Downton Abbey is the best show on television at the moment, is it not? Or at least, it has the best frocks and hats on television at the moment (sorry Mad Men, you’re so whatever year it was that everyone was into you). There is romance! Hats! It has the glorious
Professor MacGongall Maggie Smith! And Harriet Jones, Prime Minister Penelope Wilton! And Susan Death Michelle Dockery! And other people of lesser nerdy significance! And in less explanation pointy things, it’s generally well scripted, acted and a sterling example of how well the English do period upstairs/downstairs drama. Anyway, now that we’ve established how amazing Downton Abbey is (and it really is), here is the bit where I tear it apart and make pretty shapes out of it.
Much of the appeal, the dramatic tension of Downton Abbey, is in the complications of its romances. Anna and Mister Bates (always Mister Bates, even in bed), Lady Mary and Matthew, Mary and the geezer with the newspapers, Matthew and Lavinina, Lady Sibyl and the Bolshie chauffeur Branson, Lady Edith and.. well there was that farmer I suppose, and the Canadian imposter cousin (poor Edith). There are hints of romance between Mrs Hughes and Mister Carson, and even the married patriarch Lord Grantham gets a bit of action with his almost-affair with housemaid Jane.
This coupling is compulsive, and compulsory. Though a marriage scene with several couples at once ala Shakespearean comedy might be pushing it, it seems to me one of the intertexts–the proliferation of as many romances as the text can sustained. I fully expect the show to end with practically everyone happily married.
But despite the presence of one queer character on the show, Downton has been decidedly thin on queer romance. We begin the first episode with footman Thomas engaged in an affair with the Duke of Crowborough, but it ends in minutes in mutual blackmail. Unlike the majority of the heterosexual characters for whom romance is the only goal, Thomas and his accomplice O’Brien (who heteronormative assumption would see characterised as straight, despite no indication so far as I can tell one way or the other – and her causing Cora’s miscarriage would seem to indicate a certain queerness in the text per Lee Edelman, if not homosexuality) plot for mercenary gains and for straight vengeance.
Thomas’s move from Downton to the Army does not cause any great change in his fortunes with men. We know from the World War One poetry of the likes of Siegfried Sassoon that there was indeed relationships between men at the front, but Thomas does not find love there–merely a hand-removing bullet. Though there’s hints of a tenderer affection for the gasblinded lieutenant Edward Courtenay, who he cares for in the medical hospital, this ends tragically in Courtenay’s suicide. Thomas is, in other words, largely an Evil Gay archetype, and we all know the gays don’t do romance.
But it’s actually in a heterosexual storyline that I think the compulsory heterosexuality of the show really comes out–in the cringeworthy “romance” between kitchenmaid Daisy and footman William. The story starts out innocently enough, with flirtation between the two. But after Daisy impetuously kisses him, the great machine that is compulsory heterosexuality begins grinding her up. Against her protestations, William decides that she is “his girl.” He goes away to war, thinking that she’s his fiancee. Finally, he comes back from the front with an injury that will eventually kill him, but not before he’s married the reluctant Daisy.
At every step of the way, Daisy signals her hesitance and ambivalence about their “relationship,” but in a coercive heteronormative society, her lack of a no is taken as a yes. William, it seems, has not heard of enthusiastic consent, and neither has anyone else. Mrs Pattmore, the abbey’s cook and Daisy’s closest confidante, pushes Daisy to go along with William at every moment, because it would be wrong to let a man go off to war heartbroken, and Daisy can always break up with him later. When Daisy makes a passionate speech about how wrong it would be to marry a dying man she didn’t love, Mrs Pattmore and Mrs Hughes both show their disapproval of Daisy’s unwillingness to submit to a sham marriage. And even after William’s untimely death hours after their wedding, Daisy struggles to cut her ties from her now father-in-law.
Far more than a romance then, Daisy and William’s “romance” is a rite of heterosexual unamity, in which a young kitchenmaid (the youngest character on the show I think, and certainly the most disempowered) is pushed along a path to heterosexual matrimony and familial obligation by the people surrounding her, against her repeatedly stated wishes. Not even death and the promise of a small pension from the state can free her completely.
One could, if one was kind, read William’s inability to take a hint as simple ignorance. But I think it’s ignorance of a particular kind–one borne of privilege, and presumption. As Eve Sedgwick said in Epistemology of the Closet, “knowledge, after all, is not itself power, though it is the magnetic field of power. Ignorance and opacity collude and compete with knowledge in mobilising the flows of energy, desire, goods, meanings, persons.” William’s ignorance is the very foundation upon which Daisy’s coercion is maintained, and it must be maintained until the end.
Though she may or may not be queer, Daisy’s situation is decidedly queer–she is compelled to feel (or at least simulate the “proper” feelings). In her wonderful book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, feminist theorist Sara Ahmed points out that compulsory heterosexuality functions through a soliciting and policing of emotion: “the everydayness of compulsory heterosexuality is also its affectiveness, wrapped up as it is with moments of ceremony (birth, marriage, death) which bind families together.” In contrast, “queerness feels the tiredness of making corrections and departures.” It takes energy to make your unwillingness known, and to make it stick against what Sedgwick calls the “deadly elasticity of heterosexual presumption.”
It remains to be seen whether the show will give Daisy (or indeed Thomas) a proper love interest in its eagerly anticipated third series. But far more than the suffragette Lady Sibyl, the working-class Daisy is in dire need of emancipation–an evacuation from the politics of class, gender and sexuality that compel her towards the idealised heterosexual marriage whether she likes it or not.