What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the 1920s Part 2

WARNING: Contains some spoilers for those who have not yet watched series 6

Background:

In part 1 of this blog, I raised three major points that Downton Abbey has overlooked since series 3. With the programme having ended on New Year’s Eve 1925 and the focus on romance and emotional lives from series 4 onwards, it’s clear that Downton Abbey has ended up as a parallel universe where history is ignored or even misrepresented and that the writer has no interest in an intelligent or historically faithful portrayal of the Twenties – it’s just that it so happens that period is where he has set his soap opera. Any events that are happening in the wider world are nothing more than a fleeting backdrop to the burning question of who will pair up with one of the most consistently unpleasant, shallow and poorly characterised women on screen for a long time.

As we have mentioned time and again while there are no big events in the 1920s it’s not to say that the decade itself was stagnant in terms of events. Far from it, the so-called “Roaring Twenties” was a period of change and we are still living with the consequences of many of these changes for good or for ill.

THE FURTHER DECLINE OF THE ARISTOCRACY:

How Downton Abbey portrayed this:

Despite Robert telling both his mother and Carson that things cannot continue as they are, his words are not backed by actions such as selling Grantham House, or land and works of art. The only time any financial problems are addressed are when the Crawleys visit a neighbour whose estate is being sold, including the house, its contents and everything in between as well as to give Thomas something to do (in the guise of looming redundancy). Other than that despite the subtle indications that the Crawleys are struggling financially and that the money Matthew brought to the estate is running low, there has been no effort at all on the part of the family to re-examine their way of life and follow the example of their peers. Instead, we see them carrying on as normal and the extent of this denial is clear when Mary in one episode loftily proclaims that “Downton is where the Crawleys belong” without thinking and acting on any concrete steps to ensure that there will still be an estate for her son to inherit.

Robert S6 1

Cora S6 2

The reality:

As the 1920s rolled on, the aristocracy found themselves further squeezed in terms of high taxation and further falling incomes as more and more lands, houses, jewels, silver, works of art and other bric a brac went under the hammer to meet their financial obligations. Many hard up members of the aristocracy resorted to taking on paid employment and company directorships in order to make ends meet. Even those who were supposedly immune such as the Devonshires, Westminsters and Londonderrys were having problems of their own especially as their spending was outstripping their income. In order to retrench, they also resorted to sales, clamping down on their expenditure (such as for instance giving up hunting and scaling down on shooting parties) and additionally in the case of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, accepting an appointment as Governor-General of Canada in order to economise on his standard of living.

Hamilton Palace sale 3

Politically, the aristocracy were marginalised further and kept in their place through relegating them firmly in the backbenches. If they were fortunate to have been appointed to ministerial or cabinet positions, these were nothing more than minor ones that led to career dead ends. A corollary to this political decline was the rise of what David Cannadine called the “Great Ornamentals” where by imitating the example set by the British royal family, the aristocracy became more involved in a professional capacity with charities, public bodies that specialised in art, heritage, wildlife, health and education or carving out careers representing the monarch in various parts of the Empire as provincial governors, governor-generals and viceroys.

Before the First World War, it was unthinkable for the upper classes to earn a living, but economic necessities after the war meant that many peers and their families were obliged to go into paid employment. Some became company directors; others went into sectors such as finance, retail and journalism while there were those who took to the stage to carve out careers in acting, singing or behind the scenes.

While the many of the aristocracy tried their best to cope and survive in a changing world where they were increasingly becoming irrelevant and redundant, others retreated into denial by closing their eyes and ears to their continuing financial problems or embracing authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and blaming capitalism, socialism, foreigners and Jews for their predicament. No prizes for guessing what camp the Crawleys are in.

 

DOMESTIC AND FOREIGN EVENTS:

How Downton Abbey portrayed this:

Unlike the first two series where at least there was some effort from the family and servants to keep abreast of what is going on both on the domestic and international front, from series 3 onwards there has been little effort in terms of trying to engage with the wider world. If there have been any changes they have been purely cosmetic along the lines of clothes, hairstyles and props. The only times current events are mentioned is in series 5 when the Labour party took office for the first time and the opening of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley by King George V both of which occurred in 1924. Apart from the mention of a Labour government there is no explanation as to why the family and servants greet the news with such dismay.

The reality:

When Labour took power in 1924 there were lots of rumours about them, such as; they were Communists; they intended to disband the British Empire; right wing MP’s would be sacked and they were going to undermine the armed forces. These fears were all unfounded, but they scared many people including Winston Churchill, who hated Labour and even declared them “not fit to govern”

Ramsay macdonald

Fear of communism was widespread, and Ramsay McDonald’s rejection of revolution did not persuade many people that the formation of soviets in English towns was not imminent – and this fear was not discouraged by the Labour party’s treaties with the Soviet Union. Someone like Robert would have feared that the bloody excesses of the Russian revolution were about to be unleashed on his class – but perhaps we are naïve to be surprised we see none of this. This is a writer who managed to reduce the First World War as little more than an annoyance to the smooth tenor of the Crawleys’ privileged existence (they apparently didn’t even notice it until 1916), and contrived to reduce it to a bump in the road of the inevitable Mary/Matthew union once his fiancée had expired in a manner befitting the best Victorian melodrama.

As mentioned earlier, the absence of any large events in the 1920s didn’t mean that the decade itself was wholly uneventful. The decade was punctuated by high levels of unemployment due to the war time economy winding down and the huge numbers of demobilised men who needed to return to civilian life: only to find that there were not many jobs going. Owing to unsatisfactory pay and conditions, strikes were also fairly common which culminated in the General Strike of 1926.

Britain, once the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and a past leader in technological advances, found itself falling behind further after the war, with increased competition from abroad particularly from the United States. Free trade, once akin to a religious belief among the political and intellectual classes, was undermined as successive governments began to introduce tariffs in an attempt to keep foreign goods out, as well as imposing restrictions on the entry of such things as cars and motion pictures from overseas (especially America) to protect home grown industries. Agriculture, the bedrock of the traditional landed aristocracy, was not faring well due to the inability of many landowners and farmers to modernise and streamline their practices – which meant that food production was inefficient and Britain had to rely on imports to feed its population. And on the political front, the Labour party emerged as the second political party edging out the Liberals, who became a minority party.

Outside Britain, the optimism that greeted the end of the war quickly gave way to disillusion as political instability paved the way for the rise of dictatorships particularly in Italy, Poland and Hungary. Greece found itself veering between a monarchy then a republic then back again to a monarchy: while the instability of the Weimar Republic helped plunged Germany’s economy into a tailspin where hyperinflation rendered the Deutschemark worthless. Instability also plagued Russia where after a bloody civil war where the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin emerged triumphant, the USSR was established in 1922. However Lenin’s death two years later led to a power struggle which saw Joseph Stalin emerge triumphant.

Germany 1923

The end of the First World War also saw the emergence of the precursor to the United Nations in the form of the League of Nations which was set up as a means to avoid another major war. Concurrent with this was the establishment of several initiatives and conferences with the main aim of a lasting world peace.

 

SOCIETY:

How Downton Abbey portrayed this:

Just as there is no engagement with current events so does the outside world only intrude with set pieces such as a car race, going to London and when Edith has to attend to the magazine that she owns. Or they have been used in plotlines such as Daisy’s education and Molesley taking his first steps towards a career outside service. The finale showed some servants handing in their notices and a member of staff finally being promoted albeit in reduced circumstances.

S6ep6 pic

downton-abbey

 

The reality:

As mentioned in part 1, the number of people in service declined after the First World War as more people shunned a life and job where there was little free time and where they were expected to be at the beck and call of someone else seven days a week and almost twenty four hours a day. From the point of view of the employers, the need to retrench and reduce their standards of living meant that they had to make some servants redundant or making the decision not to replace those who had retired or passed away. Those who remained in service found themselves increasingly taking on two or more roles.

The 1920s also saw the rise of consumer society, with businesses and industries actively targeting middle and working class customers who had greater disposable incomes. There was also the popularity of radio, the gramophone, dance halls, tea rooms and the cinema which gave people greater alternatives on where to spend their leisure time. The presence of organisations such as the National Trust, greater access to museum, art galleries as well as the open countryside and expanded provision for public parks meant that art, culture and the great outdoors were no longer solely the preserve of the upper and upper middle classes.

Radio and cinema’s popularity saw the rise of the cult of film stars particularly those from America. Stars such as Lilian Gish, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Charlie Chaplin became household names supplanting royalty and society figures. The fact that these Hollywood actors emerged from humble beginnings reinforced the notion of showbiz as meritocracy where talent and/or looks rather than birth and family background mattered.

Rudolph_Valentino

1361739864

CONCLUSION:

Six series of Downton Abbey has demonstrated how the programme is wholly plot driven and we have no idea of the sort of background life that these people lead, and especially after series 2, no context of the wider world as the inhabitants of the Abbey seem wholly uninterested in what’s happening outside. In fact the outside world doesn’t seem to exist and I am of the opinion that several of the events I mentioned above have the potential for good story lines or explore what this family believe in and stand for and how they react to what’s going on around them. A good example would have been at the beginning of series 5 when they are moaning about a Labour government. Why are they and what are they afraid it will mean for them? After all, the early 20s were a time of Bolshevism and revolution in Russia and Germany and there were fears that it was only a matter of time before revolution came to Britain.

Even the ways the characters have reacted are at best anachronistic and at worst misleading. Upstairs, Robert’s reaction to Edith’s pregnancy and being an unwed mother for example only elicited a shrug, a reaction one would expect with a 21st century father but not one from the early 20th century where pregnancy out of wedlock was taboo for all classes. Or Mary after the war inundated with suitors despite the fact there were fewer men to go around and that she was struggling to attract them before the war.

Downstairs does not fare any better either. I don’t think I am the only one in thinking that the servants in the Abbey seem to be too comfortable with the status quo when in reality many people were leaving the countryside in droves and would rather work in offices, factories, shops and mines than in service. And this is why I found Andy deciding to become a permanent footman at Downton and his claim that he wanted a job in the country unbelievable.

And lastly for all the bleating about change, the ones we can see in the programme are merely cosmetic but real, deep seated changes are ignored, trivialised or misrepresented. Fellowes has ignored pretty much anything that’s going on outside and he seems to be unable to take these events and changes and weave them into his narrative. He simply retreats into romances, parties and set pieces while reality is being ignored since it won’t sell and they don’t inspire plot lines so he crowbars some of them in as a sort of caption to say “Oooh look, I did my research, I know what I’m talking about” – memorably summed up by one commenter as “I googled so you didn’t have to.”  In other cases such as the war memorial and the Russian refugees, he’s years too late as if to reinforce the point that Downton is some sort of other dimension or a different planet altogether, and that these are mere plot bunnies to give redundant characters something to do. There’s a certain irony in the realisation that the man who makes his characters bleat about change has for six series used characters and storylines over and over again.

For me it’s a shame that Downton Abbey over and over again has squandered any attempt to be original,  to show viewers how the past is very different from the present and to show the real trials and tribulations of the aristocracy far removed from his ahistorical caricatures. Yet again, we have to ask why Julian Fellowes chose the early 20th century and the aristocracy as a framework for his programme when he has shown himself with Downton Abbey to be uninterested in the past and interested only in reframing it from the perspective of the 21st century and his own particular agendas.

Notes:

Photos have been taken from Wikipedia, various Downton Abbey fan sites, Piniterest.

Screenshot of article regarding the Hamilton Palace sale from The Times dated 14 November 1919

Further reading:

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Jeremy Musson. Up and Down Stairs (London, 2010)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

Pamela Horn. Life Below Stairs: The Real Lives of Servants, the Edwardian Era to 1939 (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Flappers: The Real Lives of British Women in the Era of The Great Gatsby (London, 2012)

Mollie Moran. Aprons and Silver Spoons (London, 2013)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

David Cannadine. Aspects of the Aristocracy (London, 1994)

Juliet Nicolson. The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War (London, 2010)

Virginia Nicholson. Singled Out (London, 2008)

Sian Evans. Life below Stairs (London, 2011)

Mark Girouard. Life in the English Country House (Yale, 1978)

David Reynolds. The Great Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London, 2014)

Robert Wainwright. Sheila (London, 2014)

Mary S. Lovell. The Mitford Girls (London, 2002)

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6 thoughts on “What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the 1920s Part 2

  1. I really liked Downton Abbey when it started, but I’ve gone off it a bit and couldn’t pinpoint why- this article is exactly it!

    It is just not true, and I can completely understand why there are reports that the Queen loves to watch the show and pick up the errors!

    I have an interest in the lives of the aristocracy from the early 20th century, and have a number of books about particular women from that class and that time, in fact two that you’ve listed here, The Mitford Girls and Sheila. Now that I’ve seen your list of recommended reading, I have more books to read! Thanks so much for a great post, I’ll definitely be reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your comment and although the rumours of the Queen watching Downton cannot be 100% confirmed, she will definitely spot many of the errors a mile away. As would her courtiers and ladies-in-waiting.
      You’re welcome for the list of recommended reading, have you read part 1 of the blog? And there are other entries that deal with aspects of Downton Abbey together with list of books I’ve used which might interest you.

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  2. > while reality is being ignored since it won’t sell<
    Well, movie-making is a business after all. They don't want to bore the average viewer with too much history since all she craves are elegant period clothes and good manners.Labor Party has no sufficient appeal. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true but as much as period drama tries to entertain it still has to inject some reality and remain true to the time its set. Look at Call the Midwife, it has a saccharine side but it’s not afraid to tackle and present attitudes and issues prevalent in late 1950s to early 1960s Britain, no matter how unpalatable it is to today’s sensibilities.

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    1. I’ve not really watched it in its entirety as its not an era I’m interested but from the few episodes I’ve watched and based from feedback from friends and work colleagues, it is much more historically accurate and true to the time its set.

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