In the discussion of last night’s Downton Abbey, I was struck by some reader comments about the way the show handled Thomas’s homosexuality. For non-viewers, one of the household staff, the villainous closeted homosexual Thomas, mistakenly believed a young staff was sexually interested in him, and made a pass at him. Thomas stood to be personally and professionally ruined, and perhaps even carted off to jail, but nearly everyone took mercy on him, and he came through it unharmed.
Some of you found it anachronistic that everyone except the rigid butler Carson would be so tolerant back in 1920. I think that’s right. Whether or not Thomas deserved mercy is not the point; the point is that it’s hard to imagine that in Britain of that era, he would have so readily received it from nearly everyone.
Another of you made the excellent point that Lord Grantham was highly tolerant of Thomas’s failure, even though he was extremely harsh and judgmental of Ethel, the housemaid who fell from grace by having a child outside of wedlock, and then worked for a while as a prostitute. As we have seen, harsh Lord Grantham was unwilling to grant Ethel the opportunity to redeem herself from her sexual sin and disgrace. But for Thomas, a different standard.
Perhaps this is a matter of misogyny. In fact, it almost certainly is. But perhaps too it is a matter of a man in power — the earl — being far more tolerant of sins he recognizes. As Grantham said to his valet last night, this sort of thing happened to him at Eton all the time.
I found myself wondering this morning about whether this explains the bishops’ response to the misbehavior (and worse) of sexually active gays in the priesthood. Even if the bishops themselves — a male ecclesial aristocracy — weren’t guilty of misbehavior, perhaps it was an evil to which they are particularly insensitive because they have seen a lot of it. To understand all is to forgive all, etc.