I recently began watching again the first series of the television drama, Downton Abbey, which I first watched when it came out in 2010, and have not seen since. As I watched, I found myself wondering repeatedly at some features of the cultural setting.

 

Downton Abbey tells the story of the fictional English aristocratic Crawley family. The fictional Earl of Grantham, his wife and daughters, live at Downton Abbey with their numerous servants, on a country estate set in Yorkshire. Although the obvious hierarchy is the one separating ‘family’ from ‘staff,’ there is clearly a hierarchy running through every aspect of the household. The eldest daughter appears to regard herself as more important than her younger sisters, the Earl’s mother appears to look down on the Earl’s wife, an American the Earl married for her money. Meanwhile, among the servants, the butler and housekeeper appear to be regarded as superior to all the other staff, ladies’ maids look down on kitchen staff, and the maid lighting fires and fetching and carrying for the cook seems to be expected to know her place, as inferior to everyone.

 

But what fascinated me was not the hierarchy itself, but the demonstration of it. Assuming the series is historically accurate, and it does appear to have been thoroughly researched, I was struck by how much attitudes have changed in the one hundred years or so since the first series was set. The eldest daughter regularly treats those around her with what I would consider contemptuous rudeness. Wealth appears to be her main, if not her only, criterion for whether or not a person is acceptable. Meanwhile, when a maid is discovered learning to type because she wants to become a secretary, family members argue over whether or not a maid should be allowed such a choice, arguing over whether or not she is capable of making choices about her own best interests.

 

The first question I found myself asking was, ‘Do these fictional characters really demonstrate attitudes that were considered ‘normal’ in our culture at the time?’ That led onto a second question, ‘If they do, how do modern ‘acceptable’ standards of behaviour in our culture differ from theirs, and are there any absolute standards for ‘acceptable’ standards?’

 

  • Reflect on your experience, real or fictional, of attitudes and standards of behaviour that seem to be different from your own.

  • Do you think there is, or should be, any absolute standard for behaviour that is, or is not, acceptable?

 

Prayer for the week - 9th October 2020

 

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