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Downton Abbey: Soap Opera for Property Rights

Written by Gary North on February 14, 2013

Gary North’s Reality Check

I am not a big Downton Abbey fan. I watched the first half a dozen episodes, but then I realized that the thing was turning into a very expensive soap opera. I stopped watching. I am a Foyle’s War fan. I prefer period piece murder mysteries to period piece soap operas.

I did not connect with the plight of the younger members of the family. They seemed shallow. I also thought the scheming bad guy and bad woman among the downstairs employees are just too dedicated to their venality. There were caricatures. But I will say this: the bad guys are downstairs. This is a very good thing. It indicates a rejection of a century of Labor Party propaganda.

I thoroughly enjoyed Julian Fellowes when he co-starred in a modern version of the same story, Monarch of the Glen. It was an updated version of a family that had a huge albatross: inherited land and a rundown castle. The family had run out of money. Could the estate be saved? Fellowes used the same theme as the script writer for Downton Abbey. But he set it where it really belongs, namely, in the post-World War I era in Great Britain.


About 25 years ago, I sat on an airplane next to a man who was a Jacobite. Most people have never heard of the Jacobites. I knew about them only because I am a specialist in early modern European history. It did not occur to me that they still existed, but they do. A Jacobite was a follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose revolt against Great Britain failed at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. He was a Catholic. He represented the Highland Catholic forces. After his defeat, Scotland permanently became Protestant, in the sense that it is not Catholic. Of course, it is not particularly Protestant today. But it is not Catholic.

He told me that the castles that Jacobite families had owned in the mid-18th century are still owned by the families. These days, however, they can make money only by opening the doors to tourists. He said that it is part of each family’s obligation to supply full-time managers. For about two years, a young couple takes over the administration of the family castle. If they did not, the castles would be forfeited to the British monarchy. I do not know if what he was telling me was true, although it sounds plausible. He certainly seemed committed to the idea that it was a family responsibility to provide this kind of leadership, because they still hated the Queen, and they were determined to keep the family properties from being transferred to the monarchy.

I am not convinced that television shows shape the thinking of those who view them. I think shows are popular mainly because they already adopt the outlook of the viewers. But in the case of Downton Abbey, I could be wrong. There is nothing in the lives of somebody living today that would be recognizable to somebody living at Downton Abbey a century ago. Yet the show is phenomenally popular around the world. So was Monarch of the Glen, but not on this scale.

The basic theme of the show is duty. The second theme is inheritance. This is remarkable. You would not imagine that the issue of the inheritance of an aristocratic family’s land would be a popular theme in modern times. The class conflict of the era did exist, especially in Great Britain. But for a century, textbooks and popular culture have been produced by people who oppose the upper classes, and who favor the democratic and social democratic (socialist) policies of the lower classes. Yet in this case, the most popular soap opera in the world stands behind the aristocrats. The script favors the preservation of the inheritance. It is about all of the problems facing the post-World War I aristocratic generation.

Maggie Smith’s character is J. R. Ewing in drag: the person we love to hate. But there is this difference: she cares about inherited status. He cared about money. That is the difference between an American boomer buying his way to the top and a British aristocrat trying to keep him out.

(For the rest of my artice, click the link.)

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10 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: Soap Opera for Property Rights

  1. Proud Scot says:

    First of all, the Battle of Culloden occured on April 16, 1746, not in 1745. Many times the "cause" is called "The spirit of '45", but not the battle, or massacre. Some of my ancestors were butchered there by the English. (fortunately they had produced heirs by then).
    Just like most other countries, Scotland, as part of the UK has such a thing as a deed of property.
    The idea that if they don't have a fmaily member as a "full time manager" the property will revert to the Crown is absolute and total nonsense.
    The people of Scotland love Her Majesty, but not the English in general. I have friends in Scotland who will change the channel on their television if an English produced program come on, but will at the same time tell you how much they love The Queen.

  2. The English even slaughtered the prisoners captured at Culloden. Then they proceeded with ethnic cleansing of the Highlanders, burning their villages, crops, and slaughtering their animals. In addition they raped many if not most of the women, and killed many women and children. Similar to what they did to the Irish for 700 years. They were, and still are, despicable.

  3. KillerClown says:

    Wow. Such insights into the show ater watching only 6 episodes. There are no "bad guys"n the show. There are multiple story lines — each with the less savory characters — but no "bad guys" that represent the servant class.

    And by the way, THIS is so newsworthy that a column wiould be devouted? Sad.

  4. MarkPolis_MD says:

    What utter crap this article is.

  5. ken1lutheran says:

    My own family owned a manor in Norfolk. It was almost exactly at the time when this show takes place that the family sold the manor, which had been in the family since the 14th century, to an admiral in the navy.

  6. pnpeterman says:

    I love Downton Abbey and abhor shoot em up shows. I am woman and a good romance beats out death and destruction. I am sure they don;'t miss you as a fan, we(the fans) make up more than enough for more seasons to be made.

  7. I totally agree with you.

  8. This has got to be the stupidest waste of time to write it let alone having to read it. We have so much violence and sickos on American TV that this is refreshing to look into the past in Great Britain. The acting is superb and now that they have shown the castle, its owner, the grounds, etc. I think it is wonderful this place is being preserved. We do see some beautiful homes in New England, but nothing can compare to what we see in Europe. In our country most people prefer to tear down the old and build the new. There is very little beauty to concrete and glass. Whenever I see Gary North I shall hit the delete button.

  9. Gary, I do appreciate your point of view on Downton Abbey. You make a number of valid points — some of which had not occurred to me. Nevertheless, my lifetime study of human history, especially the history of northwestern Europe, allows me to see a few other items of value in the Downton Abbey production:

    When my mother and father-inlaw first mentioned it to us late in 2011, I was not immediately inclined to seek it out. Season one had not yet arrived on NetFlix, so I ignored their very enthusiastic recommendation, partly because I did not yet understand how neatly it dovetailed with my life-long interest in the geopolitical, economic and technological evolution of western Europe ― IOW, AMERICA'S dominant cultural history! Over the last 45 years, I have consumed several hundred books and articles on this subject for periods as far back as LPRIA (late pre-Roman Iron Age, circa 750 BC – 43 AD). My fascination with this portion of world history was always driven by an inexplicable urge to learn more about my own “cultural genome” but even more, to understand how the world came to be as it is today and thus, improve my ability to predict how it’s likely to develop in my granddaughter’s generation. History is UNlike investing in that historical performance IS a good indicator of future performance!

    So what does any of this have to do with “Downton Abbey”? Simple: The cultural venue of the great English peerage houses of the early 20th Century were like a living museums ― moving dioramas that revealed a great deal about the structure of European society as far back as 200 years earlier. In “Downton Abbey”, Julian Fellowes has re-created this world with astounding, even LOVING accuracy, but without any noticeable degree of romantic, anti/pro-aristocracy or anti/pro working-class filters. Naturally, his many snide liberal critics hate him for doing that because in “Downton Abbey” he paints a fairly accurate picture of real, daily life for a large percentage of all socio-economic strata in English society from about the time of King James II through Edward VII (Victoria’s son) and well into the era of George V (1865 – 1936). Most of America's “progressives” are very busy rewriting human history to validate and advance their wicked class-warfare agenda, so they don’t like it when their story line gets refuted by facts in such a high-profile broadcast. Some of their snit-fits about “Downton Abbey” are so preposterous, that they are pure comedy. It's a real tragedy that such angry diatribes are exposed to ANY of our carefully under/mis-educated young people.

    Even by modern-day, high-budget standards, “Downton Abbey” delivers world-class acting, writing and historically accurate re-creation of Edwardian culture, attitudes, morals and dress. Since it is filmed entirely at the 1300 year-old site and grounds of Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, it delivers thrilling, deeply detailed production value! Every single architectural feature, stick of furniture, tapestry and painting in that glorious structure, and even many of the ancient trees on the 1000 acre estate, has a long and fascinating history of its own! Since the reign of King George III (yes, that King George!), it has been a family country home for the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon — a title originally created in 1628 that continues alive and well to present day. I only mention this because, IMHO, the entire world owes the masters of Highclere a debt of gratitude for preserving an elegant window into our past.

    I agree with some of the other posters here: Given the blizzard of vapid, culturally toxic, morally rudderless drivel that America's pop-culture industry spews out DAILY, it is truly refreshing to see this kind of material made available. IMHO, this series is worth seeing if not for any other reason than to watch Maggie Smith deliver THE performance of her lifetime! She is hilariously priceless in Downton Abbey, especially with comments like the one she made in response to Matthew Crawley's statement about what working people do on the weekend: "What, pray tell, is a 'w e e k – e n d' ?" (or perhaps she thought he said, "WEAK-END") LOL!

  10. Even though Downton Abbey is somewhat like a high-class soap opera, I can identify with both classes. If I had my choice and could afford it, I would love to own a piece of property like what is shown on this series, and have the family, money, social ranking and staff to go along with it. Oh well, back to the suburbs it is.