Weekend croquet parties, tight uniforms on broad-shouldered grooms, rooms full of delicate porcelain – the English country house and its social pleasures strike a particular register of gay male culture. From cottages to grand estates, this bucolic setting has been charging plots with camp and gravitas since before the decline of the aristocracy. In tandem with a recent rise in social inequality, the country house appeal has increased, gaining mainstream success in films like Gosford Park and, of course, the ITV television drama, Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey has succeeded by balancing a slightly ridiculous plot and surface-level character development with superb attention to the details of fashion, décor, and etiquette. Although the aesthetic appeal of chintz fabrics and Wedgewood china has always struck a chord among the toff register of gay male audiences, the country house is also one of the few acceptable genres for representing historical homosexuality to contemporary popular audiences.
Elizabeth McGovern, Lesley Nicol, Hugh Bonneville, Rob James-Collier, Siobhan Finneran
Straddling the Edwardian and interwar era, Downton Abbey’s temporality has particularly queer resonances. Gay Producer Ismail Merchant and Director James Ivory successfully captured the same period in their adaptations of novels by E. M. Forster and Henry James. Their films stage romantic entanglements and social faux pas against a backdrop of decadent aristocrats and the respectable, hypocritical middle classes and have became so signature that Merchant & Ivory now denotes a genre.
Maurice, the film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s posthumously published novel, was Merchant and Ivory’s most explicitly homosexual version of the country house genre. Ostensibly autobiographical, Maurice describes the social and psychological conflicts emerging from a trans-class love affair between two men in Edwardian England.
A house gamekeeper, Scudder, and London stockbroker, Alec, meet at the country house of Alec’s ambiguously gay but now safely married Oxford crush. They exchange enough sexy glances to encourage Scudder to climb in Alec’s window, and the rest of their story follows the standard tropes of early 20th century homosexual love. Fears of blackmail, visits to a psychoanalyst who promises a cure, and a possible escape to Australia are the prelude to a happy ending, consummated in the same garden shed where Scudder and Alec first did it.
The double impossibility of having sex outside of one’s class and within one’s gender blossomed in the medieval confines of the country estate, which provided a place outside of time for the development of queer affection. As the aristocracy entered its long decline, its base in the countryside became less about work, more about pleasure, and increasingly a beautiful relic of an idealized past. Because the country estate also blended public workspace for servants and entertaining aristocrats with the private space of eating, sleeping, and fucking, it was also the ideal spot for intimate mixing between the classes.
The apogee of this perspective is Evelyn Waugh’s 1922 Brideshead Revisited, lavishly depicted in a 1981 BBC nine-part miniseries. While not forthrightly homosexual, the youngest heir to the Brideshead estate, wistful, blonde-haired Sebastian and his Oxford chum, Charles, are fashionable, artistic, and one of them is Catholic, any quality of which could have signalled moral deviance of the Oscar Wilde sort in interwar England.
Charles’ fused obsession with Sebastian, Sebastian’s doomed family, and Brideshead Estate is a classic case of slippage, where Charles’s love for the great estate stands in for his love of Sebastian’s angelic countenance. Brideshead Revisited demonstrates how time, place, and the gay romance worked concurrently, with love of one blending into love of the other and providing useful disguise at a time where homosexual love still “dare not speak its name.”
The trans-class sexual encounters that the great house facilitated resonates with the historical record. Numerous early 20th century men who had sex with men professed a desire to have sex only outside of their class. Edward Carpenter, an early advocate for homosexual rights, wrote that “often Uranians [homosexuals] of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow.” Xavier Mayne, another early 20th century writer on homosexuality agreed, and in describing the pernicious result of this attraction, noted that “no female blackmailer, however audacious and cruel, ever has shown herself quite so torturing in shattering nerves, happiness, fortune, courage, social quietude and life as has the methodical homosexual blackmailing demon proved himself.”
The history of class-structured sexual desire, while important, excludes the larger tableau of queer life in the first part of the 20th century. During most of this period, sex was arranged in public – at urinals, in parks, outside theatres – between perfect strangers, and longer-term connections were formed surreptitiously at underground venues and through networks of the similarly inclined. The great house dramas, which mix nostalgia for archaic politics with rural prejudice, are a curious venue to explore queer history. Their consistent and growing popular presence skews the historical record. It’s no wonder that representations of historical homosexuality in Downton Abbey are scoured of political edginess.
When Downton Abbey premiered in September 2010, footman Thomas Barrow, and a visiting Duke feud over the Duke’s theft of compromising love letters from Thomas’ bedside table. Thomas had intended to use the letters to blackmail the Duke, in a probably accurate depiction of the tension that infused cross-class sexual encounters between men when homosexuality was still criminalised.
Thomas’s sexuality remerges several episodes later when he mistakes a visiting Turkish dignitary for one of the Oscar Wilde sort, and manages to extricate himself from the sticky situation by showing the man the bedroom of Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter, Mary, where the Turk steals her prized virginity and causes a scandal by dying on the spot.
Fellows’ script intends Thomas to be read as malignant. Constantly plotting for his ambitious project of becoming Lord Grantham’s valet, his meanness takes on Disney-villain proportions. From framing the hapless Mr. Bates for stealing wine to leading on the innocent char maid in order to hurt another footman’s romantic chances, Thomas is sly, but there is little reason guiding his malignancy besides his own small ambition. His desire to join the army in 1914 is framed in terms of this ambition. Of course, Thomas discovers the servant’s quarters infinitely preferable to the Western Front and he deliberately injures himself to get away from the battlefield, thus assuring the audience of his essential cowardice.
Thomas’s sexuality never assumes a threatening posture, despite the myriad engagements he attempts with straight men. His first effort at blackmail fails because the Duke of Cowborough steals the evidence from Thomas’s bedside table. His second attempt to bed the Turkish dignitary ends in rebuke, and Thomas ends up getting blackmailed. By the time he falls in love with a fellow footman in the third season, Thomas’s ignominious failure renders him less subversive than sympathetic. Although Thomas is denoted by his sexual orientation, we see very little sex from him. What we get instead is bumbling romanticism, utterly in contrast with his usual plotting demeanour.
Mrs. O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s personal maid, is more subversive of gender and sexual norms than Thomas. In contrast to the general fecundity of the female servants, who come in varieties of matronly, innocent, and slutty – Mrs. O’Brien is neither pretty, matronly, or the least bit slutty. She is devoted to one person, Lady Grantham, and Lady Grantham admits to being devoted to O’Brien. Lady Grantham assumes O’Brien’s position on household gossip in disputes with Lord Grantham.
While every single female servant on the show has been the object of some romance, however minor, Mrs. O’Brien remains above such displays of weakness. The closest she comes to intimacy is a meeting with a fellow lady’s maid, “a kindred spirit”, during a visit to an estate in Scotland. The looks they exchanged across the servants’ dining room table made everyone in the room ill at ease, and gestured uncomfortably to the blank page that was O’Brien’s record on intimacy.
O’Brien, always dressed in black, hair pulled back severely, speaking in a quiet, steady voice that drops acidic violence on the innocent servants, is Thomas’s lone ally for the first season. The shots of the two of them smoking in the kitchen yard, constantly hatching plots to destroy lives, show that what O’Brien and Thomas have in common is a kind of predisposition to disrupting the natural course of events. Both of them wish to insert themselves – Thomas as valet, and O‘Brien as a veritable third in the relationship of Lord and Lady Grantham – outside of their predetermined roles. But unlike Thomas, O’Brien’s desire to disrupt the normative expectations of lady’s maid goes beyond mere careerism.
O’Brien’s edginess extends to the political sphere. While the top-down dynamics of country house living have neutered Thomas’s transgressive potential, O’Brien’s personal vendetta imperils the orderly succession of class privilege. The great tragedy that launches Downton Abbey is the death of a male heir. Thanks to some sexist trick of the Common Law, the Granthams’ three daughters are ineligible to inherit the house and title. When Lady Grantham becomes pregnant, the estate appears secure and the eldest daughter appears liberated from marrying a middle-class barrister.
Until the lady’s maid steps in. O’Brien mistakenly believes that Lady Grantham is on the verge of dismissing her and finding a replacement. Jealous, angry, and hurt after all these years of devoted service, O’Brien leaves a bar of soap underneath the bath. Lady Grantham slips on the soap and miscarries the heir.
No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
(Duke University Press; US: Oct 2004)
In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman outlines the radical potential of queerness as its strategic opposition to what he calls “reproductive futurism”. Edelman writes that the Child “whose innocence solicits our defense [and] shapes the logic within which the political itself must be thought” limits our political imagination and anchors the social order. While not essentially immune to heteronormative family values, a queer relation to them has the potential to undermine the logic of the social order by countering the logic of reproductive futurity with the certainty of no reproduction.
Seen in the light of such Jaques Lacan-inflected literary analysis, O’Brien takes on an utterly more dangerous and forthrightly queer position than Thomas could ever aspire to. In writing a robust dyke who never lowers herself to “coming out” yet opposes the reproductive futurity and perpetuation of class privilege in one swell blow, Fellows’ unwittingly created one of the more radical queer figures in the history of great house dramas. O’Brien is the counterpoint to the maid’s sexual availability as well as the challenge to the social and political order anchored in the birth of a male heir. That she did it all because of lover’s jealously over her potential replacement fuses her political stance with a personal vendetta.
The lady’s maid, O’Brien, perhaps against the producer’s best intentions, prevents the forming of conservative sexual bonds across time. While hinting at transgressive sexuality, her desires resist easy classification and consumption. Instead of caving to the pressure of sexual availability, seemingly guaranteed for the rest of the parlour maids, she inserts herself skilfully in the series’ most privileged coupling, that of Lord and Lady Grantham. Her insinuation in the heterosexual reproduction of an heir and a certain political future that such an heir would ensure her sexuality a radical political edge.