Disclaimer: I am neither a lawyer nor a legal historian and the points I express here are based on research and my knowledge as an amateur historian gleaned from studies on real life people and historical events. I am open to corrections, clarifications and additional information from people who are experts or those who know better. That, after all, is how one learns. I apologise as well for any wild assumptions I have made about how Lord and Lady Grantham came together.
As Downton Abbey is preparing for its sixth and last series, it has been an interesting observation for me how such a programme, once feted and praised especially in its first two series, has reached the point where it’s not just critics but casual viewers who have been noticing the flaws in the writing, structure and logic of the story lines. Add in persistent errors of assumption, the ahistorical bent, lapses in production and camera work as well as bad acting and I have seen essentially a programme that has squandered the enormous potential it had in the beginning.
I am of the opinion however that the lapses in logic are already present as early as the first series, when the Crawley family is thrown into a crisis over aristocratic inheritance and succession. In this blog, I intend to show what these lapses are and how what happened in the programme is not how it would have happened in real life.
The programme opens with one of the worst maritime disasters in history -the sinking of the Titanic – and we learn early on that the Crawleys are affected, with the Earl of Grantham’s cousin and heir James Crawley and his son Patrick two of the passengers who did not survive. This news becomes the focal point of the first main story line of series 1, which is about the entail and aristocratic inheritance.
Before I go any further, it’s important to bear in mind what an entail is and how serves as the bedrock of aristocratic inheritance in Britain. You can find out about the definition of an entail here and in the past, it required an Act of Parliament to have it broken and then only under exceptional circumstances. Despite the passage of a law (passed in 1925) that makes the process easier, many aristocratic estates are still governed by entails and this is one of the reasons why estates in Britain have remained intact as opposed to the Continent where many have fragmented or disappeared altogether.
Another factor as to British estates still being relatively intact is due to the law that governs aristocratic succession; that of primogeniture. The title is passed on through males and only via males until there is no legitimate male left to inherit the title, and so it becomes extinct upon the death of the last incumbent. Along with the inheritance of the title comes the lion’s share of the estate; the crucial part being the entailed bit. Contrary to popular belief, younger sons and daughters are not left destitute, their inheritance comes from the unentailed part of the estate which can be in the form of property, objets d’ art, jewels and money, but the main part of the estate which is entailed is always inherited by whoever succeeds to the title; it’s a mechanism to stop the incumbent from squandering the money and estate and that there will be always some form of capital come what may.
Once news is received initially that James and Patrick Crawley are among the passengers and might be missing or presumed dead, the stage is set for the future of the earldom and the estate to be discussed, as that the earl and countess have three daughters. Certainly Cora, Countess of Grantham thinks that it’s a topic worth discussing as soon as she’s learned what happened to the Titanic.
Cora: Of course this alters everything. You won’t try to deny it? You’ll challenge the entail now? Surely?
Robert: Can’t we at least wait until we know they’re dead before we discuss it?
Cora: Don’t talk as if I’m not brokenhearted, because I am. Of course I never understood why this estate has to go to whomever inherits your title –
Robert: My dear, I don’t make the law
Cora: But even if I did, why on earth was my money made part of it?
Robert: I cannot go over this again. My father was anxious to secure Downton’s future and –
Cora: Your father was anxious to secure my cash! He didn’t wait a month before he made me sign it over!
Which then is followed by a scene between Cora and her mother-in-law Violet the dowager countess who informs her that there is an heir to the earldom and her plan which mirrors what Cora wants her husband to do:
Cora: Of course, if I hadn’t been forced to sign that absurd act of legal theft by your husband!
Violet: My dear, I haven’t come here for a fight. Lord Grantham wanted to protect the estate. It never occurred to him that you wouldn’t have a son.
Cora: Well, I didn’t.
Violet: No. You did not. But when Patrick had married Mary and your grandson been hailed as master, honour would have been satisfied. Unfortunately now –
Cora: Now a complete unknown has the right to pocket my money along with the rest of the swag!
Violet: What does Robert say?
Cora: Nothing yet. He’s too upset.
Violet: Good. Don’t let him come to a decision until we can be sure it’s the correct one. The problem is saving your dowry would break up the estate. It’d be the ruin of everything Robert’s given his life to.
Cora: And he knows this?
Violet: If he doesn’t, he will.
Cora: Then there’s no answer.
Violet: Yes there is, and it’s a simple one. The entail must be smashed in its entirety and Mary recognised as the heiress of all.
Cora: There’s nothing we can do about the title.
Violet: No, she can’t have the title. But she can have your money. And the estate. I didn’t run Downton for thirty years to see it go, lock, stock and barrel, to a stranger from God knows where.
This exchange between Robert and Cora and Cora and the Dowager Countess already highlights the first two red flags in the programme – Cora’s constant reference to the money as hers (and subsequently calling the money “Cora’s fortune”) and conniving to have the entail broken despite the existence of an heir. The first is a red herring as the dowry is essentially from Cora’s father, not her. She could have possibly conflated her inheritance with the dowry which is understandable as Jessica Fellowes writes in The World of Downton Abbey that “On marriage, Cora’s sizeable dowry and later inheritance (my emphasis) have been wrapped up tightly within the estate.” In real life, one would be hard pressed to find sources referring to Consuelo Vanderbilt’s money or Mary Leiter’s fortune, it was always described as “the Vanderbilt millions” or Levi Leiter’s fortune; indicating that it was the fathers who made the money and it was from them that the money came for their daughters to secure the socially advantageous marriages that were expected of them.
Another point that leaps out of the exchange between Robert and Cora is that this business with the entail is not a new one for them. The lack of a male heir is the unspoken elephant in the room and it strikes me that Cora has never understood the mechanism of British inheritance law and that the money is no longer hers, so I won’t be surprised if Cora nagging Robert after the Titanic went down is the 999,999th time he’s had to put up with her whining about “my” money going to whoever is the heir. I believe that Cora has so internalised the idea that’s it’s her money that she thinks she has the right to decide what happens and Robert doesn’t. I brought it into the family; I decide what happens to it, not you is what she seems to be implying as she urges him to look into breaking the entail again.
There is of course the part that no-one ever raises, the unspoken bargain, you give me the money, I give you title and status and the other bit of the bargain is the heir you will produce. It has never been clear how the Granthams have reacted to their situation – was Robert philosophical about having three girls? He does have two male cousins. That’s not the same as an heir of his body but still good enough. Presumably the money is tied up in whoever inherits regardless of whether he is a son or not, hence the sense that Cora nagging Robert to break the entail is an old debate. However when the series opens there is some indication that he had long accepted the situation because there are two heirs and thanks to the injection of Levinson cash, at least the estate is secure.
The second red flag is the Dowager Countess’ reasoning for wanting the entail broken; which is the fact that the new heir is a third cousin once removed and to her a stranger; forgetting that even if Mary inherits, the money will eventually go to a stranger – her husband – as part of her dowry. I found it odd that the family are not aware of this third cousin’s existence, as the aristocracy kept tabs on even distant family members to determine the succession. It’s fair enough that the family do not know him personally but at least they should be aware of him; if real life families such as the Hamiltons, Howards and Cecils with their large number of descendants are able to keep tabs on their clan then a family as small as the Crawleys should have found this easy.
Part of the conversation between the Dowager Countess and Cora is what if Mary had married James’ son Patrick. Again, this is another point that puzzled me; if they were indeed dead serious about Mary marrying Patrick her parents would have let her enjoy her first Season on the understanding that she was already engaged then marry her off as soon as possible. If a family had decided a girl was going to marry then she’d do her season and marry. Perhaps Cora persuaded Robert that Mary and Patrick needn’t marry yet in the hopes someone else would come along for either or both; Mary’s comment about something better implies she isn’t being hurried into marriage in spite of having had several seasons; so perhaps Cora is really confident she can persuade Robert to break the entail and rather implies that after three seasons Mary’s only hope of marriage is if she’s an heiress.
Once Mary and Patrick are married, she can get on with the business of providing at the bare minimum an heir and a spare in order to cement the money staying in the family. This leads me to conclude that perhaps it was Cora’s plan for Mary not to marry Patrick after all. Break the entail, Mary gets the money and the estate and Patrick gets the title. By being in line to inherit the estate and money, Mary could have a far grander marriage than to the heir of a mere earl. Of course by adopting the dowager’s suggestion of breaking the entail in its entirety Cora would drive the earldom and estate back to being in need of financial rescue again, reducing the holder of the title to an impoverished peer in need of someone who can bring him lands and money. It would probably also provoke a huge rift between the two branches of the Crawley family, whereas if Mary married Patrick and had a son at least the money stays in the family; but after five series it’s clear that thinking ahead to possible consequences – or indeed, thinking of any sort – isn’t something Cora ever does.
The Dowager is no more intelligent; she goes to consult Matthew of all people, in the hopes she can persuade him to give it up without saying what it is. Obviously it can’t be the title (there was no mechanism then to disclaim peerages) but most likely it’s the claim to the estate; which goes to show how she like Cora, hasn’t the faintest idea of what they are getting into and that she has neither delicacy nor tact; and to me, it was an early sign of Fellowes making his storylines both unbelievable and too complicated. Its not at all clear what it is that Fellowes is trying to say here; his characters don’t know what the hell they it is are supposed to be doing and the audience certainly don’t.
(Incidentally, for all their concern over Mary it’s clear that for the dowager at least her chief concern is money; a characteristic of hers that we see several times. When it appears that they can’t break the entail and Mary’s reputation is in danger because of her romp with Pamuk her loving grandmother is quite prepared to bundle her granddaughter off to marry a not too fussy foreign aristocrat and Mary’s mother makes no objection – obviously when push comes to shove they regard Mary as something to be manipulated as a means to their ends rather than a human being with feelings. She doesn’t want to be married off just like that to Patrick but once she’s blotted her copybook her mother and grandmother can’t wait to get her married off as soon as possible to anyone who isn’t fussy – which just shows what a big deal Pamuk is. The way Violet talks about marrying Mary off to an Italian prince is positively chilling; as if she’s a piece of furniture with a dodgy provenance they have to get out of the house. For all their concern over her they aren’t bothered at all about who they marry her off to and what sort of life she’ll have, as long as there’s no scandal. And of course, had they succeeded with the entail the not too fussy foreign husband would cop the money and do what he likes with it as there’s nothing to stop him. I wonder what they thought Robert would say to that and the news that his beloved elder daughter is going to marry some foreign aristocrat? Might he not ask questions? So many angles and either way, Robert would go apoplectic).
One thing the writer doesn’t tell the viewers is that Cora and the Dowager can plot as much as they like for the entail to be broken, but without Robert’s agreement they can do nothing. Meddle and conspire as much as they like, the women are planning nothing less than the overturning of the laws of inheritance and the breaking of the entail on nothing more than Cora’s belief that Mary should have “her” money and the Dowager’s dislike of a “stranger” inheriting – it would have been amusing to see what the Parliament of 1912 thought of the sense of entitlement of three women as a reason for disinheriting the lawful heir and overturning the entire mechanism of aristocratic inheritance. I wonder if Cora and the dowager actually realised or were bothered about the likely consequences of their actions and their effect on other people but I know that the answer to that is of course no.
And if Robert did agree to break the entail, what would happen? As mentioned earlier, it would require an Act of Parliament to have an entail broken and one needed extremely good grounds in order to do so. A classic example was the 7th Duke of Marlborough, who in desperate need of money petitioned Parliament to have the entail broken on the grounds that the books comprising the Sunderland Library were deteriorating through age and he could no longer afford their maintenance. Finally in 1880, Parliament passed the Blenheim Settled Estates Act which effectively broke the entail that was created by the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s will in 1722. The result was the dispersal of the estate’s extensive collection of Old Master paintings as well as the most valuable contents of the Sunderland Library. In Robert’s case it would be highly unlikely to have been considered once Parliament knew there was an heir and in the highly unlikely event it was ever broken, Matthew as the heir would be entitled to mount a legal challenge which might drag on for years and all of which would take a great deal of money. Even if the women don’t know that we can be sure Robert does and the last thing he would want would be a protracted legal battle that could mean the family have to air their dirty laundry in public.
Of course what this is really about is Julian Fellowes’ own sense of entitlement; the entire Downton canon is one long howl of grievance that women – notably his wife – cannot inherit titles and that he can’t take his rightful place as a member of a real aristocratic family instead of being a mere political appointment. Just like Cora and the dowager he believes that because he wants it therefore it’s right and should be done without any regard for the law of unintended consequences; and just like Cora and the dowager, he doesn’t stop to think that just because he thinks something needs to change it doesn’t mean that change is needed. At best the story of the entail wasn’t thought through for plausibility or the historical accuracy Fellowes continually tells us is so important to him, and when Matthew Crawley comes on the scene it’s abandoned as a story line as quickly as it was introduced and the dowager plans instead that the “stranger” heir to whom she was so vehemently opposed should marry Mary – which makes you wonder why she didn’t come up with that idea in the first place. There are so many logical flaws in the plan to break the entail that I’m astonished that no-one has pointed out how nonsensical it is.
The next flaw in the entail storyline is about Robert’s guilt about his motives for marrying Cora as well as the indirect reference to himself as a fortune hunter:
Robert: If you must know, when I think of my motives for pursuing Cora, I’m ashamed. There is no need to remind me of them.
Violet: Don’t you care about Downton?
Robert: What do you think? I have given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes. I do care!
Cora: I try to understand. I just can’t.
Robert: Why should you? Downton is in my blood and in my bones. It’s not in yours. And I could no more be the cause of its destruction than I could betray my country. Besides, how was I to know he wouldn’t take her without the money?
Cora: Don’t pretend to be a child because it suits you.
Robert: Do you think she would’ve been happy with a fortune-hunter?
Cora: She might’ve been. I was.
As an amateur historian, I find this whole business with guilt baffling as is Robert using the word “fortune hunter” in the context of himself and Mary’s potential suitor, the Duke of Crowborough. One of the aspects of the programme that has been noticeable is Julian Fellowes constantly putting Robert in the wrong and the guilt over the money is where it all starts. This is also coupled with one of the recurring issues with Downton Abbey, that inability to present the values of the era in which the programme is set and show instead the wholly modern day sensibility that to marry for reasons other than love is unacceptable. Just as Cora over the years has convinced herself the money is really hers, Robert has reproached himself that his approach to his marriage was unacceptably mercenary.
For centuries the aristocracy have always married money – the alliances between great landowning families and the newly wealthy home grown industrialists or even with the Jewish banking and entrepreneurial clans was part and parcel of this, with the aim of maintaining and expanding the family’s wealth. The aristocrats who had to marry American heiresses during the late 19th century didn’t feel any guilt or shame over their motivations; what was paramount for them was to preserve their estate, their wealth and to carry on providing for those who depended on them. Nor would they see themselves as fortune hunters, they would most likely see themselves as doing their American wives and in-laws a favour
In light of this, Robert’s guilt and indirectly describing himself as a fortune hunter can only come from his feelings being manipulated over the years, and he so absorbs this way of thinking that it becomes the first thing that comes into his mind during the exchange between his mother and wife in that first episode. It seems to me that Cora has conveniently forgotten the reason why her parents brought her to Britain. As I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, American heiresses came in droves to the UK in order to make marriages that would give them the status and prestige denied to their families at home. Cora’s family would have been looked down in America as nouveau riche and marrying Robert would in her family’s eyes give them the prestige they craved back home.
What Cora and people who immediately assume that such marriages are mercenary forget that it was not all about what Cora or a woman like her brought to the table, it was also what she expected to get in return – and let’s face it, she came to Britain for precisely that reason. Her parents’ money, someone else’s title and lands. Marrying for money when you had something to put on the table in return – like a title and an estate – was acceptable. Proper fortune hunting – being poor and chasing heiresses when you were ordinary Mr Crawley – wasn’t. In that sense Robert isn’t a fortune hunter – or if he is then he might equally riposte that Cora was title hunting. Throughout the entail story line, Fellowes does emphasise a lot Robert’s guilt over his motives for marrying Cora but not Cora or rather her family’s motives for pushing for their marriage, and it’s the start of the process of making Robert seem in the wrong even when he’s right
However the biggest flaw in my opinion is that the fact that Cora has no money she can call her own and this I believe must have played a part in her resentment of the dowry and later her inheritance being absorbed into the entail. Traditionally under English property law a woman’s dowry and whatever money she earned or received before marriage was absorbed into the estate which her husband controlled, and in turn she received an allowance or pin money as well as a settlement for her widowhood. In 1870, Parliament passed what is known as the Married Woman’s Property Act (amended further in 1882) which gave women the right to have their own money and property separate from any conjugal and familial estate as well as to dispose of her property as she saw fit.
By the time the marriage between Robert and Cora was being discussed by their respective parents and legal representatives (which would have been around 1889/1890), there had been more than enough trans-Atlantic marriages that were unhappy or had ended in divorce. A smart parent would have been made aware of the pitfalls of such a marriage and would have taken steps to protect his daughter by providing her with her own money separate from the dowry; especially as the law allowed for this and even if it didn’t, the shrewd parent could circumvent it by dressing up the money in the form of an “allowance”.
A prime example of this was the marriage settlement between the 9th Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt. As powerless as he was to stand up to his wife who effectively bullied their daughter into the marriage, William K. Vanderbilt took steps to protect his daughter by providing her with her own money separate from the dowry. The settlement agreed upon was in the form of a dowry reported to be in the total of $10 million. In addition there was also of stocks and shares in the New York Central Railroad (the Vanderbilts derived their wealth from the railways) worth $2.5 million settled on the duke which gave him a guaranteed income of $100,000 a year for life even in the event of death or divorce, while Consuelo herself receive an annual income of her own of $100,000 a year. This in effect became Consuelo’s lifeline especially after her marriage to the 9th Duke floundered and collapsed.
Even home grown heiresses were also protected with their own settlement. Almina Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild who married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was guaranteed the annual amount of £12,000 separate from the dowry as well as provision for their children. Apart from this annual amount, Almina could ask at any time Sir Alfred for money which she used to fund her many charitable endeavours and her husband’s interest in archaeology.
In light of these examples, it was irresponsible of Isidore Levinson to hang his daughter out to dry financially and leave her at the mercy of her in-laws and her husband. Cora is fortunate that Robert is a kind and considerate man but what if he had turned out to be another Manchester or Fermoy who squandered the money on drink, gambling and other women or investing on ill-advised schemes? Or what if he had bolted leaving her with nothing? Being an entrepreneur who came from grinding poverty, Isidore Levinson would have learned early on that nothing in life is certain and would make sure that his daughter – off to be married, live in a different country and to learn its culture and rules – would be provided for should the worst happen. Anything might happen; it might not be divorce or desertion, but Robert’s a soldier and there’s the possibility that he’d be killed, die while out hunting, is the victim of a shooting accident or succumbs to some disease while serving overseas. By not providing her with her own money, her father gambled with his daughter’s future and it was only through pure luck that she did not end up with a cruel or wastrel husband.
Of course it might be that Isidore Levinson was hoodwinked by the Crawleys and their solicitors but given he was hard-nosed businessman who had made millions it’s unlikely he would allow himself to be railroaded by old Lord Grantham. There was no reason for him not to drive a hard bargain and take into account all eventualities as well as settling money on Cora independently of the dowry. Even if her inheritance was tied to the entail, it wouldn’t matter as she was provided for. Many people don’t take into account that it’s quite possible that the Crawleys were desperate for money and that Cora was the only heiress available or willing to marry Robert. She said in series 5 that she was engaged by the end of her first season, so very likely Robert’s father wasted no time in securing her for his son as a way out of his financial crisis and the Levinsons were happy enough for their daughter to be a peeress that they didn’t negotiate over the dowry as hard as they might have.
In his notes to the series 1 script, Fellowes claims that the money has been incorporated into the estate partly to prevent Cora running off and taking the money with her. Which I believe is nonsense; had the marriage ended in disaster and divorce was the only way out, Isidore Levinson would most likely have done a deal similar to Frank Work; not bother to disentangle the money from the estate and offer Robert more money to ensure that the divorce was speeded up. A clever businessman knows when to simply cut his losses and leave, having a protracted wrangling over the dowry would have benefitted no-one so better just to forget about the money and move on.
Fellowes also seems to ignore the whole point of tying the money up, it’s so that the estate benefits; to stop Cora running off with it is an effect, not a cause and as I’ve pointed out that’s highly unlikely. I have no idea why he leaps to the conclusion that that’s why it’s been entailed unless it’s to make it more interesting and create drama when the reality behind these settlements and why they existed was prosaic and routine.
Crucially I have also come to the conclusion that Fellowes wilfully ignored the Married Woman’s Property Act for reasons of the plot. Had Cora been provided with her own annual income that she could leave to her daughters she would not have made such a big deal about the dowry and her inheritance being tied to the entail. But there are strong indications that she has no money of her own and hence why despite knowing well the inheritance isn’t hers any more, she’s refusing to accept it and wants the entail broken so that Mary can inherit. No wonder Robert resists their efforts so firmly – he at least has the foresight to see the likely results of their meddling and how unlikely it is to happen. It’s a pity that he isn’t given the chance of explaining exactly how damaging and downright silly their plans are, but I suppose that would mean Robert being in the right and the women wrong, and we can’t have that.
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