Secondary lives

Title caption for Upstairs, Downstairs

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently fallen into the habit of watching a TV show which is very un-H. I tend to avoid TV series as I don’t want to get sucked into them. I figure with my lifestyle I can’t really commit to them, besides, most do little for me. One of the consequences of that is that I look on oblivious when conversation turns to the aforementioned programs. I can bluff my way through Masterchef conversations, but the rest leave me bewildered. Until now.

Downton Abbey is a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs for the new millennium. I heard good things about it and on strange impulse checked it out, and then somehow got hooked. Basically it’s a high brow soap, though very well made. The locations are splendid, the cast great, the writing has some wit to it. Set just on the verge of WW1 it’s a fascinating time in history, and that makes it interesting too. What compels me though is the whole idea of it. Basically it’s all about the well to do and the servants who serve them.

This is a very foreign concept to one who lives in the colonies in 2011. I suspect it’s reasonably foreign in England now also, though not as much. That this sort of master/servant dichotomy was so entrenched once is fascinating to me, and that people where happy to live that way doubly so. It could never happen here, nor indeed any part of the new world I think. We’re just not built that way.

I nearly wrote that we’re not built to be subservient, but then considered I was making a value judgement too many. What’s the difference after all between the servant who helps his master dress for dinner and the employee working at the factory helping make his boss rich? Chances are that the servant has a more comfortable life too, and in the end is simply trading on something different from the factory worker. It’s undeniable also that to work in ‘service’ had a proud tradition: it was a career that fathers passed onto sons without compunction.

Still, it is different. Upstairs, Downstairs made it explicit in their title – the ‘upstairs’ hob-nobbed together dressing for dinner and taking tea while ‘downstairs’ slaved to provide for their masters, hidden away in a corner out of sight when not doing their duties. It may be slight, but there is a difference in serving someone in a commercial sense, as the factory worker does, and serving a master in his every whim and personal indulgence. I don’t want to put to fine a point on it because every man chooses his calling, and all power to him, but the sense I instinctively feel is that a servant is chattel. His life is lived consciously secondary to his master. And in the end the factory worker may become the factory owner. If he works well and cleverly then that is reasonable aspiration; few servants, I think, ever became the master, and few ever contemplated it.

I watched the Remains of the Day a couple of months ago, a very good, and very poignant movie. Ultimately it’s about missed opportunities, repression, and the failure to act. It’s about a man who locks away his deepest impulses within the prism of doing service to a much admired master, and neglects his own life in doing so. It’s about a form of ignorance to, a blindness that led the character played by Anthony Hopkins to unthinkingly believe that his master was a man of infallible judgement, naturally, even as he sought to appease the Nazis. When asked about this he blinks his eyes in confusion and asserts that it’s not for him to wonder at or question. He is dumb in his devotion to duty over self.

It’s a movie, and I’m not about to suggest to be in service was the same for all, yet I must believe given the different sources painting a similar picture that there is a general truth in the self-abnegation the job demands. Trust in the master is complete. They bask in the reflected glory of the him, taking pleasure in his achievements while not once considering their own. It is an honoured kind of subservience that sits poorly with me because I am of another time and place and culture. I am part of another history.

It is distinctly odd to watch from this distance a world of nearly hundred years ago where the privileged lived a life of ease, doing little more than dressing in beautiful frocks and fine suits and occasionally bestowing their good graces on villagers grateful for the attention. The family in Downton Abbey is benign, yet there is an undeniable sense of entitlement which is never questioned. This is the way of the world. We rule, they serve, and merit has nothing to do with it. It was the gravity of the times.

That gravity never took in places like Australia or the states. We are each naturally democratic. Our countries have been built on the back of individuality and enterprise. It is the nature of our beginnings that the old ways had to be discarded, and new ways encouraged. And it’s true I think – certainly in Oz – that our development has in some way come as a reaction to where we originally came from. Close as the ties have been throughout our history, Australians I think have always sought to chart their own course. Built on the back of convict labour and free settlers the class system was always something to be left behind. What counted here was making something from nothing, of carving out of this new world a society that reflected the enterprise and ambition of its people – and proving to the old country that it could be done.

‘Service’ as such is now an anachronism all over the world, barring a few pockets here and there. For an an Australian watching a program like this it is more than an anachronism. It is the befuddling proof of how distant in spirit we were even then (which the coming war was to emphasise), and how much the world has changed since.