristocracy as the world changes around it. In addition, a key motif in Downton Abbey is the impact of technological change on social relations and class structure, and particularly how the former drives the latter. Beginning with the sinking of the Titanic (itself a totemic symbol of innovative industrial technology coming to grief in the face of natural power), Downton Abbey spans one of the great eras of technological development and uses this as a spur the series' dramatic arc.
Consumer technologies making an appearance in the (stately and not so stately) Crawley household largely disrupting lives for the better include the motor car (easing chauffeur Tom Branson out of service and into the Crawley family, as well as killing Matthew Crawley), trains (arriving and departing regularly with various main and secondary characters), domestic appliances (revolutionising the working practises of the kitchen staff), telephones (installed both above and below stairs), radio (championed by the young progressive Lady Rose Aldridge) and cinema (the favourite outing of the servants and stimulus of their dreams of escape for a better life) - all are crucial plot turners at various points in Downton Abbey.
More important, however, are the changes these technologies encourage in the characters who come into contact with them, particularly concerning their social status (and this being Downton Abbey, everything is ultimately about social status). This manifests itself in themes of individual liberation (Downton Abbey’s cook, Beryl Patmore, and her struggle to accept a new refrigerator as well as other kitchen appliances from which she eventually benefits), occupational change (Alfred Nugent, the Downton Abbey footman leaving service to train as a professional chef or kitchen maid Daisy’s awakened enthusiasm for adult education) and sexual liberation (Lady Mary Crawley embracing out of marriage contraception or the long journey of homosexual Thomas Barrow in his quest to find personal happiness and self-acceptance).
The role of technology and specialism is crucial to Downton Abbey and its changing world, as social evolution in the face of technological innovation allows its citizens to adapt and survive the Roaring Twenties fast bearing down on them. Today, the (post) Covid-19 world is also fast changing into one that in many ways is an inversion of the Downtown Abbey social milieu as its characters began their journeys from within a social model based on rigid class division, pervasive puritanism and inherited privilege.
Entering into the Covid-19 era, western society found itself riding a wave of globalisation and market-driven risk, as well as its own technology-enhanced sexual and personal liberation. In this post-Cold War Internet of Things universe, the world was fast transforming itself into a seeming playhouse of social media enhanced pleasure and fun for all.
For many, however, this exciting epoch offered as many negatives as it did positives, with its associated democratisation of the social space generating as much offence as adventure and as many market-generated risks as opportunities. The 2007-2008 financial crisis, a heady economic and political brew cooked up as a consequence of deregulation, open markets and boundless speculation was, for many, an early warning of the potential dangers generated by all this thrilling newness.
A similar situation reveals itself early in Downtown Abbey when the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, speculates away the family fortune, after buying into risky Canadian railway stocks which, when these investments fail, threaten to ruin the Crawley family (and directly encourages marriage between Lady Mary Crawley to her middle-class cousin and the family's immediate heir, Matthew Crawley).
That is, until Matthew, very much a champion of the new, modern world shaking up the Downton Abbey order of things, is killed in a car accident.
Oh, the bitter plot-twisting irony.
In 2020, post-Great Recession and after Covid-19 had set in, the majority of western democracies adopted the authoritarian (Chinese Communist Party) playbook of social and personal controls backed by enforcement measures as a direct response to the crisis; a move which won widespread support from a pandemic traumatised public. This freezing of social, individual and economic life, initially promised by governments as a temporary measure, evolved over a year into what became known as “the new normal” that quickly derisked and engineered the Western world into a model of society which the Earl of Grantham would have found instantly recognisable.
In this new Covid-19 epoch those familiar social motifs from the Downton Abbey era re-appeared in the form of a new puritanism (no hugging, personal contact or sex outside of the home by order of the government), constant social restraint (socially distanced with a loss of self-control punishable by fine or arrest), the re-introduction of a strict class structure (opportunities for work or travel available to those that can afford them, fewer for those who cannot) and the reassertion of privilege as the balancing, stabilising factor in a suddenly dangerous world (in this case the privilege to work from home, laptop on hand, taking Amazon and Ocado deliveries from those that cannot, to fill the social void).
In this new period of Hands, Face and Space the world became smaller, more local, and with newly erected boundaries for almost everyone.
The key signifiers, however, remain the same as in the Crawley universe, with technology the central driver (Zoom and Microsoft Teams taking over from telegrams and telephone trunk lines) with the effect being an inversion of the social progress seen in Downton Abbey, the social building blocks previously used to liberate now suddenly taken away.
Coming out of this Covid-19 era, the pivotal role of technology and the specialist elites that service it (from SAGE to the IT administrators needed to keep the digital networks streaming) are just as crucial in building our new (old) world order; testing, mathematically modelling, online order servicing, home working; all today have the effect of limiting the movements of individuals and narrowing our world views, sometimes to the confines of four domestic walls.
Though not for everyone.
Just as in Downton Abbey, where the higher orders benefit from access to limited opportunities for travel, work and pleasure, today in the (post) Covid-19 era the middle and upper classes also so benefit, able to pay for expensive testing regimes to facilitate international travel, whilst the lower orders find themselves powerlessly confined to quarters (when not delivering online orders to the doors of their social betters).
In the Downton Abbey universe, the lower orders may have been able to move away from a dependence on home deliveries to live a more civilised life (Beryl Patmore with her refrigerator again, coming to understand that it could relieve her of the need to have ice delivered to keep food fresh).
In the era of Covid-19 home deliveries are everything.
This privilege also extends to social, personal and sexual contact. A feature of the evolving lockdown culture has been the denial of human contact in the service, apparently, of saving lives, except for those individuals crucial to the new political and scientific elite, who apparently can be trusted to balance risk more responsibly than the masses. From California Governor Gavin Newsom, eating out (or rather in) with friends at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant, to Professor Neil Ferguson (or "Professor Lockdown" as he became known, breaking what were in effect his own rules, to continue a personal relationship with a married woman), or to political strategist Dominic Cummings, driving around the country with his family at the height of the lockdown, privilege has its rewards.
There remains one area, however, where Downton Abbey offers a more pointed and intriguing comparison to the emerging new (old) world order. In episode 8, season 2, Spanish Flu sweeps through Yorkshire, striking down key characters with a life-threatening illness. It even takes the life of Matthew Crawley’s first wife-to-be, Lavinia, and nearly ends the life of Countess Cora Crawley in the process.
What is striking about these events is not the dramatic loss of life or the disturbing effect the disease has on those it infects, but rather the ability of the Downton Abbey social order and its inhabitants to continue almost as normal as the disease rages. In the face of the crisis, they carry on, troubled but not devastated, making no recourse to social distancing, mask-wearing or other social restrictions in the heat of an epidemic that killed 17 to 50 million people worldwide as opposed to the estimated 3.33 million (from a world population five times larger) that have been recorded as dying with Covid-19 at the time of writing.
In many ways, the world of Downton Abbey and our Covid-19 era may appear similar, if inverted. But in other, more crucial ways, they are completely different.