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Friday, January 18, 2013

What "Vanished Virtues"?
Posted by Jill | 8:26 PM

Text of actual letter in the Hackensack, NJ Record, January 15, 2013:
Regarding "Why do we love 'Downton Abbey'?" (Better Living, Page BL-1, Jan. 6):

I was once again engaged and enthralled by the opening broadcast of Season 3 of "Downton Abbey." Why do I enjoy it so much? Isn't it just a glorified soap opera with contrived crises and ensuing deus ex machina resolutions?

Yes, but the magnificent script, the perfect embodiments of the dramatis personae by every member of the cast, the settings and the costumes all combine to cast a magical spell. We are brought into this world of manners, dignity, an uncomplaining assumption of responsibility, a restrained but ever present sense of mutual respect.

Most know and accept their role in the Abbey and in society, yet elements of dissonance in these relationships within and without the Abbey are also skillfully expressed. It is a world of God, king and country, a stiff upper lip, soldiering on in the face of adversity.

In a broader context we know that this society embodied an obsolete and unfair class structure and, for the most part willingly and enthusiastically, participated in the senseless carnage of World War I. This conflict unwittingly rent the very fabric of Downton society in the postwar decades and sowed the seeds for World War II.

Most of the positive values that permeated the world of Downton Abbey have been cast aside. Millions are enslaved by the welfare state at the expense of their dignity and autonomy, the nuclear and extended family is on the decline, our popular culture is increasingly vulgar and anarchic. Is it any wonder that nostalgia for the vanished virtues of Downton touches us to the core?

Yes, most knew and accepted their role in the Abbey. Oh, for the good old days when the nobility had a birthright and the peons knew their place.

Now, I watch Downton Abbey as much as any red-blooded American, but even aside from the series' more ludicrous plot developments, such as the "Is he or isn't he" veteran with no face who may or may not be the supposedly long-lost heir, or the convenient death of Miss Lavinia Swire from the flu, or last week's jilting or the show's resident designated victim, poor Edith, at the altar by an old geezer who was no bargain anyway, at least I understand that Downton, just as Upstairs Downstairs was a generation ago, is FICTION. It no more represents bygone values than Gone With the Wind does the Civil War, or that Hair is a factual portrayal of the late 1960s.

But as today's Republican Party, with far too much acquiescence and active participation by the Democrats, is still trying to return us to those days when Lady Mary could sit around all day doing embroidery and poor Daisy could look forward only to decades of drudgery, and Mrs. Hughes could be touched with gratitude by the assurance by Lady Cora that if she does have cancer, she won't be thrown out in the street, it's worth looking at what real life was like for the Daisys and the Mrs. Patmores and the Mrs. Hugheses and the Carsons.

Alison Maloney, author of Life Below Stairs, cites a list of rules of behavior as put forth in a booklet produced by the Ladies' Sanitary Association in 1901 entitled Rules For the Manners of Servants in Good Families:
Always move quietly about the house, and do not let your voice be heard by the family unless necessary

Never sing or whistle at your work where the family would be likely to hear you

Do not call out from room to room and if you are a housemaid, be careful not only to do your work quietly but to keep out of sight as much as possible

Never begin to talk to the ladies and gentlemen, unless it be to deliver a message or ask a necessary question

Do not talk to your fellow servants or the children of the family in the passages or sitting rooms, or in the presence of ladies and gentlemen

Always answer when you receive an order or a reproof, either: "yes ma'am" or "I am very sorry ma'am" to show you have heard

Should you be required to walk with a lady or gentleman, in order to carry a parcel or otherwise, always keep a few paces behind

Do not smile at droll stories told in your presence or seem in any way to notice, or enter into, the family conversation, or the talk at table, or with visitors

More rules, and a typical day for Edwardian servants, here. In other words, do nothing to allow the ladies and gentlemen to have to acknowledge that you are a human being. Is this the "vanished virtue" of which the letter writer speaks? Shut up and serve your betters? "Know your place" and don't aspire to anything more? That hardly seems like the kind of virtue that an American would hold dear. Here's part of a recollection by one Jean Rennie, who spent sixteen years in service from 1924-1940:
I came to a grandly beautiful Highland castle, with towers and battlements and all, standing high on the hill on the shores of Loch Fyne. I don't remember the exact moment of arrival at the back door, but I do remember walking along a seemingly endless red-tiled corridor. I heard the sound of scrubbing as I went along and I saw a young girl on her knees scrubbing energetically, and seemingly enjoying it. I caught a glimpse of what I afterwards found was the scullery. It was down two steps, and it had the same cheerful redbrick floor. Rounding a corner, I saw the kitchen - a wide, gleaming place, with a long spotless white table down its middle, big windows, barred with railings, like parks, spiked at the top. It looked so clear and clean and friendly. And there was no one in it. I was taken along the passage, right to the end, where I was put into a room with two single beds.

Jessie and I went to our room and put on our caps and aprons again, and Jessie helped me put my few belongings away. Then I wrote a letter to my mother, and soon it was seven o'clock, the hour when I was to be initiated into the mysteries of being a house-maid.

I don't remember the exact way from our kitchen corridor into the house beyond. I can remember a narrow passage with a baize door at the end which led into the front hall, because it was on a shelf in that corridor where reposed the grog tray, from which the butler had taken the whisky he handed to me at six o'clock one morning to wake me up !

I don't remember how I got to the bedrooms, but here we were, and I followed Margaret meekly. We took a dustpan and brush with us, and a duster, into the bedroom belonging to the eldest daughter of the house. There was the laird and his lady, two daughters and a son, a lady housekeeper, and some visitors.

Margaret showed me how to pick up bits of ash and paper and things from the carpet, to draw the curtains and shut the windows. To shut the windows and draw the curtains on the glorious sunset over the purple hill seemed to me sacrilege, but it seemed that the 'gentry' didn't have time to look at sunsets.

We straightened the room and then Margaret moved to the massive wardrobe. She opened the doors wide, and there were hung dresses and coats and costumes, enough to take my breath away. She dug out a black lace dress and laid it across the bed. Then she looked at the other side of the wardrobe and chose from dozens of pairs of shoes a black satin pair, and put them on the floor beside the dress. She went to a drawer and took out a long black slip and some other black underclothes, and from another drawer full of stockings she selected a pair which she examined very carefully before she laid them, with the foot tucked in, across the bed with the other clothes.

I was full of questions, and some I managed to ask, but mostly I just wanted to touch and look at the lovely dresses in the wardrobe.

Why did she put out that dress? Why not another one? Why couldn't Elspeth - well, Miss Elspeth, then - pick her own dress? Suppose she didn't want that one, suppose she wanted a different colour - she'd have to get out all her own things then?

'You ask too many questions, Jane - we've got to do it - it's our job.'

We lit the fire and made sure it would burn up, and that was that room done. We had several more to do, and we had to hurry apparently. It seemed the dressing-gong would go soon, and we must be out of the bedrooms and be ready to go into the drawing-room and other rooms.

In each room we did the same things. Margaret did unbend sufficiently to tell me that you get used to what the ladies wear, especially when they're alone. When there were visitors, or very important visitors anyway, perhaps they preferred something different, in which case they usually told Margaret during the day. But usually it was the same old black frock . . .

Then I heard the deep reverberating tones of a gong just as we'd got back into the dining-room passage. Margaret and I stood with the butler, who was putting finishing touches to the dining-room table. He went through into the front hall, and after a few minutes he came back and nodded to Margaret.

'They've gone up,' he said.

Margaret gathered me up, dustpan and brush and duster and all, and we went into the drawing-room.

The same performance as the bedrooms - bits gathered up, papers and magazines straightened, cushions plumped up and put in their proper places. Firesides swept up and dusted, and fires made up. There were two fires in the great white drawing-room, both blazing high.

Then we went to the gun-room, but Margaret just looked in and said, 'No, that's all right. Come on, billiard-room.'

The billiard-room was just that, and nothing more. Two large billiard tables filled the whole length of the room, and stacked under the tables till they were almost pushing the tables up, were newspapers - I think every Glasgow Herald and every Scotsman that had ever been printed.

Here, too, there was a huge fireplace, with a blazing fire, and we had to tidy up here as well. The same in the front hall, curtains and windows to shut out the still loveliness of the evening.

We were still scuttling round when the gong rang through the house again, and we had to pick up our brushes and dusters and run quick.

Apparently we mustn't be seen. It was to be assumed, I suppose, that the fairies had been at the rooms.
Unlike the easy interactions that take place on Downton and that we remember from Upstairs Downstairs, most servants were terrified of their employers. At a time when the alternative was backbreaking farm work, life in a grand house was only a good deal by comparison, and again -- hardly representative of the society we in America have always claimed to want. Or in this age of talk of "makers and takers", perhaps we do, though one has to wonder about the special place of the landed gentry in the Downton era, who seemed to have little required of them beyond reading and a sizable social calendar, while their servants worked eighteen hours a day, six and a half days a week, with only a half-day off once a week -- hardly enough time to be an amateur CSI investigator, as Downton's Anna seems to have.

Perhaps it's about sexual restraint -- but only for women. In most Edwardian houses, fraternizing among the servants was frowned upon, and unlike Daisy's tragic wedding to the unfortunate William on Downton, more often than not both parties would be sacked, and the woman in the relationship blamed. Half of all children born out of wedlock in 1911 were born to women in domestic service, which makes me wonder for how many doing the master's bidding involved more than just polishing the silver.

So what is this "vanished virtue" about which this letter writer is so wistful? I'd like to believe that it's the sense of noblesse oblige that used to accompany great wealth; the understanding that with great wealth came great responsibility, as Andrew Carnegie noted in his 1889 essay The Gospel of Wealth:

What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is founded have thrown it into the hands of the few ? And it is of this great question that I believe I offer the true solution. It will be understood that fortunes are here spoken of, not moderate sums saved by many years of effort, the returns on which are required for the comfortable maintenance and education of families. This is not wealth, but only competence which it should be the aim of all to acquire.

There are but three modes in which surplus wealth can be disposed of. It call be left to the families of the decedents; or it can be bequeathed for public purposes; or, finally, it can be administered during their lives by its possessors. Under the first and second modes most of the wealth of the world that has reached the few has hitherto been applied. Let us in turn consider each of these modes. The first is the most injudicious. In monarchical countries, the estates and the greatest portion of the wealth are left to the first son, that the vanity of the parent may be gratified by the thought that his name and title are to descend to succeeding generations unimpaired. The condition of this class in Europe to-day teaches the futility of such hopes or ambitions.The successors have become impoverished through their follies or from the fall in the value of land. Even in Great Britain the strict law of entail has been found inadequate to maintain the status of an hereditary class. Its soil is rapidly passing into the hands of the stranger. Under republican institutions the division of property among the children is much fairer, but the question which forces itself upon thoughtful men in all lands is: Why should men leave great fortunes to their children? If this is done from affection, is it not misguided affection?


The growing disposition to tax more and more heavily large estates left at death is a cheering indication of the growth of a salutary change in public opinion. The State of Pennsylvania now takes--subject to some exceptions--one-tenth of the property left by its citizens. The budget presented in the British Parliament the other day proposes to increase the death-duties ; and,most significant of all, the new tax is to be a graduated one. Of all forms of taxation, this seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for - public ends would work good to the community, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the state, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share. By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.

It is desirable ;that nations should go much further in this direction.

Compare this kind of wealthy man with, say, Willard Romney, whose wealth was obtained by driving ever more people into poverty, and whose philanthropy, such as it is, involves contributing to a church that baptizes dead Jews and seeks to block gay people from enjoying the privileges he takes for granted. Or like Donald Trump, who inherited $400 million from his father and has spent the last three decades strutting around like a self-made man. Or any of the various billionaires who have attempted to buy themselves a government that will take what little the lower socioeconomic levels have left and further line their pockets with it.

If that's the kind of "vanished virtue" to which the writer of that letter to the local newspaper was referring, I'm on board. But somehow I don't think it is.

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Blogger Bob said...
Excellent post.