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Real Life History of Downton Abbey Season 6

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



How does it feel to be watching the last season of Downton Abbey?

Sad! It feels like curtains are going down all over the place. The most immediate—and for fans most upsetting—curtain is the end of the show. Personally, I shall miss writing these yearly commentaries. But historically an undercurrent that was always present in the show is now a steady drumbeat: that the curtain is going down on the aristocratic—and, more generally, landowning—way of life. Recent reviews all point that out. So, I want to address this pervading sense. Is this an accurate historical depiction? Was the existence and influence of the aristocracy and other well-established elites under threat of extinction? Yes and no. In 1909/1910 the aristocracy lost some significant political power when David Lloyd George’s Liberal government successfully limited the power of the House of Lords to veto bills passed by the House of Commons. Over the course of the 20th century additional changes chipped away at the power of the Lords and today, after major reforms in 1999, the House of Lords is a very different institution, overwhelmingly composed of peers whose titles are not hereditary. But it still exists, as does the aristocracy.

What about landownership?

A 2010 survey by the ever-popular Country Life magazine revealed that British landownership was not only highly concentrated, but that the aristocracy and “traditional landed gentry” owned over a third of the land (where ownership was known). Other estimates hold that those groups own about half the rural land of England and Wales. Ownership is different—more likely to be structured as a corporation rather than in the landlord-tenant relationship we see at Downton Abbey. And higher death duties did force a significant number of landed families to relinquish their properties, especially in the 1960s-1970s. Indeed, this accounts for the growth of the National Trust, which now owns over 200 stately homes. Yet a perusal of recent issues of Country Life suggests that, National Trust notwithstanding, landed life and customs have not disappeared. Indeed, the 2005 ban on fox hunting may be notable for how often it is breached and Prime Minister Cameron supports repealing the ban. Many of today’s estates are not owned by the aristocracy, but by wealthy families from all over the world, or by new wealth—Eric Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame) owns more land than the Queen claims as personal property. But isn’t this just a continuation of older patterns? In the 16th century the Crown sold off appropriated monastic lands, thus solidifying both the Reformation and the gentry. In the 19th century new wealth was infused into landed life by money made in industry and finance… and, as Cora reminds us, in the United States. So, we should keep continuity in focus as much as change.

And status is maintained in other ways as well. Britain is a nation (well, actually three nations) where social class is a key identity and working-class interests, politics, cultures—all play a prominent role in public life, much more so than in the United States. But central to such class consciousness in the 20th and 21st centuries is the persistence of old forms of status and power. For instance, the traditional public schools (private boarding schools for boys) such as Eton, Rugby and Harrow have played a central role in creating the country’s rulers; so have Oxford and Cambridge, which, after the 2010 general election, claimed as graduates 28% of the newly elected Members of Parliament. In finance, corporate boards, among the holders of high government posts, this persistence of old elites is replicated. Finally, aristocratic and landed culture and values have proven remarkably marketable. Thanks in large part to the National Trust, stately homes have been lovingly preserved and turned into major tourist attractions. Today the cultural power of aristocratic life is not only profitable and popular, but has been successfully presented as the quintessential British “heritage.”

For Downton Abbey fans awareness of the vast changes Britain—and all of its peoples—were going through during the period covered by the show is essential. But, were the Crawleys a real family and as wise and prudent as they are depicted, they would still be doing very well, still benefitting from generations of privileges, and finding many more doors open to them than to their less well-established compatriots.

Then is the Crawleys’ sense that their world is disappearing unrealistic?

Not at a personal level. The shrinking of the household staff was not the same as the end of their wealth and power, but to them it might feel like a significant and symbolic blow. But let’s remember that it’s Barrow and the already-departed scullery maid who are losing their jobs. And in spite of this season’s sense of anxiety that the world of Downton Abbey is disappearing, the real focus of the season is on Barrow and all the other characters we have come to know so well.

This season the differences between upstairs and downstairs seem more a behavioral tic, not entrenched aspects of a relatively rigid social structure. Everyone is apologizing to everyone else and the drama of Carson’s and Mrs. Hughes’s wedding in particular makes it seem like a warm familiarity rather than social distance determine actions and behavior. Why, Thomas and Sibby return from the United States in time to attend the wedding—how could they miss it? I was moved by the more explicit expressions of warmth and connection, but, as in years past, individual characters combine both plausible and fanciful characteristics. Mary’s continuing interest in running the estate is not far-fetched. But I continue to find Edith’s life as newspaper owner hard to believe—devoted as she is to the paper, it’s not clear when she ever learned much about it (whereas Mary learning the business of the estate is both more convincing and more successfully depicted). Daisy’s educational pursuits were possible, but the show resolves Molesley’s desire to put his knowledge to use in ways that were probably not likely, given the codified nature of state schooling (can’t say more since I don’t want to risk spoilers).

Overall, the show’s main task is wrapping everything up, attending to the different story lines for each character, so beyond the overall sense of the end of an era, actual events do not figure prominently. Julian Fellowes may be ending the show in 1925 deliberately since, as he recently stated in Radio Times, he felt it wasn’t a particularly eventful year. For the Crawleys the two most interesting events might have been the abolition of primogeniture (the law stating that land is inherited by the oldest son), and the temporary return to the gold standard. But the abolition of primogeniture didn’t apply to the aristocracy, whose titles and lands were still passed on to the first born living male heir. This is actually an issue Fellowes is very interested because his wife, Emma Kitchener, is the only living descendant of the Earl of Kitchener (military leader during World War I) and if women were able to inherit titles, she would have become Countess Kitchener upon the death of her uncle, the last Earl. Even though the rules of succession were changed in 2013 for the monarchy—now the oldest heir can assume the Crown, regardless of sex—this did not apply to the aristocracy. However, there was some relief for Fellowes and his wife in 2012 when Queen Elizabeth II issued a special warrant providing Emma Kitchener all the privileges she would have had if she had inherited the title. As for the gold standard, it represented the Conservative economic policies of Stanley Baldwin’s government and Robert would probably have supported the change—perhaps even felt reassured by it.

I can’t say much more about this season without risking spoilers, but I can reassure readers that, overall, people’s better natures will triumph and, while sad, the audience will not be disappointed when the final curtain goes down.

Final final thoughts?

Downton Abbey has been PBS’s most successful program and I am very grateful to have been a part of it in my own way. In my comments I often pointed out how the show misrepresented historical and social issues, especially through the idealized portrayal of wealth and class relations. But, now that we can reflect on the whole arc of the show, it’s important to point out one of its key accomplishments: creating an audience that crossed not only global boundaries but, to a considerable (and even surprising) extent, boundaries of age, ethnicity and race, gender and class. Believe it or not, there are many people out there who have never seen the show. But I am always impressed how easy it has been to strike up conversations about the show, both in predictable circumstances (with students, when my friends gather) but also in random encounters  (waiting for the bus, in the dentist’s waiting room). The show created a community, visible in many ways, but much more encompassing than we realize, and, most importantly, it provided a common vocabulary.

It’s not the only show to create community. The exploits of real bachelors, wives and dancers, as well as fictional crisis managers and law professors—all protagonists of current popular shows—have done the same. But, with all due respect, I’d rather put the show in the company of a different PBS success story: Sesame Street. That show dispensed the alphabet and other useful knowledge, but, perhaps more importantly,  through its characters, their personalities and personal stories, it provided well-known and meaningful reference points many years after children outgrew the show. I don’t know if Downton Abbey will present similar possibilities. But, as historian, commentator and fan, I hope that Downton Abbey might allow us to continue to explore the connections between history and entertainment; to think about why we enjoy particular programs; to enjoy those programs but also use them as a way to examine both the past and the present. I like to think that the conversation I’ve been a part of through these commentaries is not ending, it’s just entering a new phase.

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