On Self-Made Success: Let’s Talk About Downton Abbey, Season 6 Episode 4
Contains spoilers for Downton Abbey, Season 6 Episode 4. If you’ve seen other season 6 episodes, let’s keep the discussion just on episode 4 to avoid spoiling anyone else.
It’s nice when an episode states its thesis within the first four minutes, and this episode we get Tom, recently returned from America, announcing how his political and social views have changed:
“I don’t feel the same about capitalism. Not American capitalism, anyway, where a hard-working man can go right to the top, all the way, in a single lifetime.”
“Which still isn’t true here,” Mary responds.
Which still isn’t true here, all of us American viewers thought in unison.
Episode 4 asks us to consider whether modern success—and I do mean our modern success, because Downton Abbey has always been as much about the turn of this century as it has been about the turn of the previous one—can only come when you are a self-made person.
The show gracefully sidesteps the colloquialism of “self-made man” by giving us a self-made woman: Gwen Harding, the former Downton housemaid who decided she wanted something better for herself and, twelve years later, is now working in government and is taking a leadership role as fundraiser for women’s college Hillcroft.
She also married into either the middle or the upper class; it’s a little unclear where Mr. Harding fits into the so-called “British class system” (and if I missed a telling detail, please correct me), but it is clear that he and his wife are both welcome guests at Downton, in a way that someone like schoolteacher Sarah Bunting is not.
In other words: hard-working Gwen has gone right to the top, all the way, in a single lifetime.
One of the reasons I stuck with freelancing, instead of going back to a “traditional job,” was that I wanted to be in charge of my own career trajectory. More specifically: I knew that I could work as hard as I wanted and go after as many opportunities as I wanted, instead of working on someone else’s timeline.
For someone like me, who is naturally suited for “the hustle,” freelancing was the smartest career choice I could make. It also means it’s easy for me to read this episode as a story of freelancing vs. traditional employment, even though Gwen is not a freelancer. Gwen is able to go after the opportunities she wants, and Thomas has to wait until the person above him retires.
But freelancing doesn’t work that way for everybody, and we’ve seen more than one example of a Downton character working outside of the service industry and failing: Mr. Carson as a singing and dancing member of the Cheerful Charlies, Thomas getting caught in that “Sell flour from home! My cousin made £5,000!” scam.
Setting off on your own does not necessarily equate to becoming a self-made person. Luckily for us all, Downton gracefully addresses this problem too.
Here we go: Gwen acknowledges that her success comes, in a large part, from Sybil’s assistance. Gwen did the work, but Sybil loaned her clothing, provided transportation for interviews, and introduced her to that first all-important employer, the one that provides a foundation for all of the success to come.
Is Gwen “self-made?” Did she benefit from privilege? Does every self-made person require an initial helping hand, reaching down to haul them out of their current situation? Is it worth noting that Gwen’s husband is Hillcroft’s treasurer and is no doubt the reason why Gwen is now working on Hillcroft’s fundraising team?
Tom wants to be self-made; he plans on rejecting the Downton agent position in favor of starting something of his own, maybe something to do with cars. But Tom’s current social status derives entirely from his marriage to Sybil; he would very likely still be working in service if she did not also offer him her hand.
Edith, who has also been upwardly mobile as of late, is running a newspaper that she only owns because her former lover left it to her in his will. Would she have had that opportunity without that connection?
Would I have my current success without privilege and my own set of helping hands and all-important freelance employers?
There’s one more piece I want to discuss, and it has to do with being kind. Lord Grantham tells Thomas that the reason Mr. Carson is successful (and, by implication, the reason that Thomas is not) is because Mr. Carson is kind. “That’s why people are loyal to him,” Lord Grantham says.
It’s not enough to be a hard worker, in other words. You also need the right personality. When I wrote yesterday’s “Job of the Day: Canhead” piece I was struck by the way Canhead’s website listed “kindness” as the second reason why you should hire him.
I work very hard at being kind. Almost as hard as I do at booking freelance gigs. When I realized that writing speculative pieces about people’s lives could be viewed as an unkindness, for example, I set myself a goal to stop writing speculative articles. When I was testing and reviewing recipes last week, I specifically approached my final “what I learned from this week of home cooking” piece from a point of kindness, noting a few criticisms and then focusing on what had gone well and how I would improve my cooking in the future.
This is all deliberate. I am kind by nature but I am also kind by profession. I want kindness to be my brand.
After all, I want to be a self-made person.