Dickens, Orwell and Downton Abbey
On my Kindle, George Orwell’s essays have been waiting for me since Christmas. My husband takes the holiday very seriously and demands a list of presents I would enjoy. That’s a lot of pressure, and I am sometimes forced into hurried requests. I had a thought that I’d like to see how he stood up in changing times.
Animal Farm and 1984 are spectacular, but it wasn’t until I read Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in London and Paris that I really got to know this man. He was a real person with his own adventures not merely a crafter of stories from the sidelines.
I figured his essays would bring me more of that guy.
These particular essays included one he titles: “Charles Dickens.”
An author talking about another author? Yes, I want to read that one. Yes.
He begins his essay to address that other people have called Dickens Marxist. Orwell loves talking Dickens and political ideology, and delightfully examines Dickens’ characters for embryonic political leanings. He talks about the servants and how Dickens treats them:
“It was an age of enormous families, pretentious meals and inconvenient houses, when the slavey drudging fourteen hours a day in the basement kitchen was something too normal to be noticed.”
I cannot help but think of Downton Abbey. Isn’t the relationship between the servants and The Family at Downton such a perfect example of this? An army of servants is required to give the titled family the glorious lifestyle we admire and cannot stop watching.
Downton Abbey is a TV show. And it makes us think think think about what it was like at that time. The cook and her several helpers do slave away all day.
Orwell goes on to say:
“Without a high level of mechanical development, human equality is not practically possible.”
For Dickens, it was inevitable that there were cooks and footmen and butlers. In Downton Abbey, that life is coming into question 50 years later. The family clutches its pearls about the changes.
The servants are the ones who encounter the mechanical development. The ladies’ maids get a sewing machine to help with the mending, and the cook is comically afraid of the electric toaster.
Think about this for a minute. The system of dependency that Dickens, and later Downton Abbey rely on means that toast means something else entirely than what we understand it.
If the food preparers were at the bottom of the basement, would a Dickens’ character even get a piece of hot toast? Probably never in his life!
I can have a piece of delicious hot toast anytime I want, and enjoy the lovely smell. That never happened in a world of separated servants. Some things must be done by oneself to really work.
So I think, what if the Family at Downton had the toaster up in their dining room? Maybe it would pop up right there, and they could enjoy it.
Different world. Here’s the problem with that:
How did they run electricity into the house at all? For a family estate, from god-knows-how-long-ago, I am pretty sure the walls are not the regularly placed two-by-four frames on a raised foundation.
I had to re-do the electricity on my 1950s house. It was incredibly easy, and now I can run the microwave and the air conditioner at the same time. Neither of those inventions was in houses when my house was built. But the ticky-tacky houses in my neighborhood allowed for the integration of things they couldn’t imagine. You know what else? I live in an area of greater human equality.
Back in the 1300s or whenever Downton Abbey was fictionally created, they didn’t look that far ahead. Their land and titles were part of the feudal system, which had supported them for a very long time.
In Dickens’ stories, like so many Victorian stories, social mobility is at the center. People are trying to better themselves. Money and virtue is key.
The Granthams were already at the top, and they found themselves on a melting iceberg. Other Victorian novels show up how the titled nobility have to marry moneyed nouveau riche to get the resources to keep their burdensome estates going.
The Granthams are all about that. “What are we to do?” The symbols of their status are the albatross around their necks. The transition is not easy.
Earlier in the essay Orwell says: “Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow, and invariably disappointing.”
Have you noticed something? I see it. We are in the middle of a slow and disappointing progression right now. Call it the information age. Call it the fall of the commercial exploitation empire. Call it Catch 22.
Preservation is not what it used to be. Which institution needs to be abandoned for which idea to be preserved?
I am not certain that the idea has been born yet. Or, which idea of the many downy chicklings will grow into the one that takes flight with our collective hopes. Orwell thought a lot about political ideas. They are seductive to be sure. I think a lot about electricity, roads and data flows. I had better feed all the chicks though.