Why is Polly whining about Downton Abbey?


La Toynbee is whining about Downton Abbey. How it shows the appallingness of old English society and how we're coming back to that masters and servants type world again. Hmm:

To control history by rewriting the past subtly influences present attitudes too: every dictator knows that.

Well, yes, quite.

What we never see is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5.30am; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda. We never dwell on the hardship of scrubbing floors, or scrubbing clothes, or scouring grease; in pre-detergent days, they were up to their elbows all day long. And yet they had virtually no water or time for washing themselves. Servants were often sooty and dirty. They smelled strongly of sweat, with few clean clothes, says Dr Lucy Delap, author of Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain. She says they used patchouli oil to cover the sweat, the identifying aromas of hard service. In Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light records Virginia Woolf observing “Mabel sweats when she is making jam”. Even the somewhat more enlightened and sometimes embarrassed Bloomsbury set wrote of their “inferiors”, Woolf talking of “that poor gaping imbecile, my charwoman”.


Modern capitalism promotes the myth that we are all masters of our fate and birth is not destiny, as proof that swelling wealth at the top has been earned.

And that's where it jars. For it is modern capitalism that has stopped people having to carry water in chilblained hands. Stopped the scrubbing over the boiling laundry, the wrestles with the mangle. This is what both Hans Roslin and Ha Joon Chang, quite correctly, refer to as the technology of the washing machine. It's possibly the outstanding achievement of modern capitalism that it has managed to mechanise all of these domestic chores, freeing up large portions of the human race to do something more interesting and less exhausting.

The bits that are left out of Downton Abbey are exactly the bits that justify capitalism itself: the reduction in human drudgery. And no, socialism didn't do this: your humble author has been the less than proud owner of a Soviet washing machine and it did not remove said drudgery. This is exactly what is meant by the complaints that the Soviets concentrated upon heavy industry rather than consumer products.

There is, of course, something else that Polly's left out. Historically, in Britain at least, being a servant was more akin to an apprenticeship than anything else. Something done between puberty and marriage for the vast majority of those who did it. Only those who went on to become the senior servants (housekeeper, butler and so on) were likely to make a "career" of it. Being in service was, for most, a phase, not a life sentence.

No, we most certainly don't want to bring back mass service. Quite apart from the fact that the capitalist technology makes it irrelevant as an institution. But perhaps we could do without those who try "To control history by rewriting the past"?