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"The Wrong Class"

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"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.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
izzy_the_hutt
Sep. 14th, 2012 06:55 am (UTC)
Um...way to totally miss the point?

Obviously Matthew is technically an upper-class man. Otherwise he wouldn't be inheriting a peerage. But he isn't a peer until then, he is the heir presumptive, not the heir apparent. He doesn't get the perfunctory title Robert's son would have gotten (Viscount Downton.)

The point is that he, and, more importantly, his father live as if this does not matter. They choose to work in prosperous, upper-middle class professions (medicine and the law.) Matthew was public-school educated, it's not as though he's SO different from the Crawleys. He knows how to ride, for example.

The point is that, even if you have the correct lineage and breeding and all the like, there is a certain art to it that is learned that Matthew doesn't have. No one in their household has a butler, valet or ladies' maid. All the characters on the show (especially the servants) see his middle class mores and values first, before they see his family tree. For the first 25 years of his life or so Matthew was living like a middle-class man, and it shows.

Third cousins, once removed is not a particularly close tie. It means that Great great great grandfather was Robert's great great great grandfather, the whichever Earl of Grantham. Given that, consider the idea that Matthew comes from a line of younger sons, say, who've had to make their own way because of an entail. I don't think it's that implausible for Matthew's branch of the family to have diluted from their aristo stock.

Also, Matthew's father died when he was young and so he's essentially been living with his very middle-class mother for most of that time. So those are the mores and values that he has, and the aristocratic ones are openly anathema to him for about 2/3 of the first season.

And like, when he starts to act like an heir....pretty much everyone accepts him anyway in that role.

I get what you're trying to say, but I think you're a little off base. Sorry >:
zmeischa
Sep. 14th, 2012 06:41 pm (UTC)
But Matthew wasn't the heir presumptive to Earl of Grantham, that was Patrick's father, and Patrick was next in line. There were two people between Matthew (and Matthew's father) and the title, not one.
ctrent29
Sep. 14th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
Um...way to totally miss the point?

Obviously Matthew is technically an upper-class man. Otherwise he wouldn't be inheriting a peerage. But he isn't a peer until then, he is the heir presumptive, not the heir apparent. He doesn't get the perfunctory title Robert's son would have gotten (Viscount Downton.)

The point is that he, and, more importantly, his father live as if this does not matter. They choose to work in prosperous, upper-middle class professions (medicine and the law.) Matthew was public-school educated, it's not as though he's SO different from the Crawleys. He knows how to ride, for example.



I KNOW that Matthew's father had chosen to live in an upper middle-class environment. I had POINTED this out in the article. But it doesn't matter what type of lifestyle that he and his father had existed in. They are members of the aristocracy by blood . . . a legitimate blood connection.

There are members of the aristocracy and landed gentry (all from the upper class), who existed in lifestyles that one would deem as working-class, let alone, middle-class. But they would still be considered members of the upper class, due to their family connections and bloodline.


Third cousins, once removed is not a particularly close tie. It means that Great great great grandfather was Robert's great great great grandfather, the whichever Earl of Grantham. Given that, consider the idea that Matthew comes from a line of younger sons, say, who've had to make their own way because of an entail. I don't think it's that implausible for Matthew's branch of the family to have diluted from their aristo stock.

Diluted? It was close enough for Matthew to become the new heir following the deaths of Lord Grantham's first cousin and the latter's son. And it doesn't matter. Matthew is a descendant of a past Earl of Grantham on his father's side. He is a Crawley . . . a member of the family. That is all that matters. It was enough to make him the earl's new heir.




But Matthew wasn't the heir presumptive to Earl of Grantham, that was Patrick's father, and Patrick was next in line.

Following the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, Matthew became the Earl of Grantham's new heir presumptive.
mirandascully
Sep. 15th, 2012 11:17 am (UTC)
But he's not a peer and he has no title; he works for a living, not only that, but being a solicitor was considered as being in trade, so he couldn't be presented at court; his life style, his upbringing, make it so that Fellowes couldn't have described him as anything but upper middle class. Being a direct descendant in the male-line of a nobleman puts Matthew within the aristocracy, technically, but his connection is so diluted that in social circles he wouldn't have been looked upon as such. In this case, when describing a character on a script, class is not merely a bureaucratic tag - it's who he is, who he considers himself to be, and how people see him, and I think that Matthew could be considered nothing but a product of the upper middle class.

I want to add that the show has never implied that class is perceived according to someone's bank account. Think of Lord Hepworth, and even about Robert himself - who had to marry into new money to save the estate - but was never considered anything but upperclass...
ctrent29
Sep. 15th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
Matthew is only a "product" of the middle-class because he was raised in such an environment and his mother is from the middle-class.

But "DOWNTON ABBEY" is not set in the late 20th or early 21st century. And you're judging his status based on the level of material wealth he grew up with and his profession.

During the era of the series, a person's social status - especially the upper class - was judged on that individual's blood connections. Especially that person's paternal blood connection, regardless of how much money he/she had or how that person was raised.

I now see that we'll never agree on this topic.



I want to add that the show has never implied that class is perceived according to someone's bank account. Think of Lord Hepworth, and even about Robert himself - who had to marry into new money to save the estate - but was never considered anything but upperclass.


That's great . . . except Fellowes failed to do the same for Matthew. It would have been okay for him to label Isobel as middle-class, because she was. Being a descendant of a past Earl of Grantham and a legitimate cousin of the present by blood on his father's side made Matthew a member of the upper class.
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