When my friends settled with some popcorn and Downton Abbey a few weeks ago, it was the first time one of them had seen it and I could tell that while she wanted to see it, she wasn't wildly enthusiastic about it. But as my friend got into the plot and characters, she asked that vital question, when realizing that your historical English nobles seem to have a lot of land, big houses, and lots of time on their hands---
"What exactly does he do?"
"He manages his estate."
"Yeah, but what does he do?"
It's question I found myself asking quite a lot of, when I read Regency-set romance after Regency romance because these lords, they sure had an awful lot of time to be worrying over their future wives. Some of them actually did manage their lands--they would sign and read papers, talk to their stewards, visit their tenants, or talk about being in the House of Lords in Parliament. A few books would manage to convey the power the upper echelons had, whether it was influence in government or influence socially or diplomatically.
Now, Downton is set about a hundred years after the Regency, but it wasn't that different for those kinds of people. They still had land and titles and servants. It was a mark of the very rich that they didn't really do anything--as in make a living. The aristocracy didn't work. Often, the younger sons of a family would go out and earn their living (in the military, the navy, the church or they became MPs or trial lawyers), but that was because they didn't get the title or the money or the land.
This is why the heir to the title in Downton, Matthew, a lawyer, is considered very middle class. He works for a living. His father, a doctor, worked for a living, too, it seems.
I gave this question to a character in my book: Miles's old friend and employee, Anthony Hinshaw, is an American Quaker. He's currently visiting Miles in England. Now, Anthony is a wise man and understands that Miles must, to a certain extent, integrate into the local gentry society of his new home village, not only for himself, but especially for his young daughters. But Anthony is a sea captain, likely the son of a middle class Quaker shopkeeper, and doesn't understand the English aristocratic lifestyle.
So he asks Miles, as they ride through the village to Lord Banston's estate, "What exactly do they do all day?"
Hinshaw replies: "What a wasteful lot."