Towards the end of Downton Abbey’s series 3, a new character, Lady Rose MacClare, was introduced into the programme and much was made of her rebellious streak; from sneaking out into nightclubs and indulging in dalliances with highly unsuitable men. While her parents went to India on a government assignment, Rose was left with the Crawleys as her guardians and chaperones before she was formally launched into society.
Lady Rose was easily one of the most unpopular characters in the programme and it’s easy to see why. Critics and viewers branded her “pointless” and “shallow” and they are sentiments I share. There was no raison d’ etre to her character at all, her entrance was clumsy and heavy handed – like a sledgehammer to inform the viewers that Downton is now into the “Roaring Twenties”. In short, her introduction into the programme was akin to a bureaucrat ticking all the boxes to make sure that his department complies with legislation ensuring equality and diversity in the work place.
The so-called rebellious streak was Rose’s main story line in series 4 and more than one perceptive viewer noted that Rose was a replacement for Lady Sybil as the ingénue rebel in the narrative. The main difference was that Sybil’s “rebellion” had a purpose whereas Rose’s didn’t. While Rose did have her real life counterparts, her inclusion into the narrative felt forced and if anything simply pandered to clichés about the period rather than exploring a much more original angle.
Rose’s conduct especially with regular unchaperoned trips to London would not have gone unnoticed and there would have been tutting over her dalliances with unsuitable men, especially with someone of a different race. Despite being a daughter of a marquis there would also have been concerns about her lack of money (more acute especially as the number of penniless aristocrats were outnumbering those who were well off) and this together with her behaviour would have marked her out as not good marriage material: and been duly noted by mothers seeking suitable wives for those sons who had survived the war. Reputation was a valuable commodity for an unmarried woman, and someone whose was less than impeccable would find her prospects of a good marriage much diminished. There were indications in series 1 that society was aware of the rumours about Mary and Pamuk. Lady Grantham has shown that she is careless of both her daughter’s reputations and good names – the most precious possessions any unmarried woman had. The mother of a flighty girl who was already being described as fast would run a mile from Cora; countess or not the last person on earth to whom any sensible woman would entrust her daughter, let alone one whose behaviour was already raising eyebrows. Perhaps the Flintshires were desperate, or perhaps no-one else would take Rose on without a substantial payment towards the cost of her season.
Cora’s behaviour towards Rose once she becomes a guardian was also odd. As guardian in place of the absent mother, she had the duty of seeing to Rose’s welfare – especially and most importantly her morals. It was jarring to see Cora and the other Crawley women (especially the Dowager who is her great-aunt) ignoring Rose as if she didn’t exist. Whenever Rose asked permission to go to London or arrange a “surprise” for Lord Grantham’s birthday, all Cora gave was a glassy stare and a vague assent. In real life, she would have interrogated Rose on the planned “surprise”, would demand to be informed of all of her movements and insisted on accompanying her to London or if she was unable to would have asked Mary, Edith or even her maid Baxter to act as chaperone. Bizarre as it sounds to us, there were streets in London where young unmarried women could not walk and places they could not visit without serious damage to their reputations, and every mother and responsible chaperone was aware of the unspoken rules and made sure their charges were as well.
Cora’s principal task as guardian is to ensure that Rose made a suitable match. The fact that Rose had a slightly dodgy reputation meant that Cora should have been knocking herself out trying to find a suitable husband and have Rose engaged by the end of her first season. One didn’t just leave it to chance, let alone when the pool of eligible men was down by 9/10ths and when the young lady in question had no money and parents with a shaky marriage. There would have been dances, teas, being involved in charity work, fetes, balls and calling on other families so that Cora could introduce Rose to other young people her age and increase her chances of meeting appropriate young men. Even Mary and Edith would have been roped into here, inviting their friends and friend of friends to widen Rose’s social circle.
However, we see none of these and it leaves the impression that Cora thought that the men just magically appeared and she didn’t need to do the hard work which is clearly nonsense. As many mothers both in literature and history have said, marrying off daughters was hard work especially for the upper and upper middle classes. Cora’s laziness with Rose seems to be a pattern, she was the same with her daughters and given that she herself was engaged by the end of her first season, she must have believed that it would be the same with her daughters and Rose forgetting that the circumstances were not the same. Whatever it is, once the presentation is over Rose is pretty much on her own and Cora reverts to doing whatever it is that Cora does. Fortunately in series 5 Rose bumped into a young man who was not only smitten with her but oh so conveniently had one of those large fortunes that always magically appear to rescue the members of this family, so Cora didn’t actually have to do anything to get her charge safely married.
It was after presentation at Court that the hard work really began for debs and their mothers. According to Mabell Countess of Airlie “Unless a girl was quite exceptional – which I was not – her fate was decided by her first impact on society. Anyone who failed to secure a proposal within six months of coming out could only wait for her second season with diminishing chances. After the third there remained nothing but India as a last resort before the spectre of the Old Maid became a reality.”
In series 1 Mary has had four seasons and still hasn’t yet found a husband which demonstrates not just Cora’s slack attitude, it also is very telling about Mary’s personality. She’s an earl’s daughter, she’s personable and she has some money, but she has had no serious offers even from untitled but wealthy young men; which seems to indicate that there were more than enough men put off by Mary’s snobbishness, sense of entitlement and the impression that she’s doing them a favour – conveniently forgetting that courtship is a two way street and she could have easily been dumped if someone better came along.
The 2013 Christmas special had Rose’s coming out and presentation at Court as one of its set pieces and despite the hype, insistence on accuracy and having members of the British Royal Family as characters, the episode was judged to be boring, lacking content, filled with plot holes and riddled with many errors. The presentation sequence alone is an illustration of how the PR was very much divorced from what we saw on screen.
First there is the issue of Rose’s dress and feathers. The neckline of Rose’s dress was too low. There were strict regulations on the length of the dress itself; dressmakers and manufacturers of off the peg versions would be aware of this and never deviate from the guidelines issued by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. As a woman who made her debut in the 1930s pointed out the feathers on her head were also arranged in a different way to the regulation one; according to Loelia Ponsonby, they could be bought in shops already arranged in the correct way and all the debs had to do was pin them to their heads, so no excuse for that either.
Then at the presentation itself Rose’s name is called out and accompanied by Cora she approaches the King and Queen. She curtsies while Cora simply stands next to her. That wasn’t the case. Cora as the sponsor would make her curtsey separately before those who were being presented, then make her way to an anteroom to wait for the debutantes and other women to finally make their obeisance before the King and Queen. The Prince of Wales tells his father that Rose is the daughter of the Marquis of Flintshire and the King exchanges a few words with Rose which again isn’t the done thing. No words were ever exchanged during this ceremony; with so many women being presented the King and Queen simply wouldn’t have time to chat as the whole event had to run like clockwork (this Christmas Special also failed to show that after curtseying to the King, Rose had to do the same thing to the Queen).
The biggest error in the sequence however was towards the end where Rose and Cora finally done turn and walk out of the throne room. For goodness’s sake. One NEVER turned their back on royalty. Not then not now not ever! During the actual ceremony, after the debutante was presented, she took three steps backward, curtseyed again and walked back out of the room where an usher was on hand to help her with her train so she wouldn’t trip. So much hype, so much insistence on complete accuracy and yet they got it horribly wrong; not just one detail but so many.
– the Levinsons and the Dowager Countess present at the Palace; with the number of women being presented and other important dignitaries already crammed in the Palace there were simply no places for hangers-on.
– the Prince of Wales wearing the insignia of the Order of the Garter to a night club and gate crashing Rose’s ball. Orders and decorations are only worn during State Occasions or with uniform and neither going to a night club nor a coming out ball comes under that heading.
– Female guests doing the full curtsey to the Prince. Only the Sovereign and his consort receive such a gesture while Princes and Princesses are only given a bob or half curtsey.
– Lord Grantham unilaterally deciding to stop the putative “scandal”. In real life, it would have been the courtiers’ responsibility to stop any potential or putative scandal and do it within the bounds of the law not some backwoods peer who resorts to breaking the law by using other people to break in and forge letters. Once Freda Dudley Ward found that the letters were missing she would have asked the Prince of Wales to talk to his Private Secretary who could have exerted more “influence” to sort out the problem than rely on the inept plotting of an obscure provincial peer and his family. Had Robert and his cohorts had been caught, it would have shown that the cure ended up being worse than the disease.
– And finally there’s the portrayal of Freda Dudley Ward and her affair with the Prince as a scandal. Contrary to what we were told in the Christmas Special, the affair was not emphatically a scandal; it was conducted with discretion and with the full connivance of Freda’s husband as well as with the approval of several members of the Royal Family. When their letters were published decades later there was nothing scandalous about their contents in fact majority of them read like letters that would be exchanged between close friends not lovers .
This Christmas special is another prime example of Julian Fellowes’ inability to take plot devices to their logical conclusions with his flippant attitude of “oh let’s use this for the story and not bother about what it actually means.” In the era in which Downton Abbey is set there were very limited options for upper class women that did not include marriage and Rose would have been husband hunting frantically – preferably to someone rich given her own straitened circumstances – and would have been in competition with fellow debs and other women as there were so few marriageable men. Despite what we see with Rose and Lady Edith (especially in series 4), being a young unmarried woman wasn’t nearly as much fun as the programme makes it out to be. A young woman was focused like a laser on finding a husband and was deemed a failure if she failed to find one and a very public one at that with all the power being in the hands of the prospective husbands. Being a spinster daughter wasn’t enjoyable in spite of all the going to nightclubs, dining out with men and wearing “daring” clothes as depicted on Downton Abbey. The reality was much more prosaic especially as she grew older and the spectre of being a carer to parents in their old age or helping raise nieces and nephews beckoned.
It also illustrates what I call “delayed reaction”, the best time to have shown a presentation was with Sybil back in series 1 where there was not just the Season but also the servants and tenants back at the village being treated to a celebration. Sybil’s coming of age would have been seen as a perfect excuse for the community to come together to eat, dance and drink to the health of the local lord and his family.
Crucially, depicting Sybil’s presentation in the summer of 1914 would have provided an important link to series 2. There would have been an elegiac note to the end of series 1 with the growing awareness that the world they knew was heading towards Armageddon and would have endowed Sybil’s remark at the beginning of series 2 that all the men she had danced with are dead with a poignancy that would echo the upheavals the Great War had brought.
Another problem I had with this Christmas Special (and with the programme in general) is the insistence on accuracy from the historical adviser Alastair Bruce, who at every opportunity claims that everything is accurate down to the tiniest detail that viewers don’t get to see on screen such as how tea is laid out or the stationary edged in black to denote mourning. If his attention to detail is as obsessive as he claims it is baffling how he lets important mistakes such as the presentation or the Crawleys still owning a Gutenberg bible slip past his scrutiny. Perhaps his shrill insistence on being listened to and the accuracy of the historical detail is to cover up that with the number of linguistic and historical anachronisms being pointed out in the last two series by even casual viewers, Julian Fellowes and the production team have decided that Downton can trade on its reputation for historical correctness and simply aren’t bothering to listen to Alastair Bruce any more.
I wonder how many misconceptions, errors and misunderstandings about the morals, manners, attitudes and behaviour of that era Downton Abbey has fixed in peoples’ minds as the truth?