What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 2)

For part 1 – see here

Delayed Reaction –  food rationing

Another example of this delayed reaction I mentioned before is with regards to shortages and rationing. As early as late 1914, the difficulty in obtaining goods from other countries resulted into price hikes for both essential and non-essential goods. By around 1916 there were already fabric shortages that helped accelerate further the demise of Victorian mourning customs. There was also less coal to go around so several households resorted to burning “waste paper bricks” or installing “coal saving” chimney pots. Crucially however was in 1917 when the Germans decided to engage in unrestricted U boat warfare to starve Britain into submission. In April 1917 alone Britain lost 800,000 tonnes of shipping – Germany knew that the UK depended a lot on imported food from abroad and decided to strike where it would hurt Britain the most – as Georgina Lee noted on 29 January:

The submarine menace is now acute. These islands are faced with a real shortage of food….[t]he daily toll of ships is growing heavier, and the Germans are seizing upon the U-boat as their last chance.

The submarine menace is now what we fear most. It really marks the death grapple between Britain and Germany.

By the end of April, Lillie Scales noted in her diary that “last Wednesday 40 ships over 1,600 tons were reported as having been torpedoed or mined,” Lord Devonport, the food minister initially called for voluntary rationing and Britain was forced to have two meatless days a week, while from October 1917 bakers were allowed to add potato flour to bread. Georgina Lee on 2 February 1917 recalls the amount of food consumed by her household:

We do not exceed this liberal allowance already, at least we have not lately. As we are seven in the house, I reckon we can have weekly:

13 loaves of 2lbs each, with

1½ lb Flour for puddings etc.

1/2 lb Flour for Cake

As for sugar, for weeks past I have imposed a limit of 5lbs for the household. Now I see I can use another 1/4lb, if I can get it! It has been very difficult to procure sugar at all, most grocers absolutely refusing to supply any. But my dear Army and Navy stores allow a certain fixed proportion on grocery orders.

The meat will be more difficult as the 2 ½ lbs include bone. It includes bacon for breakfast and ham so it will mean a great deal of goodwill and patriotic loyalty on the part of women, because these rations are at present left to our honour to enforce. There is to be no system of tickets yet, as in Germany. But the Government will resort to compulsion if the country does not respond.

The inefficiency of British agriculture and the commitment to free trade was one of the factors why Britain imported the bulk of its food from abroad. There were other factors as well as Jeremy Paxman noted, the British, he wrote, “lived by trade, and the growth of imperial power had rendered the country unable to feed itself any longer.” This overdependence on imported food meant that supplies were vulnerable to enemy attack and since the war broke out, people had generally made do with substitutes for staples such as butter, while newspapers and magazines published recipes especially for cakes that required no butter, milk or eggs.  But this wasn’t enough and by 1917-18, shortages were becoming more acute and endless queues for even the most basic of food stuffs were becoming common. The government’s initial response was to promote voluntary schemes such as “Eat Less Bread” through the office of the Food Controller led by Lord Devonport with the support and encouragement of the royal family. But these were not really successful and as more ships were sunk, shortages became even became more acute and the cost of food went up even further; the state was forced to come up with compulsory rationing especially on food stuffs such as butter, sugar, flour and later meat. The rationale behind rationing was to ensure that everyone received their fair share and would result into fewer queues in shops and discourage general panic that could damage morale. To help enforce rationing, the government made food hoarding a crime and several prominent and wealthy people fell foul of the law such as the writer Marie Corelli who was fined £50 for hoarding sugar despite her protestations that the sugar was for jam she intended to give away. A massive fine of nearly £700 was imposed on a Newcastle shipping magnate Rowland Hodge after he and his wife were caught hoarding over a ton of food including sugar and flour.

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Apart from making food hoarding a crime, the government also extended the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to cover food production. Other legislation were introduced such as the banning of throwing rice at newlyweds, fines for wasting food (by 1918, nearly 30,000 people were fined for such an offence), regulating what farmers could feed their livestock and setting minimum prices to discourage war profiteering as well as making the latter punishable by fines or imprisonment. But there was more to rationing than coercion and employing the stick, for instance the Game Laws were relaxed to ease food shortages, as Georgina Lee recalled in her diary:

13 February

The Game Laws of England! They too have had to make way for the necessities of England at war. Not only is it illegal to feed game birds on corn or maize, but game is no longer protected. Anybody can shoot pheasants and any other game on the land on which he is tenant. This is partly to use all available food, and also to prevent these birds eating the precious crops. Some few weeks ago it was the shooting of all hunting packs, to save their food; and naturally too of foxes to prevent them eating poultry.

There were also campaigns to encourage people to plant vegetables no matter how small the patch of land was (and yet again, the royal family did set an example by using the gardens at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences to plant potatoes and the like) as well as exhortations to eat bread substitutes such as rice and maize and using less refined flour or potatoes to bulk out homemade bread. Magazines, newspapers and cookbooks were on hand to offer advice on how to eat well despite rationing – a noted example was May Byron, a writer known for her popular biographies and cook books. As she exhorts in her war time cookery book, May Byron’s Rations Book, “[i]f you cannot have the best, make the best of what you have” and her recipes were filled with tips on how to stretch out meagre rations and using substitutes for ingredients that were expensive or hard to obtain.

The fact that Britain was importing most of its food from abroad and that the war had meant both rising costs and later food shortages makes a nonsense of Jessica Fellowes’ claim that “food was relatively plentiful” and that “rationing didn’t come in until near the end of the war,” (but perhaps she didn’t notice that those two statements contradict each other). Certainly voluntary rationing was encouraged and  official rationing and the issue of ration books did not start until the beginning of 1918 with the issue of ration books with coupons for sugar, butter or margarine and meat. Throughout 1917 and 1918 regulations and penalties against waste, hoarding and profiteering became increasingly stringent, which does not suggest that food was “relatively plentiful”. It’s true that the Crawleys would have been cushioned by the fact that there was a home farm that supplied nearly all the family’s food but they would have still been subjected to government legislation concerning what to feed and not to feed their livestock, there would have been fewer men working on the farm and given that the Crawleys seemed to have resisted mechanising and implementing more efficient means of farming then there would have been less food to go around. Crucially there would be difficulties with imported essentials such as flour and sugar as well as coal. We do not see the Crawleys really coping with shortages in the same way as majority of their real life counterparts did, and yet again we don’t see them taking the lead and initiative when it comes to offsetting and easing shortages in food. Also, if the Crawleys haven’t mechanized (and a comment in series 1 suggests that haven’t), they are reliant on horses, and many of these horses would have gone, having been requisitioned by the army. The ones that are left are the old ones and they work less hard and need more care and feeding, hence less food is produced.

Even before compulsory rationing had been introduced, many real life aristocrats had been finding ways to cope with shortages. As Pamela Horn writes, as early as 1915, the duke of Marlborough had already introduced sheep into the formal gardens at Blenheim to replace the gardeners who had enlisted, and turned over the gardens for the planting of vegetables. Mabell Countess of Airlie, apart from her duties as a lady in waiting to Queen Mary and war work involving nursing training, was also holding the fort at the Cortachy estate as her sons and many of the estate workers had gone off to fight. She was heavily involved in ensuring that the estate was doing its part in the nationwide drive to be more self-sufficient in terms of food. In her autobiography Thatched with Gold, she recalled: “My entire horizon was bounded by potatoes. Every vine house was stuffed full of them; even the little hut at the back of the gardens was stacked with potato boxes from the floor to the roof.”

As mentioned in part 1, the Crawleys being the leading local family would be expected to be following the rules and seen to be following the rules, and that would include food rationing as well. Even before the diktat from the government arrived, Robert and Cora should have been leading by example and instructing Mrs Patmore and the rest of the kitchen staff to ensure that nothing was wasted: and even before the food shortages became noticeable and unavoidable, rising costs on goods and services as well as increase in taxation would mean that the Crawleys would have to resort to belt tightening measures long before 1917. It’s all well and good for Carson to pontificate that “keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans they will not beat us in the end” but as the war dragged on, the casualties mounted and food became increasingly scarce Carson’s concern about proper place settings and objecting to maids serving at the table are not so much amusing as irrelevant and petulant. However, the rationing only becomes a plot bunny for when Matthew is set to marry Lavinia Swire and Mrs Patmore has to make the cake for the festivities. Rationing then becomes a crude bolt on plot device and trivialises the fact that Britain could have lost the war and that revolution could have been possible if it wasn’t for rationing both voluntary and through legislation, the convoy system and the realisation that to survive, people would have to rely more on home grown food and be canny and flexible. As May Byron confidently asserted:

Now, when faced with a crude incontrovertible fact that we live in an island, and that nearly all our food has been coming for outside that island, there is no doubt that the present rude awakening should be – in the long run – be very much to our advantage. ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ To begin with, a fools’ paradise is a weakening and demoralising habitation; to go on with, we are now compelled, willy-nilly to learn the use and value if expedients, of substitutes, of skilful cookery….I conjecture that, sooner or later, we shall emerge from this dire emergency a great deal cleverer than we were before; having acquired all sorts of knowledge, and exploited all manner of possibilities, which we should have regarded with a stare of blank bewilderment in 1913.

 

The servant problem – grabbing opportunities with both hands

When the First World War broke out, men of all classes rushed to enlist and this meant particularly for the aristocracy that their male servants both outdoor and indoor as well as estate farmers and tenants went off to fight; leaving them with those who were too old or too young to enlist (although this didn’t stop those who were too young from lying about their age). Outdoor members of staff such as carpenters, gardeners, gamekeepers, chauffeurs, coachmen and grooms particularly were valued by the armed services as they had skills that were useful and needed in a time of war. Country house servants were also generally seen as fitter and healthier than their counterparts in the city and were attractive recruits. There was also the appeal to patriotism – as Country Life asked its readers not long after the outbreak of war:

Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who, at this moment should be serving your King and Country? Will you sacrifice your personal convenience for your Country’s need? Ask your men to enlist TO-DAY.

The aristocracy also heavily encouraged their servants and estate workers to sign up; offering incentives such as keeping their jobs open for their return when the war ended (and the expectation was it would be over before Christmas), extended pay and continuing to pay their salaries to their dependents. More encouragement came from the state through the establishment of Pals’ Battalions and propaganda posters depicting German bombings of British towns and cities. Finally in 1916, the government introduced conscription which meant that men who fitted the criteria determined by the government had to fight. Conscription meant that more able bodied men went away to fight and with a few exceptions many aristocratic households found their homes almost exclusively staffed by women.

The war however also took away many of the female servants. Better pay and shorter working hours led many maids to leave service and take on work in munitions factories. Although the work could be difficult, dirty and dangerous the benefits included weekends off and nutritious and filling meals served on site. For the first time, many of these women had more money, more free time and were not in the beck and call of someone nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The munitionettes eagerly partook in the nascent consumer culture of the period as they went to the pictures, tea rooms and restaurants as well as purchasing cosmetics, scent, clothes and accessories. Manufacturers and service providers realised that there was a new market to be tapped and the munitionettes would help pave the way for the growth of a consumer culture among the working class following the war.

Although the servant problem began during the late 19th century, the war further accelerated this issue. As the men went away to fight and the women moved on to more profitable war work, the country house many of which were located in the middle of nowhere suddenly was seen as limiting and it was preferable to be at the trenches or in a noisy factory. Rising costs and higher taxes meant that it was unaffordable for the aristocracy and upper middle class to keep the same number of servants before the war and resulted in many of them being unable to keep their promise of holding jobs open for those who had gone off to fight.

In light of this, it’s baffling that apart from Thomas and later William, none of the downstairs staff at Downton Abbey has expressed any interest in leaving the confines of the Abbey to either serve at the front or head off for more lucrative work. More so especially the women as Fellowes and the PR (especially during the last three series) have been yammering about “strong women” who are “substantial individuals” and are not “wilting damsels:” except we don’t see that either with the upstairs or downstairs female characters. Someone like Anna or Daisy would have been prime candidates to leave the Abbey to find better opportunities elsewhere but instead we get Anna snivelling and pining for Mr Bates as part of what would become a long running misery saga, and Daisy does nothing but whine and sulk despite the efforts of good Samaritans such as William and Jane.

There’s Ethel the second housemaid who constantly goes on about “wanting the best” but yet  continues to stay in service when she could go to a munitions factory and get paid more and work shorter hours and days. Of course there is the irony that her story line which involves her getting pregnant out of wedlock by one of the officers who is a patient at the hospital and getting sacked as a result is accurate and could have happened: especially as pregnancy out of wedlock was frowned upon by all social classes and a working class woman like Ethel would have much to lose.

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Another irony is that the most accurate story lines in this series featured those downstairs. Apart from Ethel, there’s William being conscripted and his belief that they are fighting a just war, Lang the valet who was invalided out of the army and suffers from shellshock, and war widow Jane who replaces Ethel and finds a kindred spirit in Robert. However it’s a shame that many of these story lines were not explored more thoroughly and this was not helped by the ropey timeline and the speed with which Fellowes explores the First World War.

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Conclusion and aftermath:

In his notes on the script for the 2011 Christmas special, Fellowes claimed that he set the special at the end of 1919 with the traditional servants’ ball held after New Year in 1920 in order to “allow the audience to grasp that the next series would take them into yet another era, leaving the war far behind.” And that in my view was a foreshadowing of the problems that would plague the programme in the last four series, especially the last three after Dan Stevens decided not to renew.

From series 3 onwards, there was a collective amnesia about the war in Downton Abbey. As one critic has pointed out, Downton simply retreated to the past when money was still plentiful and they could party like it was 1912 all over again. We do not see any war veterans begging in the streets, there’s nothing about unemployment going up as soon as the demobilised men return from the front, no mention of maimed veterans or further rises in taxation or sales of land and property and as many viewers cheekily pointed out, no disabled war vets among Mary’s suitors: and none of the paranoia about revolution, Bolshevism and socialism. Watching Downton you could be forgiven for not knowing that by 1918 three major ruling dynasties – Habsburg, Hohenzollen and Romanov – had been overthrown, in the case of the latter, bloodily and violently, nor the widespread fear that revolution and radical social change was likely to happen in Britain. Unlike real post-war Britain, the war becomes forgotten until it’s used as a plot bunny in series 5 to give redundant characters something to do and even then it was a delayed reaction – why does it take until 1924-25 for the village to have its war memorial when similar edifices were already springing up across the country as early as 1919 and the Cenotaph in London was built and dedicated in 1920 following the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey?

Although with hindsight series 2 is seen as one of the more decent series (the other being series 1), this marks the start of the often baffling swerves in characterization for the sake of the plot, Robert in particular. A man like him who was in the regular army would have been recalled to the colours as soon as possible or if sending him to the front was not possible, then he would be placed in charge of a training depot responsible for training some of the volunteers who have signed up. One can see how Fellowes writes to the plot and not the character from that and what happens in series 3 when apparently Robert – a Lord Lieutenant and representative of the Crown – can barge into the Home Office and DEMAND that the Home Secretary perverts the course of justice for a Fenian rebel – which is something that I think a lot of people didn’t realize he was doing. Not to mention as well indulging in breaking in and forgery in order to stop a putative royal scandal in the 2013 Christmas special, a plotline so thin and so ridiculous that people laughed at it for its lack of credibility and sheer ludicrousness. If he can do all of that, then he can confront the War Office and demand a posting. But that wasn’t the plot so it didn’t happen although it was likely that Fellowes didn’t even think of him doing that.

A family like the Crawleys would have been expected to step up to the plate and do their bit. They would have taken the initiative and not wait until 1917 to be dragged kicking and screaming to open their house as a hospital when in reality a lot of homes were already ready to receive casualties not long after the outbreak of war. In the end, the war was simply treated as if it was a little local difficulty in the way of Matthew and Mary getting married –  it barely inconveniences the family for all their foot-stamping over the hospital –  and for all the yammering about “Downton at war” and claims that the programme is chronicling a time of rapid change, we barely see any of it. All the changes are simply cosmetic, there are no attempts to really explore what the war meant for everyone and how they were affected.  The servants and family assemble to mark the armistice on 11 November 1918, Robert makes a poignant comment about how many men have been killed on the estate and that’s all, folks. Global war and slaughter on an industrial scale done, dusted and dealt with. Once the war is over Downton Abbey reverts to the old ways as if nothing had happened, and as many viewers pointed out, the 1910s where so much happens is covered in 2 series while the 1920s where nothing major really happens is dragged out for four. So much dramatic and narrative potential, and all wasted.

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It seems that nothing must stand in the way of derailing the destiny that has been set for Matthew and Mary – to the point of staging a mis-diagnosis and miraculous recovery for Matthew so he can marry his true love and sire the next generation – as well as what Professor Katherine Byrne calls the programme’s “socially conservative” message. I will even go one step further to say that the war must not stand in the way of the fairy tale that has been constructed around Downton as demonstrated by the collective amnesia about the war afterwards except in series 5 as a plot point, when in reality it was still present in people’s minds right up to 1939 and of course beyond to the present day.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

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

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

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

Katherine Byrne. ‘Adapting Heritage: Class and conservatism in Downton Abbey‘. Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice Vol 18 no 3 (Aug 2013) pp. 311-327.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm

Britain on the Brink of Starvation: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

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What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 1)

Downton Abbey’s first series in 2010 which opened in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War- and such was the popularity of the first series that a second one was commissioned by ITV and was telecast in 2011. The second series with the First World War as the backdrop was set between 1916 and 1919, depicting the lives of the Crawley family and their servants during the war as the likes of Matthew, Thomas and William go off to fight and the Abbey itself is turned into a convalescent home for officers.

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Although the quality of Downton’s narrative began to suffer from series three onwards, the plot holes were already apparent even with the first series and series two was no exception. Since the First World War was supposedly the main focal point of the second series, surprisingly there was little to no exploration of the conflict and how this war was unlike what had gone before, let alone its effects on millions of people at the time or for years to come. In retrospect its only reasons for inclusion in series two seem to have been a) it’s 1914 – Fellowes can’t actually ignore that it happened and b) to throw obstacles in the way of the romance of a dull couple. Chief among the major omissions include:

Lopping off two years from the war:

Series 2 of Downton Abbey opens with the Battle of the Somme and in the published scripts for the second series, Julian Fellowes explains why he decided to jump ahead to 1916 rather than continue with 1914 and have the family doing in 1916 what they should have been doing in 1914:

The challenge naturally, was how to cover the war. In the end, we decided that, just as we had opened Season One with the news of the Titanic in order to pinpoint where we were, similarly we would open Season Two on the battlefield, so there would be no mincing about. From the first scene the audience would know the war has begun. The other decision we made was that we would go forward two years into the middle of the fighting. This was partly because, after the declaration of war, as with all wars, there was a kind of slow-burn start-up, when we wanted to begin with a big bang, literally, but it would also mean that all the characters could have war back stories as the series opened…….[t]hey could jump out of the screen, like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus, fully formed fighters, caught in the Sturm und Drang of the Battle of the Somme.

I find this reasoning problematic and contradictory, never mind the offensiveness of seeing two years of all-out war and death described as ‘mincing about.’ The First World War was the first total and mechanised war in history and as soon as Britain had declared war on Germany, the whole war machine swung into action – land and sea transport were requisitioned to transport troops to the front and to provide emergency medical care, mobilisation was ordered, men who had been in the army were recalled to the colours and unused and idle land seized to set up military training camps and for food production. The civilian population both in the city and country was caught up with the country gearing up for war as the railways began to transport men and supplies to the front, men rushed to enlist and horses were requisitioned to be used for transport and by the cavalry.

In addition there was the also the fear of invasion. In the years before the outbreak of war and despite the confidence that the might of the Royal Navy would protect Britain from foreign invasion, the arms race against Germany and the prevalence of scare stories in the press and novels featuring spies and a possible invasion by the likes of Erskine Childers, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad stoked fears of Britain being invaded. When war finally broke out, the government was so concerned with the possibility of invasion that Boy Scouts and local men – mostly those who were not eligible to fight – were engaged as look outs along coastal areas.

This fear became even more apparent when Whitby and Scarborough were shelled by German warships in November and December 1914. Not only was this the first time the civilian population had been targeted, they had no way of knowing it wasn’t the prelude to invasion. Jessica Fellowes claimed in The World of Downton Abbey that because Downton Abbey was “situated in the north of England in the middle of the countryside, it would not have suffered the frightening spectre of fighter planes overhead or the distant echo of bombshell.” But this is not exactly true as given where Downton Abbey is located, the village would have been near to both towns and not only would have the Crawleys, their servants and the rest of the village have heard of the bombardment but there would be general fear among the populace. And this fear spread to other parts of the country as well as Georgina Lee wrote in her diary:

December 16

The first German shells have fallen on England. This morning at 8am some German cruisers were sighted off Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool. A few minutes later they started shelling the three towns causing many casualties and damage to buildings and property. Everybody seems to think it a pity for those who have to suffer, but a very good thing for the country generally, which will at last be roused to the seriousness of the situation. The cruisers bombarded for half an hour, the, on sighting British patrol vessels, they disappeared in the mist.

December 17

The shelling of the three towns is more serious than was reported yesterday. Altogether 40 people have been killed and several hundred wounded, all civilians, including children and babies. Whitby Abbey, a priceless old monument, was much damaged.

It is mortifying that the German cruisers were able to come 400 miles, to bombard three cities and return to Kiel, without any of our fleet being there to stop them. How did they get through? On their way back they sowed mines in the North Sea which have already sunk three of our merchant steamers.

And while it’s true that the Battle of the Somme was “a great bloodletting, and a massive hideous event because so many men died” the early battles were no picnics in the park either: when Antwerp fell to the Germans in late 1914, that heightened fears of a German advance into France and finally crossing the Channel to invade Britain. There was also the retreat from Mons and the Battle of Loos in 1915 where despite great advantages from the Allied side, the British and the French failed to break through the Germans lines and the British suffered appallingly high casualty rates. All these would have been major headline news and all the more because even during the first two years of the war, there were already large numbers of men who have gone off to fight and millions more rushed to enlist after Lord Kitchener’s appeal for more men and encouraged by reports and propaganda posters depicting German atrocities in Belgium and the shelling of Whitby and Scadrborough.

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Fellowes’ comments above I believe reduces the death and slaughter from 1914 to 1916 as nothing more than something he’s decided are not sufficiently dramatic for his purposes. The fact that so many civilians especially women and children died during the raids on Whitby and Scarborough sparked outrage, drove more men to enlist and in the case of Downton Abbey provided a good avenue for the characters to articulate what would have been the reactions of ordinary people as the bombardment brought the reality of war in a way that was not possible in earlier conflicts.

 

Delayed Reaction – reluctantly falling in to do their bit:

In earlier blogs discussing the problems with Downton Abbey’s plotting and story lines, one of the issues that always recur is what I call “delayed reaction” which is something that is seen especially in the last three series. This “delayed reaction” began with series two – not content with lopping off two years from the war, Fellowes also decides to delay the role that the Crawleys will play during the war as he writes in his notes to the published scripts:

First of all, to take the house and its residents into the conflict, we start with a commitment to the soldiers at the front, and a fundraising event, but we do not yet suggest they should make any great sacrifices. This is, if you like, the transitional stage, when the family and staff realise that they’ve got to get behind the war effort and do their stuff but they haven’t really accepted the degree to which they can be helpful, because it will disturb their daily lives profoundly. I think it’s realistic. They’re well intentioned, patriotic, loyal, but not yet quite ready to sacrifice their way of life.

A cursory reading of the present Countess of Carnarvon’s biography of her predecessor Almina the 5th countess tells us a different story. Already known for her work with the sick on the Highclere estate, as well as nursing her own husband who had been left weakened by a motor accident in the early 1900s, the 5th countess had decided to turn Highclere Castle into a hospital in the event of war breaking out. She also began to undertake a more formalised nursing training and by mid-1914 already had the logistics in place for her hospital; so much so that by September 1914 not long after Britain had declared war on Germany, Highclere Castle was ready to receive its first patients.

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Others swung into action with the aristocracy and the rich opening up their homes as hospitals and convalescent homes. These included Woburn Abbey, Harewood House, Blenheim Palace, Glamis Castle, Wrest Park, Dunrobin Castle, Elmswood and Taplow Court. Other country homes such as Clandon Park and Attingham Park housed Belgian refugees who had fled the German advance while Halton House became a training depot complete with dug out trenches to simulate the conditions on the Western Front. In major cities such as London there was a need for more beds than any existing hospital could offer so aristocratic townhouses such as Londonderry and Grosvenor Houses also became military hospitals. Certain aristocratic women such as Millicent Duchess of Sutherland and Shelagh Duchess of Westminster  went one step further and set up hospitals in France close to where the fighting was, and although their sense of duty and hard work were appreciated the army sometimes found these aristocratic nurses irritating. Millicent Duchess of Sutherland for instance was known as “Meddlesome Millie” for her various charitable endeavours and crusade for worker’s rights before the war. When the First World War broke out, she worked with the Red Cross and established an ambulance unit in France which by the end of 1914 had grown into a 100 bed hospital near Dunkirk.

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While young aristocratic men enlisted in record numbers (by 1915 Vanity Fair calculated that there were 800 peers or sons of peers fighting in the army and navy), their sisters, wives, fiancées and other female relatives turned to nursing, although not without objections from their elders. Lady Diana Manners, a daughter of the Duke of Rutland was one who was determined to do her bit as she recalled in her autobiography The Rainbow Comes and Goes:

I began scheming to get to the Front as a nurse. Women were taking Red Cross hospitals and dressing-stations to France, and they were taking their daughters and their daughters’ friends. I wrote to the Duchess of Sutherland and the Duchess of Westminster and others……I got nothing but discouragement and tears from my mother and a pi-jaw from Lady Dudley, whom my mother summoned to reason with me. She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them. I thought her ridiculous and my mother ridiculous too, and could not believe Rosemary Leveson-Gower, my cousin Angie Manners and other girls I knew already in France to be victims of rape.

Regretfully I abandoned the Front in favour of nursing at Guy’s Hospital (Aunt Kitty’s refuge many years before). This took a stiff fight, but as an alternative to rape at the Front the civil hospital was relieving to my poor, poor mother.

The likes of Almina Countess of Carnarvon, Millicent Duchess of Sutherland, Mary Duchess of Bedford and Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper) were not simply “show nurses” but were actually trained and in time could assist in operations. Many of them had knowledge of the administrative side of hospital work by serving in committees and hospital boards before the war but practical knowledge was something they acquired during the war. Mary Duchess of Bedford  was a classic example: having established a small cottage hospital not long after her husband succeeded to the dukedom, she wasn’t content with merely becoming a figurehead but also began to attend medical lectures at London Hospital: and they stood her in good stead when the cottage hospital was expanded and enlarged. She came into her own when during the outbreak of the war and Woburn Abbey was turned into a military hospital. Sister Mary as the Duchess became known not only made sure that the house was well equipped and could cope with the huge number of casualties but also that the patients and nurses had access to leisure and entertainment as well as fresh air and ventilation, which she believed would help with the soldiers’ recovery and provide a respite for the nurses having to deal with the wounded and the dying every day. She worked 16 hour days and by 1917 had qualified as a surgeon’s assistant and began training in radiotherapy.

For younger aristocratic women, their war work gave them a glimpse into a side of life and interaction with other people that they would not have otherwise encountered, and equally importantly, for the first time in their lives they had a sense of purpose and achievement as Lady Diana recalls:

I enjoyed the months at Guy’s. V.A.Ds (it was the first month of their infancy) and there were but two of us were very well received. We dressed the same as the staff and were treated in exactly the same way. I was allowed to do everything the upper nurses were allowed, except dispensing, but in a few weeks’ I was giving injections, intravenous and saline, preparing for operations, cutting abscesses and once even saying prayers in Sister’s absence…..The life was excessively hard if you were not strong.

In light of these examples, it’s baffling that the Crawleys had to wait until 1916 to get behind the war effort, until 1917 for the Abbey to be turned into a convalescent home and even then the family does so grudgingly and with poor grace – Robert’s reluctance for this to happen is especially puzzling given his keenness to fight. (You have to wonder how the man who can’t bear even to give up part of his library to wounded men would have dealt with life in the trenches…) It takes a middle class woman, Isobel Crawley to remind her aristocratic relatives of their duty. While Sybil turns to nursing with enthusiasm and Isobel works as an administrator, the other women sit back and do nothing (save for Edith who briefly works as a farm labourer then as the convalescent home helper). Cora is only pushed to do her bit because O’Brien stirs things up by intriguing against Isobel rather than any sense of duty, and what’s laughable, of course, is Cora expecting a pat on the back as if she’s the only peeress working in a hospital or doing her bit after waiting for three years to get off her backside. By this point her real life counterparts were already running hospitals, driving ambulances on the front line of battle, assisting in complicated surgeries and could give out injections and clean abscesses without batting an eyelash. That scene where Cora was expecting to be singled out for praise by a visiting general was so ludicrous and opposed to the likes of Almina Countess of Carnarvon or Lady Stirling Maxwell – who actually declined the honours given to them after the war with the view that they were serving the best they could as demanded by their station in life without any recourse to recognition.

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Cora’s oldest daughter Mary is no better. While her younger sisters have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into war work, Mary is content to do nothing but mope. She lacks the imagination and initiative to do something and even Edith had to persuade her to sing to their patients. It begs the question of what’s she doing and what will Matthew think if he knows that she’s not doing anything and it’s not a very good omen for how she’s going to be if they do marry and she becomes countess.

The abovementioned examples show how much Fellowes’ assertion that the Crawleys “haven’t really accepted the degree to which they can be helpful, because it will disturb their daily lives profoundly” and that “it’s realistic” are bunkum, as even the most cursory research would have shown. As the leading local family, the Crawleys would have been expected to set an example, step up to the plate and would have made preparations even before war was declared. Even if no-one else wanted to, Robert, with his sense of duty and eagerness to serve would be urging his family and the village to do their bit – as a Lord Lieutenant* he’d know war was coming because he’d know about mobilization in the county and through his old army comrades. They don’t need to wait for 2-3 years into the war and Sybil and Isobel to drag them kicking and screaming to do their part: for an aristocratic family, service and duty was something ingrained in them, but the Crawleys fail to demonstrate the public service that is expected of them and not doing anything would be commented on by friends and their wider society. Propaganda posters and newspaper articles during this period continually stressed the fact that the whole country was in it together – from the King down, high and low, rich and poor. The British royal family for a start from King George V, Queen Mary, their three older children and various relatives all did their part with the King even giving up alcohol, using the gardens at Buckingham Palace for the planting of vegetables and royal carriages and horses deployed to help transport soldiers to and from hospitals. Queen Mary was highly active in getting women involved through knitting and sewing comforts for soldiers in the front as well as establishing a fund for unemployed women workers which led to a working relationship with the trade unionist Mary Macarthur. Her only daughter Princess Mary worked as a nurse and started a fund which sent those now famous boxes filled with home comforts to soldiers and sailors serving in the Front. Even the old Queen Dowager Alexandra played her part with her hospital visits and expanding her Queen Alexandra Rose Day initiative to raise money for the soldiers.

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The above mentioned examples demonstrate that everyone was expected and encouraged to contribute to the war effort. Royal encouragement was a very powerful incentive and there was a lot of public pressure for instance over women sending their men to enlist (more of which I will touch upon in part 2). This is very much a time when people ‘look up to their betters’ who were in their turn expected to set an example. Going to church every Sunday. Setting a moral example. Sending your sons to enlist in the army and your daughters to be nurses. Giving up your home for use as a hospital. This was part and parcel of the duty that the aristocracy were supposed to live by and those who didn’t do their duty were very much frowned and commented upon.

This inertia on the family’s part reminds me of something that occurred to me as Downton Abbey progressed through the series – that Fellowes actually despises the values and outlook of the traditional established aristocracy and is pointing out their uselessness and unwillingness to get involved as a sign that they serve no useful purpose: but then I realised that really he isn’t at all interested in portraying historical events to educate and enlighten and entertain. It’s simply a distortion of history (something to which he’s very prone) in the interests of plot. The plot, of course, is that Mary and Matthew become man and wife, in course of time earl and countess in the inevitable happy marriage, and that when they take over Downton can flourish in the hands of a progressive, modern owner, not the backward looking one it suffers from now. The upper middle class boy elevated to the ruling class (and God forbid I should suggest that for Fellowes the character of Matthew Crawley is in any way autobiographical) will show the peerage how to run their estates in the bold and modern world.  Everything else, including global war, is a sideshow to serve that purpose.

Now I can already hear the cries of ‘But it’s fiction! A writer is entitled to do what s/he wants with historical events to create drama!’ and of course that’s true, thanks for proving my point for me.  It IS only fiction, not a documentary. Leaving aside the fact that complete historical accuracy is not achievable anyway and no-one with any historical knowledge would claim that it is, Fellowes is only following in the giant footsteps of Shakespeare when he re-writes historical fact to entertain and a great deal of historical writing is essentially dependent on interpretation anyway. There is a whole debate about whether or not the writer of historical fiction has a duty to present the facts and what sort of distortion and re-writing is acceptable in the name of entertainment that I don’t propose to start here. My objection is that throughout the six series of Downton Abbey we have been assured that it is historically accurate down to the smallest detail, and that a historical adviser is on hand to make sure that no errors slip through.

This, I can tell you, is arrant nonsense. For many people boo-boo spotting the errors in Downton became an entertaining minor sport: and if Downton Abbey had ended after a couple of series the slips up, solecisms and errors would have been no more than an easily forgotten petty irritation. As it was the series became a world-wide hit with millions of fans who regard Fellowes as an expert on this period and take his very partial and distorted view of history as gospel because of that oft-repeated declaration of complete historical accuracy – and in series 2 he doesn’t just re-arrange historical fact to suit the drama, he actively suppresses fact by declaring things to be true that definitely aren’t and that even a brief reading on the war show to be wrong. Like Robert not fighting because he’s too old and because he’s a landowner. That is my gripe – that he says categorically this is true and happened like this when truth is no it didn’t, it happened completely differently which I will touch more upon in the next part.

*Although, of course, we don’t know until a later series that he IS a Lord Lieutenant. That’s another plot device that comes and goes like Bates’ limp. Incidentally, for those who are wondering, the Lord Lieutenant of a county was at the time a leading aristocrat who was the monarch’s direct representative in his locality. Had we known that it would make Robert’s reluctance to have his home turned into a hospital even more ludicrous: as the crown’s representative people of all classes would look to him to set an example right from the start of the war, and there’d be questions asked at very high levels if he didn’t.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

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

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

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm

Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 2 – Fiction & Academic)

For part 1 – see here

FICTION:

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

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The first in a trilogy, like The Shooting Party this is England before the Great War, but instead of the landed classes Sassoon writes an autobiographical portrait of English country life as it was for the minor gentry. Mellow, nostalgic and in the words of a contemporary review, bathed in a golden atmosphere of orchards, horse tack, linseed oil and leather bound, unopened books. Nostalgia at its finest.

 

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

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The second part of the trilogy and a fictionalised story of Sassoon’s experiences on the Western Front that drove him to express his opposition to the war. Like Brittain, deeply personal and moving (but a great deal shorter).

 

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

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A apparent pastoral idyll hiding betrayal, love, deceit and desire and a young boy’s awakening to the realisation of how adults can use each other and even children to get what they want if they want it badly enough. Like so many of our choices, set just before World War One in the hot summer of 1900 and portraying a way of life that was within a decade to disappear for ever.

 

Isabel Colegate – The Shooting Party

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A short but flawless novel that is a snapshot of the Edwardian upper classes at play on the brink of war – confident, certain of their place in the world and the superiority of their class and country but with the first hairline cracks of uncertainty starting to appear.

 

C.S. Forester – The General

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Writing these comments it’s very noticeable that for our choices war or the imminence of war is a theme, and of course that’s inevitable if you are exploring the era when Downton is set – Julian Fellowes must be the only writer I’ve come across who writes about this period and apart from one series manages to pretty much ignore the very large historical fact of World War One and its effects on people decades after it ended. This is a superb novel about a decent, brave and wholly unimaginative man who is far from evil or wicked yet sends men to appalling slaughter. CS Forester has long been one of my favourite writers and he had a fascination for flawed, awkward people: and while the author recognises his hero’s flaws and failings are inevitable because of his lack of imagination, he also does him justice as a human being. One of the must reads on this list.

 

J.L Carr – A Month in the Country

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A damaged survivor of the Great War recalls the summer of 1920 he spent in Yorkshire: how the village and its people were a place of refuge, healing, love and friendship, and a precious memory he has carried with him for years. Lyrical and beautifully written.

 

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

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Set slightly later than Downton Abbey, this is a novel about the lives, loves and politics of  a town in 1930s Yorkshire – blighted by the war and coming to terms with significant social change.

 

Vita Sackville-West – The Edwardians

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A thinly disguised account of Knole and members of the Sackville-West family, this novel published in 1930 explores dual themes such as tradition and change, duty and pleasure. While this can be seen as a critique of the emptiness and vacuity of the aristocracy and their way of life it also represents a labour of love for Vita in her description of Knole, its history and the symbiotic relationship of the house with everyone who depends on it for a living.

 

P.G. Wodehouse – Blandings novels

No mention of the post WW1 era would be complete without a mention of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings novels. Set at an indeterminate period between 1918 and 1939, they evoke a golden age of the middle and upper classes wholly unthreatened by punitive increases in taxation, social unrest, Bolshevism, socialism or any of the concerns of real life in the 20s and 30s. Like Downton Abbey they exist in an idealised bubble where the aristocracy are supreme  and everyone except his family defers to the earl while having their own (not necessarily flattering) opinions about him. Unlike Downton Abbey however they evoke the period with tiny but deft touches, are superbly written and very funny.

 

 

ACADEMIC:

 

David Cannadine – The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

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Before the 1870s, the British aristocracy was at the height of its power but in less than a decade later their long descent into impotence and irrelevance had begun. Cannadine’s magisterial study charts their decline and fall aided and abetted by a combination of new challenges from other socio-economic groups for long marginalised and were now challenging and battling the aristocracy for power and control, punitive taxation, and from industry and cheap imports from abroad. The First World War and its aftermath led to a huge blow from which the aristocracy has never recovered since. Highly recommended.

 

Diane Urquhart – The Ladies of Londonderry: Women and Political Patronage

Aristocratic women like their middle and working class counterparts might not have legal and political rights but they could make a difference through their charity work; patronage of the arts, sciences, religion and education and  entertaining. Using the Marchionesses of Londonderry as a case study, Urquhart examines how their work and efforts particularly in the field of charity, the war effort and political entertaining have had mixed results but all the time wholly consistent with the aristocratic notion of public service and duty.

 

Maureen E. Montgomery -‘Gilded Prostitution’: Status, Money and transatlantic marriages, 1870-1914

It wasn’t only in Britain where transatlantic marriages between the aristocracy and American heiresses were unpopular but also in America where following a backlash, they were increasingly being seen as unpatriotic, a betrayal of the American Dream and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. At the risk of sounding like Samuel Huntington here, this was a “clash of civilisations” where the values of the New World in which egalitarianism and merit reigned supreme were being challenged by the desire for status and social acceptance.

 

Jose Harris – Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914

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Charting changes in British society in the forty odd years before WW1 around themes such as demography, family and household, property, work, religion, society and state; Harris presents a succinct and well-argued view that the notion of public virtue is what kept Britain relatively stable despite its own social and economic problems and how social policy was increasingly becoming the concern of the state thereby laying the foundations of the welfare state that came into being following the Second World War.

 

Dominic Lieven – The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914

A comparative study of the British, German and Russian aristocracies, Lieven charts how they met the challenges facing their class and their countries and deduces some common threads that were the factors for the decline and fall of the British, German and Russian aristocracies namely the rise of the middle class, industrialisation and professionalism in the military, civil service and the government.

 

Andrew Adonis – Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain, 1884-1914

While Cannadine’s study looks at a broader picture of the decline and fall of the aristocracy, Adonis’ work focus more on the aristocracy from a purely political aspect and argues that not only was their power steadily eroded by the growing number of middle and working class MPs but crucially the clash over the budgets in 1909 and 1910 paved the way for the Parliament Act on 1911 which signalled the end of the House of Lords’ power of veto and a blow from which they have never recovered.

 

Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914

These collection of essays charts the rise of radicalism and the labour movement becoming a political force in Britain challenging both the aristocracy and the middle classes but at the same time working with these groups to ensure that grievances against pay, working conditions and being denied the vote were taken seriously and acted upon.

 

Bloggers’ Recommendations:

A.L. Carr                         A Month in the Country

Isobel Colegate            The Shooting Party

Vera Brittain                Testament of Youth

David Cannadine        The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

C.S. Forester                 The General

Catherine Bailey         Black Diamonds

 

Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 1 – Non fiction)

Downton Abbey has come to an end both in the UK and the US but if you are interested in the era the programme is set (as we are) then these books hopefully will give you a greater insight into this period and what life was like in Britain in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Ignore all other lists; this is the one you need.

PART 1: NON-FICTION

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – The Glitter and the Gold

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Published in 1953 when Consuelo was already in her seventies this autobiography dwells on her childhood, her unhappy marriage to and divorce from the 9th Duke of Marlborough to her work with the poor and support for women’s suffrage and finally her second marriage to French aviator Jacques Balsan. Of particular interest here is Consuelo’s account of life as a duchess and chatelaine of Blenheim Palace which depicts a way of life in its Indian summer before its eventual demise during the First World War.

 

Anne de Courcy – Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry, The Viceroy’s Daughters, 1939: The Last Season, Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916

The-Viceroy-s-Daughters     margot at war

This quartet of books from Anne de Courcy explores the lives of Edith Londonderry, the daughters of Lord Curzon and Margot Asquith where she weaves their lives amidst the social and political realities of the times they live in where their privileged lives were simply a façade for the growing impotence of the class they belong to and which all would come to an end with Armageddon in 1939.

 

Catherine Bailey – Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, The Secret Rooms

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Catherine Bailey’s well researched books on the Fitzwilliam family and the 9th Duke of Rutland has all the ingredients that make Downton Abbey pale in comparison. From missing documents to forbidden love to betrayal to subterfuge to mysterious births and deaths; the stories of the Fitzwilliams and the 9th Duke do lend credence to the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction

 

Mary Lovell – The Mitford Girls

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The death of Deborah Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2014 marked the end of an era and Mary Lovell’s biography of the famous and infamous six Mitford sisters provides a snapshot of what it was like for an aristocratic family to be a casualty of the prolonged agricultural slump that has decimated the fortunes of many in the aristocracy. The sisters’ close relationship with one another make good reading – how it was tested time and again and in some cases unable to withstand the changing political and economic conditions that engulfed their class.

 

Loelia Duchess of Westminster – Grace and Favour

Mabell Countess of Airlie – Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie

Lady Cynthia Asquith – Remember and Be Glad, Haply I May Remember

What was it like to be an upper class woman where you had to be strictly chaperoned until you were married? Where your education was haphazard and anything that was deemed to be unladylike was actively discouraged? Where discussion of awkward and difficult subjects was avoided? Let Loelia Westminster, Mabell Airlie and Cynthia Asquith be your guides through a vanished world where strict morality, a sense of propriety prevailed and the shenanigans of a Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Lady Rose would have been commented upon and not tolerated.

 

Mollie Moran – Aprons and Silver Spoons

Flo Wadlow – Over a Hot Stove

Rosina Harrison – The Lady’s Maid

moran memoirsReaders might wonder why we do not have Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs but we believe that her account is only one side of the story and it’s easy to forget that she did not work for the aristocracy or even the untitled gentry. For those of you who are wondering how a real life Mrs Patmore or Miss O’Brien might have coped and what life could have been like in an aristocratic household then the reminiscences of Mollie Moran, Flo Wadlow and Rosina Harrison will present another side of the story overlooked by Margaret Powell.

 

Frances Osborne – The Bolter

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This could be subtitled The Marriages of Idina Sackville, a woman who could “whistle a chap off a branch” and frequently did. From scandalising Edwardian London to organising wife swapping parties in Kenya, this is a highly entertaining account of an earl’s daughter who pushed the boundaries of behaviour to extremes. Fascinating and repelling at the same time.

 

Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth

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One of the best memoirs of World War One – poignant, at times agonising and at all times deeply personal, although for me it sags after the end of the war when Brittain talks at great lengths about her political and social justice ambitions and interests. One comment that was made when this came out is that it’s written as if Brittain was the only woman to lose a fiancé during the war, and she’s certainly self-absorbed throughout, but a worthwhile read as a contemporary account of Britain from peace to war and back again.

 

Phyllida Barstow – The English Country House Party

A description of the golden age of the English country house party from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to the outbreak of war in 1914. An intimate and entertaining account of a vanished world and a vanished class that uses diaries, fiction and personal memoirs to convey a world that was not just about enjoyment but served serious social and political purposes.

 

Gail McColl and Carol Wallace – To Marry an English Lord

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One of the inspirations for Downton Abbey was the career of the Buccaneers – young American heiresses who came to Britain with the intention of marrying into the peerage. 1895 was the peak year for this social phenomenon, and eventually more than 100 heiresses exchanged their fortunes for British titles. Why they came, what they found, how they were supposed to behave, what it was like to be a peeress and what happened when – as often was the case – these marriages foundered are all entertainingly catalogued, with plenty of contemporary drawings and photographs.

 

Jerry White – Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War

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London in 1914 was the chief city of the British Empire and with the declaration of war became, in the words of one review, one of the greatest killing machines in human history…the war changes London for ever…yet despite daily casualty lists, food shortages and enemy bombings, Londoners are determined to get on with their lives… patriots and pacifists, clergymen and thieves, bluestockings and prostitutes…a struggling yet flourishing city. It’s four years in the city’s long history told by focusing on the daily lives of Londoners, whether they were rich or poor, high or low.

 

Juliet Nicholson – The Great Silence: 1918-1920, Life in the Shadow of the Great War

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A book about the two years from the end of the Great War to the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and a solid and often moving account of the devastation effects of war and grief on the British of all classes and as the title implies, stoically endured in a silence that had come to an awareness that after four years of war reality was too much for words to describe. Like water moving under ice, Nicholson shows that despite everything people survived and coped and tentatively at last began to hope for happiness again.

 

Virginia Nicholson – Singled Out

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This is an exploration of the lives of a generation of women who were deprived of marriage and motherhood by the carnage of war and the lives they made for themselves as they challenged convention, coped with adversity and in the process proved to themselves and others that men, marriage and babies were not the only future for women.

 

Elisabeth Kehoe – Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters

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The most famous of the Buccaneers could arguably be Jennie Jerome but her two sisters Leonie and Clara also married into the British aristocracy and gentry. Elisabeth Kehoe’s fascinating biography chronicles the social ambitions of their mother and how through her sheer force of will and the sisters’ beauty and charm they married into the aristocracy in the process establishing themselves into society and becoming confidantes to politicians, royals and other prominent people of their day.

 

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart – Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age

A dual biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother Alva, Stuart charts the events that shaped Alva’s social climbing ambitions and how Consuelo was instrumental to that plan. What is fascinating is how both women turned to good causes as society lost it allure and their marriages floundered under stress and strain – with their work for the poor, sick and women’s rights. And it is through public service and their respective second marriages that both mother and daughter find fulfilment and happiness.

 

Pamela Horn – Country House Society, Life in a Victorian Household, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, Life in the Victorian Country House, Ladies of the Manor, Life Below Stairs: the real lives of servants the Edwardian era to 1939, Women in the 1920s, High Society: The English Social Elite 1880-1914

Pamela Horn was a lecturer on social history at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) and is an acknowledged expert on British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her books all draw from various primary sources such as letters, diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles and census reports to flesh out how men and women both high and low really lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Robert Wainwright – Sheila: The Australian Ingénue who Bewitched British Society

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Once the novelty of marrying American heiresses wore off, British aristocrats began to look more into the daughters of home grown industrialists and those from the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) for potential brides seeing them as preferable to Americans. Among these women from the Dominions who took British society by storm was Sheila Chisholm an Australian who married the heir to the earldom of Rosslyn and attracted a string of admirers among them the future George VI who fell passionately in love with her. Wainwright deftly places Sheila at the heart of a society outwardly moving on from the First World War but still reeling from its effects under the surface only to meet its demise during the Second World War.

 

Martin Pugh – We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars

Martin Pugh suggests in the title that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Britain during the years following the First World War. While the interwar years was a period of strikes, economic decline and growing impotence on the global stage it was also an era of the rise of consumer society, greater choice, improvements in science and technology and greater democratisation of society.

 

The Duchess of Devonshire – Chatsworth: The House

Like her sisters Nancy, Diana and Jessica; Deborah also developed a career in writing on the side and this excellent coffee table book charts the history of Chatsworth House and the previous dukes and duchesses who have made it their home. It also serves as a guided tour of one of Britain’s leading visitor attractions and bringing to life how the house has adapted to the changing times and changing needs of those who live and work under its roof.

 

Lucy Lethbridge – Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th century Britain

Jeremy Musson – Up and Down Stairs

servants  up and downstairs

Tracing the rise, apogee and eventual decline of domestic service, both Lethbridge and Musson makes an excellent stab at portraying domestic service in all its diversity and complexity and that it wasn’t all black and white when it came to servants and employers but it was in varying shades of grey.

 

Mark Girouard – Life in the English Country House

An architectural historian, Giorouard traces the development of the country house over the last 500 years in respond to changing times, fashions, needs and attitudes.

 

Anita Leslie – Edwardians in Love

Contrary to what has been claimed by the Downton PR machine, the people of the past are not empathically like us. As LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “the past is a different country, they do things differently there.” Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill describes in great detail the loves and passions of the Edwardian upper classes, the rules they had to strictly adhere to and their views on love, relationships, marriage and adultery which by the standards of today can be seen as hypocritical and even unpalatable.

 

Tessa Boase – The Housekeeper’s Tale

housekeepers tale

Charting the history of the housekeeper from the 19th century to the present by using case studies, Tessa Boase depicts that there is more to the housekeeper than Mrs Hughes. While the position comes with power and responsibility, it is also fraught with hidden danger where one false move and the housekeeper finds herself with no job, no place to stay and no reference. Oftentimes a footnote in history, Boase places the housekeeper central stage and traces the changes in domestic service through their eyes.

 

Roy Hattersley – The Edwardians

Andrew Marr – The Making of Modern Britain

edwardians  modern britain

The Edwardian era is oftentimes seen as a period of the Belle Epoque of balls, dances and dinners where men in white tie and tails mingled with women in sumptuous evening gowns and jewels. But underneath the glitter and glamour was a society on a cusp of change where royalty and aristocracy were being supplanted by the middle class while march of science and technology was rendering the old ways of doing things obsolete and a whole group of people both men and women were no longer content to be simply seen as subjects but were flexing their muscles and demanding to be heard and to be taken seriously by the powers that be. Both are a must read as an overview of British history from 1901 to 1939.

 

Jeremy Paxman – Great Britain’s Great War

Kate Adie – Fighting the Home Front

Terry Charman – The First World War on the Home Front

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One of the wasted potentials of Downton Abbey was to explore the First World War in any meaningful way and as befitting the first mechanised and total war in history how it even pervaded the home front. Paxman, Adie and Charman explore the effects of the war in Britain, how everyone rich and poor, high and low were affected and a hundred years later still resonate in the British psyche.

 

For part 2 – see here

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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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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)

How to get an artist wrong

One of the effects of repeats on television and DVDs is that you can re-watch a programme and spot things that were not apparent during the first viewing but do emerge during the second and subsequent viewing a scene or episode. Chief among these would include a missed scene or spot of dialogue, inconsistencies, anachronisms and outright boo-boos.

It was while re-watching series 5 of Downton Abbey and searching for something online that I came across this:

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It is a gif of two scenes from Downton Abbey – first in series 1 where Mary and Pamuk are looking at a painting by Piero della Francesca. This painting and the artist resurfaces again as part of the Simon Bricker story line in series 5 but whoever created this gif has perhaps not noticed was that the paintings that were featured in series 1 and series 5 were different.

The Simon Bricker story line sparked an interest in researching more about Piero della Francesca because to me it seemed like the painting(s) the Crawleys had looked nothing like the della Francescas on display say at the National Gallery. In both scenes Mary and Cora tell Pamuk and Bricker that it was brought back by the second earl from his Grand Tour which I found hard to believe. During the 17th and 18th centuries when the second earl would have been alive, paintings from the Medieval and early Renaissance were out of fashion and out of reach because the vast majority were in churches: what was seen as desirable were paintings from the High Renaissance and Baroque, those that fell under the Old Masters category with later additions of paintings by then contemporary artists such as Canaletto and Guardi.

I have a theory that the Piero della Francesca that the Crawleys have is a fake or a copy made by an assistant, even done much later. Looking at the painting(s) at the Abbey, it has none of the use of pale and bright colours that are characteristic of the artist’s works. In a later episode in series 5, Bricker claims that the painting is a study of one of the figures found in the Nativity which hangs at the National Gallery. This is highly unlikely as studies as we know today did not come into existence until the 17th century. Until then, artist relied on cartoons which were a model for a painting, stained glass or tapestry. Some of them have pinpricks along the outline of the design that could be transferred against the surface to be painted. In addition, cartoons were also widely used for frescoes to link parts of the fresco when painted over damp plaster.

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Delving further, there are more inconsistencies that show up. Piero della Francesca unlike many of his contemporaries was not a prolific artist which wasn’t helped by the fact that it can take him years to complete a commissioned work and made worse by some of his works are now lost. After completing the Nativity around 1481, he abandoned painting to concentrate on mathematics and family affairs. Majority of his works remain in situ in churches in Italy while others have ended up in museums both in Italy and abroad which means that by the late 19th century none of them were in private hands. Not even the Royal Collection or the the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Smithsonian or even the grandest aristocratic families have a Piero della Francesca in their collection, which makes it highly unlikely that an obscure backwoods family like the Crawleys would have one.

The inconsistency with having a Piero della Francesca also ties with another discrepancy this time in series 4 when its revealed that the Crawleys have a Gutenberg Bible in their possession. Again this is highly unlikely, even after the last of the Bibles rolled out of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press these were not meant for private use but rather for churches and monasteries to be read out during Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. As of 2009, only 44 bibles existed with only 23 complete and they are all housed in major libraries. Which leads us to the question – if the Crawleys have these treasures (as well as their London property Grantham House) then why were these not sold when a) the Crawleys were bankrupt the first time round and Robert had to marry Cora or b) after the war when Robert lost the Levinson money?

The whole point of having these treasures was not only to demonstrate a family’s wealth and status but also something to sell off during the hard times when cold, hard cash was needed. This is precisely how for instance the likes of the National Gallery were able to acquire these works of art – Sir Charles Eastlake who served as an adviser and later director of the National Gallery undertook a trip to Italy and acquired paintings owing to sales from aristocratic families and churches. In Britain from the 1870s onwards, the market was flooded with paintings, jewels, silver, books and other objects from aristocratic families having to retrench and pay higher rates of tax and hence this is one of the reasons why major museums and galleries are now home to these treasures. If the Crawleys were really serious about putting their financial house in order then all these alleged treasures and Grantham House should have been sold and other economies made. But instead what we have is the family being “rescued” by some miracle bequest then they promptly fall back into their old ways and what we have from series 4 onwards is the spectacle of a family in denial of their financial situation and that of their peers and the country.

More and more one sees how Fellowes’ writing and plotting has become so bad that he doesn’t seem to even check what he’s writing for plausibility and credibility. If indeed the Crawleys have a Piero della Francesca and a Gutenberg Bible, they could have named their price and even if both were revealed to be fakes, they could still fetch a good sum. As it stands, both of these were bolt on plot devices to pad out a threadbare narrative and show in an unconvincing way that this family is cultured as well as to patronise the audience and assume that they wouldn’t know who Piero della Francesca or what a Gutenberg Bible is when in reality there are those who do and failing that, Google is your friend.

 

Further reading about Piero della Francesca:

Larry Whitham. Piero’s Light (New York, 2014)

James R. Banker. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man (Oxford, 2014)

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. Piero della Francesca (London, 2002)

Kenneth Clark. Piero della Francesca (Oxford, 1969)

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. ‘Monarca della Pitura: Piero and His Legacy’ in Marilyn Aronberg Lavin (ed.) Piero della Francesca and His Legacy (Washington DC, 1995)

Pierluigi de Vecchi and Peter Murray. The Complete Paintings of Piero della Francesca (London, 1970)

E.H. Grombich. The Story of Art (London, 1951)

Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Artists (London, 1987)

Notes:

1 & 2 are part of the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy (photos found on Pinterest.com)

3 The Baptism of Christ can be seen at the National Gallery in London (photo taken by blogger)

Back in the Dolls House Part 2: Lady Edith’s Pyrrhic victory

WARNING: Contains spoilers for those who have not yet watched the series 6 Christmas Special

In a blog post of the same title, I have pointed out how the historical reality facing millions of women of all classes after the First World War meant that Lady Mary’s story line since series 4 which culminated in a second marriage was anachronistic, poorly handled and illustrated how bankrupt Downton’s narrative has become since Matthew’s death.

This year’s Christmas special which signals the end of this programme after six series in my opinion was highly unsatisfactory and contrived. However since Downton has barely lived up to its hype then perhaps I was expecting too much but as the Christmas special dragged on with nothing happening and transmogrifying into an episode of the popular 1990s programme Blind Date, all that was missing was an appearance from Cilla Black who fronted the programme in order to liven up what was essentially a lifeless, lacklustre and laboured two hours.

One by one, characters were being paired up and happy endings clunked into place, with even Isobel Crawley finally tying the knot with Lord Merton after some skulduggery from her and the Dowager Countess to rescue him from his odious son and daughter-in-law, and a hint that Mrs Patmore and Mr Mason will get their happily ever after. The piece de la resistance however was the marriage of Lady Edith to Bertie Pelham (now the Marquess of Hexham after the sudden death of the incumbent who happened to a distant cousin – shades of Matthew Crawley here). If one recalls what happened in series 6, it was Edith’s inability to disclose the true identity of her daughter Marigold that scuppered her chances of marriage to Pelham and it is only after the usual convoluted twists and turns that the Christmas special ended in marriage between the two.

It might just be me but I found myself unmoved by the wedding and thought it was a cop out especially in light of the fact that Edith is also in her thirties which by the standards of the 1920s is middle aged, already has a daughter and crucially has the resources to make the most of the greater opportunities afforded to women during this period.

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One aspect that made Edith different from her sister Mary apart from the clichéd “unlucky in life and love” is that midway in series 3 she starts a career in writing after a letter she writes to a newspaper is noticed by a magazine editor, Michael Gregson, who offers her a job in his magazine. This being Downton Abbey where everyone’s right to an emotional relationship is paramount, she begins a relationship with Gregson which is essentially a rebound after being jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan. To cut a long story short, he is married but gets her pregnant then disappears to Germany in order to obtain citizenship which will enable him to divorce his mentally disabled wife and marry Edith. Later he turns up dead and she is left with a daughter whose existence she contrives to keep a secret from her own immediate family.

As a result of Gregson’s death, she is left his estate which includes his home in London and ownership of his magazine. Yet again however, any potential for this to show viewers that women such as Edith have more options than marriage and motherhood after the war is shunted aside in favour of her disastrous love life which casts her as either Downton’s answer to Job from the Bible or the Strictly Come Dancing professional Anton du Beke: forever lumbered with disasters and duds. In an interview, Julian Fellowes claimed that certain people are doomed to be forever unlucky which to me betrays a lack of understanding of human nature and the idea that people are the architects of their own destiny and that luck only plays a small part in a person’s fate.

While no doubt that Edith and Bertie’s wedding pleased the fans, I thought this was again another sign of Fellowes not wanting to be more original and that historical accuracy which he claims is important to him rings hollow. The wedding shows his obsession with marriage and the emotional life that he has imposed pretty much on every character with since the end of series 2 in the absence of a coherent narrative. While there was much crowing that Edith would become a marchioness and chatelaine of a large castle (conveniently forgetting that Bertie’s predecessor was essentially bankrupt) as demonstrated by her parents’ embarrassing behaviour in acting like Mr and Mrs Crawley from Pinner whose daughter has landed a jackpot on the marriage market, in reality this wedding is a Pyrrhic victory. The determination of her new mother-in-law to make her a chatelaine and her son into an exemplary moral landlord shows a denial of the reality that this this way of life is dying – so in effect Edith has essentially been shackled to the past she was making every attempt to leave behind.

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Having Edith also get married also shows how Fellowes just like with Mary ignores the alternatives that are open to a woman like her. Given that Edith (like Mary) is also in her thirties and hence considered middle aged, she would have been overlooked by men who had several seasons worth of debutantes to choose from. And the fact that Pelham is now a marquess, in real life someone like him would be more inclined to choose a younger woman who could bear children (preferably sons) in order for Pelham to pass on the title and what’s left of the estate: not a woman in her thirties whose family does not have a reputation for fertility.

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I may be in the minority but I think it would have been better had Edith not married Bertie and instead moved permanently to London, taking Marigold with her and focus on building her career as a writer and magazine owner. Apart from reflecting more the historical reality of the period, Edith with her thriving career would demonstrate that beginning in the 1920s, women were becoming aware that there were alternatives to simply being wives and mothers. People were also increasingly looking to self-made personalities not aristocrats as role models and this signals another shift as the aristocracy are further pushed to the margins and into the realms of irrelevance.

Just like with Edith, Daisy Mason the assistant cook is another one who has been given short shrift by Fellowes. Apart from spending the full run of Downton Abbey whining and despite the education she has been given by several Good Samaritans, in the end the education and passing her examinations has been meaningless as she’s paired with Andy the footman who has taken on a position with her father-in-law. For all the bellowing about “CHAAAAANNNNGGEEEE!” nothing has changed. Mrs Hughes is going to give up a job that gives her status, independence and respect to be nurse to a man who is crotchety and picky when he’s well, never mind sick and has moreover had to hand over his cherished job and family to a hated rival – and you could see from the barely concealed smirk on Thomas’s face how much he enjoyed that. Cora on the other hand, far from “spreading her wings” and becoming more independent has finally discovered after 35 years of idleness what she should have been doing as countess in the first place. It seems to me that what Fellowes is saying here, despite his admiration for strong women is that they shouldn’t bother to exert their strength in improving themselves, carving out careers and making the world better. Instead they should simply get married and exert that strength by manipulating their husbands.

Going back to Edith; despite the bad choices, the tiresome squabbling with Mary and the appalling way she has used and abused the family who cared for Marigold, I always thought that she had the most potential to break away from the past and establish herself as her own person with a thriving business and career just as many real life women did in the 1920s. It seems here that what Fellowes is saying is that Edith has had a taste of freedom and independence with the magazine but just in case she gets too much of a taste for that and being her own woman she’s been hauled back to do what women like her are supposed to do, which is marry, support her husband and prop up a way of life that’s in its death throes. She says to Mary when she finds out her sister’s role in bringing about the engagement that she, Edith, has her life back, but in reality she’s had it taken away from her. She’s swapped Cora and the Dowager for mother-in-law and just like she doesn’t stand up to them I don’t see her standing up to her mother-in-law; the circumstances in which Bertie broke up with her in the first place could return to haunt her at the first sign of trouble; and no doubt she’ll be “encouraged” to give up the magazine as it doesn’t fit with being a marchioness and a chatelaine. So far from a happy ending, Edith continues her run of disaster of Biblical proportions. Which is a tragedy of epic proportions really.