I try to remain neutral in this blog, but I must make an exception in the case of George F. Will’s recent over-the-top denunciation of both Downton Abbey and Charles Dickens in The Washington Post.
In the piece he characterizes Downton Abbey as another effort to further the demolition of our society as we know it – a clever attempt by the bad guys to gull the gullible. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, Mr. Will has put on full armor and attacked a hot-fudge sundae.
Downton Abbey, like many of the excellent Masterpiece offerings, gives us a portrait of what Britain was like in the past. It does not glorify the lives of the wealthy or portray them as heroes. They are often, but not always, presented as idle, shallow, and clueless people who have little regard for those who are less fortunate than they are. These sometimes-haughty individuals are shown making the same mistakes that the commoners make – despite their impressive titles, fine clothes and well-polished manners.
The servants exhibit the same qualities and foibles as the upper class, but they are punished severely when they make mistakes, and are helpless when circumstances beyond their control threaten to destroy their lives. The rape of the servant Anna in a recent episode is a good example of what the lowly faced (and still face in some situations). Her rape is not included in Downton Abbey simply to add yet another plot line; it demonstrates how helpless those in the underclass were in protecting themselves and in righting wrongs.
Next, Will dismisses Charles Dickens as a maudlin writer who could only appeal to the simple minded. In his books Dickens wrote feelingly about the horrid conditions he lived through as a child – about the hardships and tragedies that forever scarred his life. And although he never gave lectures about the shame of the debtor’s prisons or lead marches to protest the lack of child labor laws, through his writings he did more than anyone else of his era to bring about positive changes in British society, and to make readers around the world feel more compassion for the unfortunate.
And using Oscar Wilde’s words to trash Dickens’s reputation as a writer is pathetic. Wilde was a professional horse’s ass – a master of witty but savagely sarcastic one-liners. To present him as a credible judge of the worth of Dickens’ writings shows a lack of creativity and displays a certain desperation on the part of Mr. Will to find some way to successfully argue a bankrupt case. I expected better from him.
Downton Abbey will continue to be enjoyed by millions despite his blustering, and Charles Dickens – and even Oscar Wilde – will be remembered long after the world has forgotten that a pedant named George F. Will ever existed.