In Sunday night's episode of “Titanic,” the high-born and wildly uncontrollable Rose, to the stunned disapproval of her family, dances with a low-born fellow named Jack, and tips him a little smile as she is spirited away, and — no, wait, that was “Downton Abbey,” not “Titanic.” But one cannot but assume that the parallel is pertinent and portentous.
Add in (spoiler alerts!) one spurned marriage proposal (but he loves her anyway, hint-hint), one false accusation of paternity (no baby, it turns out), plus one out-of-wedlock love affair (oh, no, her aunt caught her), and, well, the soapiness is beginning to crowd out the period detail and emphasis on larger political and economic currents that has generally protected “Downton Abbey” from the soap-opera mushiness into which the fourth season is descending.
But maybe it's just as well. We've been instructed firmly to stop watching. One Daniel D'Addario, on Salon.com, has denounced the show's “right-wing worldview.” Why? “The show depicts a group of actual monsters in a manner that's explicitly loving — and when the facts get in the way, they're disposed of.” By monsters, he means the Grantham family, whose sin is their wealth. Apparently millions of brainwashed fans do not realize that “Downton Abbey” is really “an argument for a system wherein the rich control all but act wisely.”
One is tempted to respond that it is only a television show. But as the occasional author of historical fiction, I feel the need to say a word in explanation of the genre.
Let's start with the benevolence of the Grantham family, an aspect of the show that seems to stick in D'Addario's craw. Thomas, a footman who turns out to be gay, is not prosecuted, or even dismissed. A cook who needs eye surgery finds her employers eager to pay. D'Addario calls these counter-factuals, although it is difficult to know what facts he has in mind. In the case of Thomas, for instance, he tells us that homosexual conduct was illegal in Britain at the time. Fair point. (In many parts of the old empire, it's illegal still.) To be gay, even closeted, in the U.K. between the world wars was to be terrified of prosecution or worse.
But circles of tolerance existed. Without them, we wouldn't have the poetry of Brian Howard or the novels of Norman Douglas. No doubt the lower classes were treated worse. The claim that persecution was universal, however, is all the better for the evidence.
Besides, what makes fiction interesting is the presence of the unexpected — including unexpected actions from characters whose behavior we think we can predict. This isn't error; it's selection. To make the case for the historical inaccuracy of the Grantham family's attitudes, one must argue not that few people with money behaved so altruistically, but that none did. Otherwise one cannot do any sort of fiction without first making sure that every member of every group possesses all the traits of most members of the class. By this standard, “Casablanca” turns out to be a ridiculous movie, because, really, how many expat nightclub owners actually got involved in the anti-Nazi resistance? And let's not get started on “The West Wing,” with its absurd pretense that people who work in the White House ever spend a moment thinking of the common good rather than political advantage.
And if D'Addario is challenging the notion that some among the wealthy can ever be benevolent when their fellows aren't, well, that would imply that Gerrit Smith and Arthur Tappan, who together financed much of the abolitionist movement, must be mythological. Maybe the tale that Franklin Roosevelt fathered America's welfare state is a nasty right-wing tale to get us to trust the rich.
And goodness knows what all of this betides for Hillary Clinton's expected presidential campaign. She's a millionaire several times over. Wealthier still is Nancy Pelosi, who would once more be speaker of the House should the Democrats regain control. And let's not get started on John Kerry, net worth well up in the nine figures, who so nearly became president in 2004, and who nowadays (gasp!) represents the U.S. in international negotiations.
I await Mr. D'Addario's chilling predictions of the horrors these plutocrats plan to visit upon us.