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Real Life History of Downton Abbey Season 2

Dr. Dina Copelman

We asked Dr. Dina Copelman, a British history professor at George Mason University, to preview the second season of Downton Abbey and give us her thoughts on how well it captured the time and place of World War I era England. Read below and learn a little something!



First impressions

Thanks to WETA I was able to gorge myself on the second season of Downton Abbey before it hit the television. No doubt I'll have lots of company soon but, for now, the rest of the country is catching up with me!

The sets, the costumes, the rooms; the privileged characters who, like the rest of us, suffer daily life; the servants, so much lower on the social scale than their employers, who are, nonetheless, respected, comfortable and — perhaps most important, according to the logic of the show — connected, bound to their employers by loyalty, confidences, affection. What’s not to like?

Not much. We all deserve this visual candy and weekly dose of escape from the current day world. This season returns us to the characters and people we became engrossed with last year. Downton’s inhabitants change and mature (the sisters are getting along better; the Dowager Countess has softened without losing her edge) but they are familiar. The pace may be slower and reviews have been more mixed, but viewers have much to look forward to for the next few Sunday evenings.

As they do so, however, let me provide some context, respond to questions and suggest some points for reflection:

What does the show accomplish?

Downton lavishes fastidious attention to the fashions and the rituals of the time. Mistakes have been identified (World War I ended in the fall, but it is springtime at Downton in the scenes depicting the end of the war) and some things questioned (was the term “boyfriend” already in common usage?). Still, it is hard to fault the show’s ability to capture the lushness of a way of life. That way of life that may be over-the-top (a World War I term, originating in trench warfare), extravagant, but the show presents its characters as both human and humane.

From a historical point of view, is the show accurate?

The show gets significant historical events right. The depiction of the 1918 “Spanish” flu epidemic is accurate — it came on suddenly, people could be well in the morning and near death at night. And it was people in the prime of life, 20-40 year olds, who were most at risk.

Matthew in trench

However, the depiction of trench warfare is mixed. The show captures what scholar Paul Fussell described as the “ridiculous proximity” between the home front and the trenches. For instance, the posh department stores Fortnum and Mason and Harrods both had gift assortments specially chosen for the front — and delivery was efficient! At the same time, we see that home and war fronts were worlds apart: the combination of pleasure and dislocation Matthew feels when he is on leave is realistic — soldiers longed for home, but sharing their experiences with loved ones was not easy.

The scenes in the trenches do not glamorize war, but trench life was much harsher. Mud, rats, lice, intolerable stench, specific diseases (“trench” foot and “trench” mouth) and boredom (lots of boredom, laced with constant fear and danger) were the daily realities Matthew, William and other characters experienced. In the show Andrew Lange, the new valet, suffers from “shellshock” (another World War I term). He is the primary stand-in for the trauma of the war, representing how the initial enthusiasm at the beginning of the war turned into weariness, disillusion, anger, loss and mourning all around. But one not-quite-crucial character cannot carry that burden; Downton’s portrayal of the actual war and its impact is quite sanitized.

How well does the show represent the politics of the time?

World War I is presented as a somewhat abstract affair. There are a few references to specific events, but for the most part we have very little sense of political developments. Right around the time the show starts (1916) there were major political transformations and crises. For instance, in 1915 the Liberal government was unable to keep up with military needs. As a result a coalition — with the Liberals nominally in charge but Conservatives actually in control — was created. At the same time, the still-new Labour Party was brought into the Cabinet. One of the most significant outcomes of the War was that the Labour Party supplanted the Liberal Party as one of the two main parties. Wouldn’t Lord Grantham have been concerned about these national political dramas?

Also politically important and controversial was the introduction of Conscription (required military service) in 1916. We get a glimpse of that in the concert scene when some women disrupt the event by trying to give white feathers to men they think should be in uniform, but the political turmoil behind that gesture remains off screen.

What about conflict and resistance to the war? (WARNING: Minor spoilers below!)


A major event that does appear later in the show is the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, but viewers might benefit from more context. Ireland witnessed massive political turmoil just before the War when the possibility of either Home Rule or armed combat both seemed likely. The eruption of violent conflict in April 1916, between organized Republican militants and British troops, signaled Britain’s continuing inability to accommodate the needs and aspirations of Irish Catholics; the uncompromising terms offered to the insurgents — unconditional surrender — revealed the British government’s determination to maintain control. Branson, the radical, pensive and attractive Irish chauffeur introduces the Irish question into the show, mentioning the Rising and even staging a minor (failed) effort at revenge against a visiting general. But the Rising receives only a little more attention than the execution of the Czar and his family in the Russian Revolution. For a radical republican who claims he lost an uninvolved cousin to British gunfire, Branson seems too easily pacified. Like Andrew Lange, Branson has to represent more than one character can bear. And making him also bear a deep (possibly unrequited) love for Lady Sybil, which supposedly determines all his actions, stretches credulity a bit too far. Viewers should consider whether he can go from chauffeur to journalist at the end of the War as easily as the show suggests.

Given your comments, does that make the show inaccurate?

Yes and no. The War certainly came into stately homes — Highclere, the actual mansion where Downton was filmed, was a hospital during the War. But Downton barely ventures out; it seems hermetically sealed. Village scenes are minimal: a glimpse of the train station here, a nearby pub there, a soup kitchen for dislocated veterans appearing almost spontaneously. But, for all intents and purposes, the universe and the house are presented as one and the same. That was not the case. There were real villages, with butchers and bakers, middling families and families struggling to survive. Men left to fight, young women went to work in munitions factories and school life was often punctuated by military rituals ... and military tragedies. If the Crawleys were as concerned and philanthropic as we are led to believe, the village would have impinged on their lives more and, presumably, they would have wanted to respond to its needs in a more sustained, even urgent fashion.

At the heart of the show are questions of class, of relations between the Crawleys and their staff. How well does the show capture those realities?

Sir Richard Carlisle

Downton Abbey provides a particular and sometimes even a peculiar view of social conditions and social class. To be fair, Sir Richard Carlisle, the rich, upstart newspaper baron trying to marry Lady Mary, reveals the conflicts between old and new money. Viewers see how privilege and power could result in different worldviews and codes of behavior. But the depictions of the servants are not as effective. Yes, there were benevolent employers, but conditions at Downton are idealized. Being a servant was hard and dirty work (at Downton the only servant who actually looks like she sweats is the cook); servants’ living quarters were most likely drafty, cold. Servants were not likely to be confidants and the servants’ welfare would not have been such a major preoccupation of real-life Crawleys.

At best Downton provides a highly selective view of what relations between servants and their employers might be; in fact, the presentation of servants’ living conditions and class relations generally is highly romanticized and largely implausible.

Parting words to viewers?

Downton Abbey is meant to entertain. However, as viewers enjoy the show, they may want to ask themselves a question: Why, when we are trying to grapple with an increasingly wide gap between the rich and the poor and dealing with our own (albeit less deadly) global crisis, are we entranced by the fantasy of a time and place where harsher social divisions seemed to create so little friction? What does our attraction to this story line say about ourselves?

My hope is that viewers can enjoy the show — guilt free — but at the same time leave room for some reflection. If that happens, then we’ll be able to have our candy and questions too.


Check out Dr. Copelman's historical analysis of Downton Abbey Season 3 »

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