A Point of Honor
February 10th, 2012

About nine months ago my mother and sister started yammering on about some British series that I absolutely had to watch called “Downton Abbey.”  I blew them off.  While I can certainly appreciate a good British production my tastes are typically more mainstream than theirs.  These two can devour episode after episode of the most obscure film or series.  I assumed this was more of the same.  Then the Emmys rolled around and “Downton Abbey” cleaned up.  Over the holidays when we all gathered here for Christmas their well-intentioned suggestions started afresh.  Finally, a couple of weeks ago I gave in.  And…

They were right.  It’s wonderful.  The scenery and costumes are stunning.  The characters are fresh.  The dialog is clever.  The plot is intriguing.  In short, I am hooked.

Imagining a life of evening gowns and ladies’ maids is mind candy enough.  But when I stop daydreaming there are other aspects of this show that pique my interest even further.  The biggest “for instance” in this category is the sense of honor and pride exemplified by many of the characters, most notably the staff.

These are people who are, by all practical means, condemned to a life of service.  There was no way out of the class you were born into in England at that time.  Cooking and cleaning.  Being always present but still invisible.  Tending to the needs – however superficial – of other people all the time.  Zipping dresses they’ll never get to wear and fluffing beds they’ll never get to sleep in.  This is largely thankless work, but these characters take a surprising amount of pride in doing it well and bringing honor to the family they serve in the process.

Watching “Downton Abbey” I can’t help but wonder how many people today put so much of themselves into their work.  I’m not just talking about long hours in corporate cubicles.  Many people put that much of their time into their work.  But how many people derive such a sense of honor from their work?  How many of us avoid foolish behavior because of the shadow it might cast on our employer?  How many of us would tender our resignations because an embarrassing incident from our past came to light and might be seen as shameful to our boss?  I can’t get over the extent to which these characters’ identities are inextricable from their work in the household.

Of course they are fictional characters.  They are largely painted in shades of black and white in the way that many imagined characters are.  So this phenomenon I write of here is likely exaggerated for the screen.  Nevertheless, in shows and films that take place in present day we see characters compartmentalize their personal and professional lives.  (Granted most of us don’t live in our bosses’ homes.  That presents an additional dynamic.)  We see characters try to explain away their mistakes and bad behavior.  We see them fight for their personal gain.  We rarely see such devotion to any person or cause outside the character’s own self.

I suppose what I’m angling at here is that in looking at our culture today I see a lack of service.*  Yes, when earthquakes and tsunamis hit we line up to donate blood and money.  But on a regular basis I don’t typically find that service – to the greater good in any of its forms – is a driving force in the lives of many people around me.  To clarify, I don’t think that being a footman or a ladies’ maid in an aristocratic British house really did that much for the greater good either.  But these characters (most of them, anyway – there are a few weasels in the bunch…) exhibit a true spirit of service, and pride in doing so.  And that is a quality I don’t see much of.  And it’s a quality that I think, if more prevalent, could be an incredible agent for change and improvement in today’s world.

*And I’m not the only one.  Earlier this week I read this article that looks at the career choices of Prince William’s classmates at Eton, sadly noting that most of them have chosen careers that afford them great opportunities to make vast sums of money, but little opportunity to do much real good.

3 Responses to “A Point of Honor”

  1. Gale Says:

    As a quick follow-up, I can think of one exception in modern-day programming. The characters on “The West Wing” (of which I was a huge fan) cared a great deal about the quality of their work and how it reflected on the Bartlet administration. Come to think of it, someone with these values of service crops up in just about anything Aaron Sorkin writes.

  2. Linda Ebright Says:

    My daughter Ali was just recommending this series to me – now I’m intrigued. And yes, we are also giant West Wing fans. Sometimes we watch real-life politicians in action and think…”how would Pres. Bartlett have handled that?” Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. Anne Says:

    I love this, and have been so captured by this aspect of the series. Duty, honor, loyalty…it exists today, sure, but in such a different way. The servants in this show are loyal to a point that I think is all but gone today. Maybe it’s because they all live under the same roof? It’s almost like an odd family. Super fascinating. The original “Upstairs Downstairs” did a fantastic job with this topic too, but it’s just not as juicy as this:) Hooray for Downton Abbey!