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Real Life History of Downton Abbey Season 4

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



Welcome back and Happy New Year! Season 4 is here, how does that feel?

It feels like coming home; finally the wait is over! Our return is shadowed by the sadness of Matthew’s death, but we can take comfort that for the first time since the show began one thing is certain: baby George’s birth ensures that, when the time comes, a male heir will be readily available (unless he too suffers a tragic death). Of course, we are not sure how much of the estate will be there for him to inherit. From the beginning of Season 4 the future of the estate is front and center.

So, it’s worth stopping a moment to focus on the estate and Highclere Castle, the real Downton. In fictional Downton, thus far, we are not really sure how large the house and the estate are, how productive the estate is and what other sources of income the family depends on. In real life, Highclere has been the Carnarvon family seat since the 1670s. As seen today, the Castle reflects extensive renovations undertaken in the 1830s by Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. According to the current Lady Carnarvon, Highclere may have 200-300 rooms and 50-80 bedrooms; she is not sure. The castle hosted royalty and its history is full of adventure. Among the many colorful ancestors was George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who funded and was part of the Egyptian expedition that led to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Now that would have been an interesting aristocratic pursuit to include in this season’s coverage of that year (my hint to Mr. Fellowes)—and allowed viewers to get a better sense of the centrality of the Empire as a source of wealth, adventure and, not least, booty. Yet, though wealthy and important, the Carnarvons were not among the very top of the aristocracy—families that owned 10, 20, 30 thousand acres or more. In contrast, the Highclere estate is about 5000 acres.

Is Lord Grantham much like the Carnarvons?

Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary.Lord Grantham is presented as less grand—and less adventurous—than the Carnarvons and the major part of his income seems to come from the estate. However, we know that he was nearly financially ruined due to an unwise investment. Though unfortunate for him, a diversified set of investments was usual among the landed aristocracy. Many invested in urban land, especially in London, which increased in value as cities grew in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Railroads, finance, the exploitation of natural resources on their land and the active pursuit of new forms of wealth, especially the opportunities made possible by imperial expansion—all were essential to aristocratic economic survival. Involvement in local and national politics and imperial service were also commonplace aspects of aristocratic life. On the show we are presented with securing the lineage and taxes (taxes that, significant though they were, were not very likely to completely ruin a family) as threats to their welfare.  In real life, Lord Grantham might have already sold land, bought urban land, invested in numerous other enterprises and generally been connected more to the larger world. But enough about real world finances; after all, the show is not an economics class, but an invitation to fantasize about a glamorous world.

Is there a lot to fantasize about this season?

Well, there’s a lot of fantasy, at least from the historical point of view. Take Lady Edith, for example. Like other women in 1920s Britain, she would be affected by the loss of eligible men on the battlefields of World War I. She’s an increasingly sympathetic character, but her dramatic life is not plausible. She works? What does she actually do? Edith’s forays into London are significant and this year London’s increased role is important, highlighting how families as well connected as the Crawleys were not isolated on their estates, venturing into the village only on occasion. But, London notwithstanding, Edith’s relationship with Michael Gregson, her London editor, and the rest of her saga, as it will unfold over the course of the season (can’t say more without risking spoilers), provides soap opera plot twists rather than a depiction of elite women’s post-war opportunities and dilemmas.

The women of Downton! How historically credible are some of the other characters?

Lady Mary, Lady Cora and Lady Edith.The women still dominate, probably more than they would have done in real life. Mary’s evolution into a more mature, responsible adult (but still with significant romantic prospects) is credible. Also credible is her loving but hands-off mothering—that’s Nanny’s job! Lady Rose is both credible and not—that she would search for ways to shock her mother is believable. That she might pursue an interracial relationship with an African-American jazz musician is within the realm of possibility… but just barely. More likely, the year she was being presented to society (a process she seems to relish), was for her to continue exploring possibilities for mischief within her own class. Later in life, especially after a marriage that soured (and many did), we might see her looking for excitement and venturing into new urban spaces where modern music, dance and other forms of entertainment allowed a broad range of people to mingle. But for now, let’s face it: Lady Rose is a spoiled brat!

What about downstairs? Are historical issues raised this season?

Anna’s rape provides this season’s main dramatic focus on the servants’ end. The rape itself has produced outrage and controversy on both sides of the pond—was this an appropriate plot development? I think so. Women servants were individuals with complex lives, but they were also sexually vulnerable and often exploited. In a show that tries to portray both upstairs and downstairs, and centers so much on flirtation and potential romance, examining how all that could go awry is fitting. What needs to be understood, however, is that though servants and other men of Anna’s class were possible perpetrators, another likely scenario might have one of the younger maids abused by a gentleman friend of the family. Instead, this season the gentlemen are, almost to a man, nothing if not honorable. Perhaps our investment in liking the Crawleys and their world is too important to rattle?

What else strikes you about this season?

Lady Rose dances with Jack Ross.I would highlight two things: first, this season seems more like home because the modern world is recognizable—I can finally actually picture myself (a younger self, alas) in one of those exquisite outfits worn by Ladies Mary and Edith. Cars, telephones, electric mixers—those products dot what were, thus far, very remote places and spaces. This recognizable modernity suggests a second point, introduced in the first minutes of Episode 1 in an exchange between Mr. Molesley, the elderly gardener and the Dowager Countess: “It’s a changing world” says the gardener; “You don't have to tell me that,” replies her ladyship. That exchange is echoed numerous times this season.

The world is constantly changing, but if the Twenties are recognizable to us, they were palpably unsettling to those living through them. All the modern things mentioned above involved changes in daily habits, changes that must have felt like sandpaper—there may be a good reason for the irritation, but it’s still uncomfortable. Downton shows both changes in daily practices and some of the broader transformations in gender and class relations, but there were also huge off-screen changes. The Great War was supposed to end all wars, but that was hard to believe for long. A divided Ireland was not a successful resolution to problems there. Unemployment was a continuous post-war problem (not just the personal fate of the younger Mr. Molesley) and it will erupt in dramatic ways in the mid-1920s.  We may not see these changes, but perhaps they informed that exchange between Mr. Molesley and the Dowager Countess.

Final thoughts?

I continue to be fascinated by the viral nature of the show; there are even many TV shows about the TV show! Of course, the show itself is such a treat, well produced and well acted—that alone explains the millions of fans. We are invested in the characters and more of us devote Sunday evenings to them. But Downton has also become a tie-in heaven, and I’m not referring to the lush Ralph Lauren “I build a collection out of a dream” sponsors’ spot. Do you have the mobile app that will help you redecorate your home in Downton style? Should I try Marks & Spencers’  Downton makeup or offer Downton wine to my guests? All these are current options in Britain. My house is still full of Toy Story products bought many years ago for my son, so perhaps I should not be surprised. But Downton products are not being marketed to susceptible children, so what are adult consumers being sold? In earlier comments I suggested that Downton may offer welcome escape from the increasing income disparities around us—it reassures us that vast income inequality is not socially disruptive (though, in fact, the Twenties were a tumultuous decade). I’ve also thought that it provides a more acceptable outlet for our fascination with celebrity and wealth. Wanting to look like Julia Roberts on the red carpet and buying the knockoff dress after the Golden Globes may be slightly embarrassing. By contrast aiming for a Downton look is, like the show itself, both a celebration of extreme wealth and at the same time genteel.

I’ll venture that the show may provide a way to indulge but not confront our complex relationship to wealth. Watching reality shows focusing on extreme consumerism is a more obviously voyeuristic practice and those shows invite the audience to dislike the protagonists. In those shows wealth can fascinate without being condoned. Downton offers a different experience. Despite the many plot themes focusing on conflict, despite numerous instances of bad behavior, despite tragedies like Matthew’s death, we know there will be some sort of closure, some reassurance that character is going to win out over money and ephemeral things. And we can fantasize about leading a Downton life, because, like the aristocracy, we don’t have to confront money itself—no one upstairs is seen actually making money, or even spending money. Basic human qualities are not compromised to money and its pursuit. So, while we may hear a lot about the potential threat of death duties and the family’s responsibility to its tenants, we don't see the ways their wealth was accumulated and the possibly more compromising actions required to sustain it.

Nonetheless, I’m curious about that decorating app. My interiors could use an overhaul. Time to say goodbye to Toy Story and hello to fine linens, if I can afford them.

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