I’ve no more desire than the next Anglophile with a framed colored engraving of the queen-empress on his office wall to pull down the aristocracy; to take away their estates and paintings and seats in the Lords and ancient Rollses resting on blocks in stables where the racing stud used to breed.
And yet I confess to growing a little restless, just a tad—you know—impatient, while watching Downton Abbey. When the fourth season of this sudsy saga premiered in January, I found myself watching half the time from behind Section A of that day’s New York Times: the equivalent, in entertainment terms, of looking out from Mordor into the delights of the Shire. To seek distraction among the scions of the Sulzbergers is what the dowager countess of Grantham—the estimable Maggie Smith, whom I have adored for half a century—would likely call degenerate. She would be right. However . . .
Downton Abbey, which concerns itself, allegedly, with the life patterns of early 20th-century British aristocrats and their servants, spins around and around, back and forth, without ever getting anywhere in particular. These aristocrats—let alone the downstairs help, hardly a negligible presence in the series—don’t do anything in particular at this point, despite, two seasons ago, participating robustly in the 1914-18 war. And what they don’t do, they don’t do with conspicuous success. A great passivity seems to settle over minds and lifestyles. No very interesting endeavors or understandings arise in the vicinity of the abbey.
Well, I know—this is TV. I am not looking for a connected account of how an aging society copes with, or responds to, the upsets of a new world. This isn’t Evelyn Waugh, I am constrained to point out. However, purposelessness seems a larger theme than anything else in the conduct of life at the abbey. Life goes on in the familiar and glorious setting. The earl continues to dress wonderfully—why did gentlemen, after the Great War, abandon frock coats and silk hats, could someone tell me?—but never appears to be completely in command of anything. The music of the times—jittery, jarring—is heard mostly offstage.
Besides the dowager countess, the most decisive character in the series is—was—the late Matthew Crawley. Not the lord of anything: just plain Mr. Crawley, a solicitor distantly related to the family at Downton; solicited to come in as heir when, in Season One of the series, the heir apparent went to the bottom with R.M.S. Titanic. Women, according to what I keep reading, found Matthew a dreamboat. I found him occasionally bumptious but also, much of the time, plugged-in. He took seriously the business of wringing profit out of the estate, after years of subpar management by the earl. He had ideas; he had, seemingly, determination. We lost Matthew at the end of Season Three, thanks to the desire of the actor portraying him, Dan Stevens, to do other things. That’s how it goes in TV land.
Now let me explain why I have been regurgitating these widely familiar details. I wanted to say something a little heretical about those whom the English Prayer Book catechism calls “my betters,” toward whom I am to order myself “lowly and reverently.” As a Southerner I understand the mood: Certain folk there are whose achievements achieve for them a certain stature, worthy of respect and praise. They tend to be people with nice homes and good silver, who throw nice parties.
But, look—by itself, that won’t do the job. We have to have more. We have to have at all times an upwardly thrusting coterie: vital, creative, productive; less concerned with guardianship—as important a duty as guardianship should be counted—than with discovery. We have to have conditions capable at all times of giving rise to, let us say, needed improvements in life and in understanding. That is in the end what a middle class is for: to create.
Having said as much, I confess not to know with any exactitude what a “middle class” actually is, aside from a phrase regularly in the mouth of President Obama as he wars rhetorically with “millionaires and billionaires.” He likes the phrase middle class because of its expansive nature. When he praises the members of the class, he knows he is addressing an electoral constituency larger than that of the yacht club. Everyone, even the bloated plutocrat, can imagine oneself as middle class in an essentially classless society with few expectations of the old sort, concerning behavior and duties. Obama wants to stand in good with as many middle-class types as nowadays give him a hearing.
The point to bear down on here is the flexibility of the middle class in creative terms, as over against the ennui of those who live lives of comparative disengagement from the big-bore concerns of their times. This could be for economic reasons: The struggle just to make a living is less stultifying than it used to be, back when the work week ran through Saturday (if not Sunday) and the workday frequently went on for so long as there was light. That’s at the lower—economically speaking—end of the spectrum. At the higher end, as well, where dwell old-money types like the earls of Grantham, personal energy does not necessarily overflow from all available containers and reservoirs.
Never, ahem, having dwelt in such an environment myself, I am unable to put forth much that proceeds from personal experience. But I have friends. I have observed.
An extremely homely example of recent vintage: My office suitemate, a sought-after accountant, often jokes with me about the fat cats who make up the bulk of his client base. I asked the other day, “You can’t help me with IRA advice because your other clients don’t have IRAs?”
“That’s right. They don’t qualify: simple lack of earned income.”
It seems, according to my suitemate, these folk never worked like those of us born to the toiling class. “They don’t have Social Security either. You have to have a job in order to pay into the system; they never had jobs.”
So, look, I mean—what do they do? They count their money—when they feel like it. “I’ve got clients who bring me bank statements they’ve never opened.” They don’t care what’s inside. They know it’s enough to carry them, one way or another. Nice nonwork if you can get it . . .
New York City’s freshly minted quasi-Bolshevik mayor, Bill de Blasio, would turn such folk upside down and shake them until their billfolds, pocket change, and bank-box keys fell out. I would commit no such folly. A sensible government doesn’t use the tax system to punish rather than reward success. That would not, all the same, be the present point. I am moved to suggest that economic comfort of a very high level tends to shelter the comfortable in cocoons where the sound of snoring, rather than the stirrings of energy, is the conspicuous noise; where neither industry nor imagination nor excitement is a conspicuous feature. I can lull to sleep the impulse to create, to Make Better. If things are as perfect now as they can be made, in economic terms at least—in the term I myself most enjoy—why put out the effort to make them better?
The tension between preservation and change, in any healthy society, is immense. There must be both. Not to change is to die. “A state without the means of change,” Burke wrote, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “is without the means of its conservation.” To change needlessly or foolishly is to die by other weapons: more explosive, more violent.
A prudent modern society will open to its middle class—by whomsoever defined, the president of the United States or more rational actors—opportunities to create and, in creating, to grow. The middle class will respond to such incentives in ways that will seem peculiar as well as provocative. That is to say they will be different from that to which everyone is accustomed. There is likely to be less experimentation at Downton Abbey, under Lord Grantham’s oversight, than there would have been had Matthew, the man of the questioning, innovating middle class, lived to put his stamp on affairs. Lord Grantham’s instincts are sound enough. For the families on the estate—for his own family at “the big house”—he feels concern and responsibility. He wishes none to suffer on account of his own derelictions (investing badly, going into debt, etc.). This is stewardship. Hip, hip . . .
On the other side of the coin is—was—Middle Class Matthew’s perspective: Past successes could not be allowed to tail off into present-day failures. That would undo the whole project. Matthew might indeed have seen himself as standing expectantly in a long line of middle-class strivers and toilers. Who were the Granthams to start with? Nobodies, in all likelihood; upstarts of a sort, allied centuries earlier with a royal power that feloniously wiped out the abbeys and shared the proceeds—land, house, and money—with loyal hustlers. That Downton is an abbey suggests some earlier Grantham, man on the make as he was, looked gratefully at Henry VIII as he handed over keys and title as reward for services of some dubious kind or another. “When Adam delved and Eve span,” the Puritans used to say, “who was then the gentle man?” There was something to this, undoubtedly. (And what of Henry VIII’s family, come to think of it? A clan of skillful, persistent climbers until positioned at the top of the hill.)
The social dynamics of the present are little different from those of the 1920’s or the 16th century. Always, you need upstarts to get anything done. These upstarts come from various directions and points of the compass. Beethoven, Shakespeare, Dickens, Edison, Carnegie, Michelangelo—the list could go on: None had very prepossessing credentials. The middle class, or what passed for it in their day, was their social bracket. Anyone can think of exceptions. How about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, of the Toulouse-Lautrecs? James Russell Lowell had a nice Massachusetts pedigree-patrimony. Obviously, it happens. We just need to remember along the way that encrustations of lineage and possessions and success are less inspirational than are inner fire and hunger—in the latter case, for recognition as well as the gastronomic pleasures. Not to want, on account of accumulated gifts, is, often enough, not to get.
The middle classes may be hard to define and are certainly various in their habits and predilections. Conservatives have no monopoly on the entitlement to middle-class status, nor is romanticism about any standing or status in life a very good idea. The romanticizing temperament usually ends up buried to the neck in cynicism. Likewise, the intelligentsia is sprung mostly from the middle classes. We know how well that has worked out. Striving, when it turns to victory, can turn to intellectual oppression and scorn for the differently minded.
Still and all, to wish the middle classes well, and to stand aside from opposition to the middle-class project, is well and good and sensible, not to mention patriotic. Middle-class folk, by virtue of their human flesh, are as subject as anyone else to delusions and false reckonings. (Consider how many, in defiance of common sense, voted twice for Obama.) You know all the same that from the great mass of merchants, plumbers, piano teachers, real-estate agents, p.r. people, adjunct lecturers in American literature, and so on will arise entirely unpredictable things: good things, bad things, things indifferent in themselves but worth noting all the same.
The middle classes need moral encouragement more than they need tax breaks from government. They need affirmations from the society of which they are a part. They require, not least, some civilized immunity from insult and abuse by intellectuals: fellow middle-class types who try to prove their acquired superiority by ridiculing the religious habits or the pastimes—football, fast food, pickup trucks, Republican candidates for Congress—of those with whom they share origins rather than outlook.
The Democrats’ patronizing, and at the same time very freshborn, concern for the middle classes is retail politics of a brutal nature, the intention being to take ownership of a social category in which nearly everyone claims membership. The irony is that Democratic—to put it more exactly, liberal—economic and sociocultural policies strike at the self-reliance and the self-respect of the middle classes. The economic washout known as ObamaCare—pricier policies, more government intrusion in the making of consumer choices—is a case in point for the irrelevance of liberal nostrums for the good purposes of social cohesion and growth, along with intellectual creativity.
ObamaCare reeks of the stagnation sometimes associated with aristocrats unwilling to think for themselves, overfond of overweening habits that proceed from simplistic patterns of life. Thus, once upon a time, even the Granthams may have lived. They seem at the very least to have gotten over it.