“THE WRONG CLASS”
After two seasons of viewing Britain’s ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, it occurred to me that there was something off about Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of one of the major characters. That character is Matthew Crawley. And it is an error that I am surprised Fellowes had made.
“DOWNTON ABBEY” began with news of the sinking of the White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. This famous event also caused the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, the heirs presumptive to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. This disruption in the line for the Grantham earldom forced Lord Grantham to seek his next heir, due to the fact that the title and estates only pass to male Crawleys and not to any of his three daughters. Lord Grantham’s new heir turns out to be his third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.
Introduced at the end of the series’ first episode, Matthew is a solicitor from Manchester, who lives with his widowed mother, former nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley. When he receives word that he is to be the Earl of Grantham’s new heir, Matthew does not seem particular pleased. He is very reluctant to accept Lord Grantham’s invitation to move to Downton Abbey and become part of the community. Matthew is only willing to do so, only if he can continue his legal work. Members of the Crawley family such as eldest daughter Lady Mary and her grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; along with servants such as butler Charles Carson seem to confirm Matthew’s worst opinions about life among the aristocracy. This hostility is especially apparent in his early relationship with Lady Mary and his reaction to acquiring a new valet/butler for his and Isobel’s residence, the Crawley House. Through Matthew’s first encounters with his Crawley cousins and Molesley, his new valet/butler; series creator Julian Fellowes emphasized Matthew’s social status as a member of the middle-class. And while the majority of the series’ fans and media seemed to accept this view, I find it hard to believe and accept.
These same viewers and the media seemed to believe that class structure and status in Edwardian Britain – especially for the upper classes – depends upon the size of an individual’s bank account. I am afraid that they would be wrong. Class was viewed differently than it is today. During the era of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, an individual’s social status was determined by “bloodline”, not the amount of money one possessed. This was especially true for members of the upper classes. To be a member of the upper class, one has to be part of a family that has owned land in the form of country estates for several generations. The owner of that estate was only required to in an administrative capacity and required tenant farms to earn an income. In other words, that person would be a member of the landed gentry. When an individual also has a title courtesy of royalty, he or she is considered an aristocrat. And his or her family members are also considered aristocrats . . . including cousins.
Despite being born in a middle-class environment and practicing a profession that society would view as an example of that particular class, Matthew Crawley has been a member of Britain’s upper class since birth. More importantly, as third cousin once removed and heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham, he is also a member of the aristocracy, despite his upbringing. In fact, one can say the same about his late father, Dr. Reginald Crawley. Becoming a physician, marrying a woman from the middle-class and living in that existence did not change Dr. Crawley’s social status – something that he passed to his son, Matthew.
If the Matthew had been born out of wedlock, he would have genuinely been part of the middle-class. If his mother Isobel had been a member of Britain’s landed gentry or aristocracy instead of Dr. Crawley, Fellowes would have been correct to label Matthew as middle-class. This fate certainly awaits Lady Sybil and Tom Bronson’s new child . . . that is, if Tom manages to become a successful journalist. The Bronsons’ new child will certainly be regarded as someone from a lower class by those from the Crawleys’ social circle.
Why did Julian Fellowes label Matthew as a member of the middle-class in his script? AS a member of the upper class and a peer, he should have known better. Has he, like many others today, developed the habit of judging class solely plutocracy . . . mere wealth? That would have worked if “DOWNTON ABBEY” was set in the present time. But the series is set during a period in Britain in which class was still judged by bloodline, not the size of a bank account.
To label Matthew Crawley as a middle-class man, due to the environment in which he was raised . . . and despite his legitimate blood connections to the aristocratic Crawleys was a mistake. It is not a mistake that will have major consequences on the series’ storylines. In fact, it is not a major mistake period. But I cannot help but feel amused whenever someone erroneously label Matthew as a member of the middle-class.
Filed under: Essay, Television | Tagged: dan stevens, downton abbey, early 20th century, edwardian age, history, hugh bonneville, jim carter, julian fellowes, maggie smith, michelle dockery, penelope wilton, politics, television, titanic | Leave a comment »