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Real Life History of Downton Abbey Season 3

Dr. Dina Copelman

We asked Dr. Dina Copelman, a British history professor at George Mason University, to preview the third season of Downton Abbey and give us her thoughts on how well it captured the time and place of early 1920s England. Read below and learn a little something!



First impressions

Happy New Year! They say it’s 2013, but we Downton fans — all 8 million in the USA, according to statistics about the audience for the first episode of Season 3 — know that it’s really 1920, and Lady Mary and Matthew are finally getting married. And, potentially disruptive conflicts notwithstanding, it actually happens, in the first episode!

But I think Episode One’s truly remarkable couple is Shirley McLaine, playing Martha Levinson (Cora’s mother) and our old favorite Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. What a pair! Enjoyable as McLaine’s performance is, however, doesn’t she overdo the stereotypical crass American? More significantly, McLaine’s appearance introduces and then ignores a potentially interesting angle of the Crawley family drama. On the official website we are told that Cora “is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.” You don’t have to be from New York or London’s 1920s East End to think that name sounds awfully Jewish. Many commentators have noted this and Julian Fellowes explained (in the December 2012 issue of Vanity Fair) that Cora’s father was Jewish but her mother was not and Cora was raised Episcopalian. But that is never mentioned in seasons one or two even though it would have been fodder for gossip at the time. Stranger still is that this season, while the Martha Levinson invasion caused such an upheaval both upstairs and downstairs, there were no whispers about Lady Grantham’s Jewish origins.

Were there other things that struck you as problematic in the first episode?

Well, there are some passing things, like the town’s reaction to Matthew’s and Mary’s wedding. The Crawleys were powerful and the village would have marked the occasion. Nonetheless, Mary and Matthew were not Kate and William.

At a more general level, while Season 2 was clearly shaped by World War I, the imprint of the outside world is quite faint in Season 3. Yes, there’s Branson and Ireland. But Branson still seems rather implausible. How did he manage to be so involved in the fight against the “Black and Tans” (demobilized British soldiers who went to Ireland to put down the movement for independence) yet he escaped any serious responsibility? As I think is true in the treatment of some other historical events, Ireland is presented as a personal story rather than a social and political crisis.

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson. Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

We also hear a lot about the need to modernize, that the old landed, aristocratic ways have to change — and will indeed be forced to change by economic pressure. This season finds an interesting way to cope with these real pressures experienced by landed families. On the one hand, it’s individual bad judgment — Lord Grantham’s foolish investment strategy — rather than problems intrinsic to economic practices that immediately threaten Downton’s existence. On the other, the need for deeper change is acknowledged, but it is presented as something that can be managed without too much trouble if everyone would only listen to Matthew.

The Crawleys — and the landed class more generally — were not the only ones facing economic problems. Economic conditions were very bad in the immediate post-War years and labor unrest was rampant, especially in major industries like coal mining, shipbuilding and steel. By 1921 the continuing rise of strike activity resulted in the loss of 85 million work days in that year alone. At most we see a bit of chafing downstairs, but labor unrest is not part of this season’s script, unless Daisy’s very mild and short lived “industrial action” (trying not to work because her promised promotion has not come through) counts.

Would these strikes, labor unrest and such have touched the Crawleys?

Yes, this was a period when revolutionary insurrections were not abstractions. Russia was on its way to becoming the Soviet Union; serious revolutionary uprisings occurred and were put down in both Germany and Hungary; Ireland may seem a localized problem from the perspective of the show, but it can also be seen as part of this potentially revolutionary tide. Even though the Allies had won the War, the aftermath was not political or economic stability. The Crawleys must have been thinking about this.

What about the staff, would they have been affected by these political and economic issues?

Siobhan Finneran as Miss O'Brien. Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

Service can be an isolating occupation. Workers are, literally, housebound; they live in close proximity to (and thus observation by) their employers. Even if employed by very wealthy families, they worked with a small number of other people. Add to that the fact that women were less likely to strike or take other action and most domestic servants were women. Plus Downton is in the countryside, seemingly away from industry and commerce. Yet the staff was both close-knit and aware of each other’s differences, which they had a chance to explore at mealtime and throughout the day. They had families in other parts of the country, read the newspapers, had been shaken, like everyone else, by the War. So, yes, they would have been affected. They might have had different political opinions, but not have been unaware or unconcerned.

Then why are these conflicts absent this season?

That’s a great question! I would actually rephrase the issue, because I think the problem is not just the absence of particular historical contexts. Rather, Downton, and the Crawleys especially, seem very isolated this season. The sisters don’t have friends, the Crawleys don’t socialize much, London is a minor presence in their lives (does Cora have any connection to the place?). Yes, Edith goes there to begin her journalistic career (here again an impressively quick transition from jilted bride to successful writer, paralleling Branson’s transformation into a journalist in Season 2). Lord Grantham makes short trips to protect family interests and keep Branson out of trouble; the best medical specialists are in London. But, overall, they are insulated from the outside world. They don’t participate in the social world of the landed and financial elites they are a part of. I’m somewhat baffled by this. The show aims to have us identify closely with the characters; we are pulled in by meticulous details of etiquette and fashion. But all those details were social conventions that depended on a larger world. If the wrong fork is used in a country house and no one but the family and staff notices, does it really matter? The Crawley saga is less meaningful if we don’t get to see more of the world around them..

What about the portrayal of women? Downton is such a female world and we see changes in almost all the women (not just their hairdos, but their aspirations and awareness).

Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley and Robert Bathurst as Sir Anthony Strallan. Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

One of the things I love about the show is the extent to which Downton’s women are center stage not just accessories to powerful men. We see them evolve this season and they chafe against the 1918 law that granted the vote only to women above the age of 30. It took another decade for women over 21 to be granted the vote on the same terms as men.

However, the Crawleys’ isolation has an impact here as well. For instance, women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were already decades old, but it was only in the early 1920s that women won the right to obtain degrees. The sisters might have discussed this, and by 1920 a few of their friends (presumably they had some) might have been tempted to go. Given the high number of men who died in the War, it was not just Edith who sought alternatives to marriage and family. Edith was too old to consider going to university, but she might have been competing with university-trained women for that coveted newspaper space.

It would have been interesting to hear the Crawleys ponder another aspect of women’s political empowerment: the election of Lady Astor as the first woman to serve in Parliament. She was an American divorcee who replaced her husband when he succeeded his father into the House of Lords. Lady Astor would have given the Crawleys an opportunity to reflect on how wholesome they and the Astors were compared to other aristocratic households sustained by “dollar princesses” (the term used for rich American women who married into the aristocracy). Many of those families were associated with sexual and other scandals, not with concern for the country’s welfare!

Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley. Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

And speaking of sexual scandal, by the 1920s the Crawleys are sexually unremarkable. There are a few whiffs of possible improprieties but no more Turkish diplomats dying in embarrassing ways. Mary and Matthew engage in playful but very tame sexual banter before their wedding — are we now supposed to think Mary is an innocent bride-to-be? After their marriage they exhibit a level of physical comfort and intimacy that is refreshingly modern. One notable issue in the later episodes (no spoiler here) is that male homosexuality is treated in a quite humane way and Lord Grantham has a very good line towards the end of the season — be on the lookout!

Downstairs, the servants seem brushed by but not terribly affected by the winds of change. The women are a bit bolder and welcome new opportunities. There’s a fox-trot, Martha Levinson’s “fast” maid goes after shy Alfred. But I think the changes are less notable downstairs because there women have always been working, always had to make their way in the world. As before, the quartet of strong minded women — Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Anna and O’Brien– continue to be formidable forces of nature. The postwar world has not changed them; it has just made them more themselves.

Why has the show become so popular?

Brendan Coyle as John Bates. Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.I am fascinated by the show’s success. The show is popular on both sides of the pond. But Americans, we have long been told, are enamored of English country life and aristocratic tales. I think that has a lot to do with the show’s popularity.

Additionally, in this paparazzi/celebrity driven time, the show satisfies our voyeuristic desires in innocent ways. We don’t have to worry about tragic consequences, such as the recent suicide of a nurse taking care of Kate Middleton after she put through a call placed by Australian reporters impersonating the Queen.

But I think there is more behind the show’s popularity. As we worry about fiscal cliffs and national default, Downton provides not just escape but, perhaps, comfort — albeit somewhat implausible comfort. Things are not so bad and everything will be all right. At a time when Britain was facing worse circumstances than we are today, the show suggests that modernizing need not be painful; reasonable gentlemen can tackle challenges and problems will be solved by hard working, well intentioned individuals rather than by social action. Wild-eyed radicals (even unconvincing ones) can be tamed into evening dress and become valued family members. Instead of increasing distance between classes, upstairs and downstairs are even more firmly (and positively) bound to each other in 1920. It’s nice to think that the world might work that way, even if only for an hour once a week.

Final thoughts?

When does Season 4 start? January 2014 seems way too far away; Downton Abbey fans need to move on to 1922 sooner.


Check out Dr. Copelman's historical analysis of Downton Abbey Season 2 »


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