I am a shameless addict of the hit British period drama, Downton Abbey. After a friend turned me on to it over Christmas break, I watched the entire first season in two days and joined a Sunday night viewing club for the second season. I just cannot get enough of the drama, scandal, intrigue and gorgeous gowns donned by the Crawley girls. I am counting down the days until the Christmas special.
One of the most captivating facets of Downton Abbey for American audiences is the elegance of the upper class Edwardian society. We feel enchanted by the antiquated social graces, the intense rules of etiquette and the league of footmen, ladies’ maids, and butlers to answer to our every whim. Upon reflecting further on this charming society of days gone by, I realized the upstairs-downstairs dynamic of the societal elite and the invisible working class is still very much alive in American culture today.
Downton Abbey features several Irish immigrants, including O’Brien, the ladies’ maid, and Branson, the chauffer. The Irish potato famine and general economic depression in the late 19th century sent masses of Irish looking elsewhere for work, as close as England, and as far as America-this is why so many of us have Irish heritage. However, England was the destination of choice for Irish immigrants, many of whom immigrated to do seasonal harvest labor. Dependence on Irish immigrants was furthered by the severe labor shortage in Britain during the mid-twentieth century, which drew Irish immigrants to work in the areas of construction and domestic housework, just like in the show.
Irish immigrants were vital to the construction industry in 20th century Britain, but where are their names in the history books? This trend of building a great nation on the backs of hard-working immigrants is nothing new: just as in the Downton Abbey era, Americans today depend upon our Mexican and Central American immigrants to provide us with construction laborers, seasonal agricultural workers and domestic house workers.
The lifestyle of the Downton Abbey residents depends upon on the hard-working, tireless efforts of the servants downstairs. In Edwardian society, servants were to be invisible. They had separate staircases, hallways, eating quarters and entrances. They were to clean the rooms, light the fires, and change the linens without ever being seen or disturbing the family. At Downton Abbey, though, there are at least some suggestions the family does realize these immigrants are fellow human beings. For instance, Lord Grantham inquires after the well-being of his staff as he interacts with them and Lady Sybil goes to great lengths to get her ladies maid, Gwen, a job in the first season. Even the staunch traditionalist, the Dowager Countess, tries to get William the footman out of active duty in the war.
Though most Americans do not have employees living in our home, we still rely dramatically on the labor of others in various sectors of our economy—but how often do we really see them, know their names, and care for their families? In my community, the people who dry clean my clothes, who clean the school where I work after I go home at night and who make my meals when I go out to eat are mostly immigrants-many of them undocumented.
We trust some of the most important tasks of our business, family life, and industry to immigrants, but few take the time to learn their names. Maybe if we look beyond job titles, socio-economic status, legal status and country of origin, we would find these individuals on whom our livelihoods depend are individuals made in the image of God. We might find they are of no less inherent worth or dignity than any other—and then we would begin to stand in solidarity with them as they seek justice.
Diana Soerens is a high school French and Spanish teacher in suburban Chicago. She earned her Master’s Degree in French Literature from New York University and her Bachelor’s Degree from Wheaton College.
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