Downton Abbey – an unhistorical historical drama

In his review of the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas special, the TV critic Jim Shelley wrote that “Downton Abbey was shamelessly, shamefully aimed at the Americans, rather than the British audience that had made it so popular in the first place.” He could have been writing about the whole programme though and it became more apparent from the third series onwards as the history began to disappear and the soap opera aspect took over. It wasn’t helped by the endless junkets to America, where the actors seemed to be subjected to a Groundhog Day of the same chat show appearances, same questions, and same events over and over again.

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As we have said several times in our critique of this programme, Downton Abbey’s main problem is its very ahistoricity: it doesn’t just trivialise and misrepresent history but also the attitudes and behaviours of people during the time frame it was set. All of this despite the insistence that the programme is accurate, well researched and that it’s realistic. It is nothing of the sort, many of the story lines are anachronistic, crowbarred in a way that looks and feels forced; not to mention lacking any logical sense.

One of the main complaints with Downton Abbey and other period dramas in general is what one blogger calls “today’s imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in [the past].” These dramas make an effort with the costumes, settings and props but that’s where it all ends, the way the characters sometimes behave and with the storylines, they might as well have been set today than say in 1912 or 1925!

We see various examples of these anachronisms in Downton Abbey – such as Robert’s reaction to his middle daughter Edith’s pregnancy which was more in line with a father from the 2010s rather than the 1920s. There’s Rose having too much freedom as an unmarried woman when someone like her would have been strictly chaperoned until she was married; or servants being buddy-buddy with their employers when that would not have been the case. Apart from the anachronistic storylines, there are two major omissions – the first being religion and the second being the empire.

Losing one’s religion:

As another blogger complained, this series projected “secularism back onto a time and place and way of life where it did not yet exist.” In an interview, the programme’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce claimed that the absence of religion was due to “executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to ‘leave religion out of it’, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.” He added, “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”

This I believe is nonsense. Another popular period drama, Call the Midwife (BBC) not only has religion as one of the main themes of the programme but also religious people as central characters. Yet this programme time and again has been a hit with both critics and viewers. Although it has its flaws it’s not shy about tacking difficult story lines and depicting attitudes during the time the narrative is set no matter how unpalatable it is to our modern day sensibilities. It also depicts how religion and religious people still played a big part in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, even when organised religion was in retreat from everyday life. If Call the Midwife can do all that, then Downton Abbey which is set in the 1910s and 1920s has no such excuse.

Even Victoria (ITV) has featured religion in many of its scenes and one episode in the recent second series had religion as one of its main themes. And while the programme has taken some liberties with Queen Victoria’s life, aspects of religion such as the churching ritual that Victoria had to undergo following the birth of her first child and religious divisions hampering famine relief in Ireland was used with good effect to depict attitudes and customs of British society high and low of the late 1830s and 1840s. (It was as recently as 1979 that the Church of England renamed the rite of the churching of women in the Prayer Book to one of “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.”)

Whilst it’s true that in Downton Abbey there have been a few scenes set in the village church and the local vicar has made few appearances in series 2 and 3, there is a complete absence of religion with all the characters lacking any sense of religious belief and practice. Any literature of the period and contemporary accounts demonstrates the importance of religion in people’s lives. Although there were some who identified themselves as agnostic or even atheists, this was mostly confined to the middle class intelligentsia. For the majority, people identified themselves with a particular faith or sect, went to Church or the synagogue every week, and discussed religious issues with some even turning their hand to writing about theology and other aspects of their faith.

Especially in a rural area, religion was part and parcel of everyday life and the local lord and his family were obliged to set an example to their servants, tenants and the local community. It didn’t matter whether they were Church of England, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Nonconformist (a shorthand term used for Protestant sects other than the Established Churches) but religious observance either of the strict or nominal kind was scrupulously observed. The majority of the aristocracy belonged (at least nominally) to the Church of England and this was reinforced by the fact that bishops also sat in the House of Lords, that the local vicar was dependent on his living on the local lord and that the Church was an acceptable career for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry. In effect all these ensured that the unity of Church and State, prominent in British institutions such as the Monarchy and Parliament, was also replicated on the local level; which also meant that the local vicar and his wife were an integral part of the local community’s social life and were often related to the local aristocracy and gentry. They would be regularly asked to dinner and other social events in the Big House, while the vicar’s wife and the chatelaine would regularly work together on a host of charitable endeavours and appeals. Historically there have even been some aristocrats who took an active role in religious life and education, most notably Millicent Duchess of Sutherland with her Bible study groups not just confined to her household but among her husband’s tenants and the local village. There was also Father the Honourable Ignatius Spencer, the younger son of the 4th Earl Spencer, who started out as an Anglican vicar but converted to Roman Catholicism and took holy orders in that church. In light of this, the near absence of religion and its practice in Downton Abbey renders meaningless its claim to accurately represent British life during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Defenders will point out that showing religion wouldn’t fit the storyline or that there is the religion due to the weddings, christening – and the vicar does pop up in the programme. I find this a spurious excuse – religion was a part of everyday life in the era around the period in which Downton is set, in a way we can’t imagine in our largely secular world.  Faith, or at least lip service to religious observance, was all pervasive, and the Church, along with the Empire and the monarchy, had a deep significance and importance for very many people. Religion and religious teaching was deeply embedded in people’s psyche, church-going on a Sunday was still common, and many children of all social classes attended a local Sunday School.

Churches also undertook a considerable amount of charitable and welfare work and provided a venue for social and community activities as well as spiritual comfort in times of national crisis. National days of prayer were particularly well supported during the Great War, Sunday was generally regarded as a day of rest and all shops closed on Sundays.

In her diaries written during the First World War, Lillie Scales describes the role religion played for her and many other people:

August 1914 – Intercession services are being held in many places…one feels that only hope is in God and that He will defend the right.

  1. On Sunday January 6th we had the national day of intercession and it was a wonderful day. We had good congregations, but one heard everywhere of crowded churches, and even queues.

November 11th 1918 George (Lillie’s husband) had gone to St Giles’s at 11 o’clock, and found people pouring into the church for an impromptu thanksgiving service, and there were services there all morning. There had been an impromptu great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s at 12 noon.

November 17th 1918 – There was a great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s, and churches everywhere were crowded, queues in many places.

 

Church membership (according to faithsurvey.co.uk) peaked in 1900 at 33% of the population, and in 1920 was just under 10 million in a population of around 40 million – and there must have been many more people who attended church because of social, moral or familial pressure or expectation. This aspect of existence – weekly church attendance, the great annual rituals of Whitsun, Easter, Advent and Christmas, the importance in public life that the established church had and the comfort religion gave to many (especially during the war years) are simply ignored – because Bruce claimed that he was told to show it would upset viewers.

To a great number of people in the UK now, religion isn’t important and they don’t realise the extent to which it was in the Downton era. That’s why Alastair Bruce got away with his comment and no-one picked up the logical fail to the claim that this was supposed to be an accurate depiction of life 100 years ago but that a very significant chunk of social existence was omitted. Write a drama that panders to what as writer you perceive to be the susceptibilities and prejudices of your audience instead of depicting historical facts and you end up with Braveheart – or Downton Abbey.

I think a good writer would have found a way to have people going about their everyday life in the background and the storyline in the foreground. I am of the view that one of the whole points of a drama is to show facets of these characters and religion might not necessarily be a major story line but it could be something in the background to give the viewer a picture of what was life then. If religion was depicted as part of everyday life in Downton Abbey, it could have added more poignancy to Thomas’s struggles or Robert’s crises. We could have seen Thomas wresting with the conflict between religious dogma and society’s attitudes against his own sexuality and desires, or Robert with his personal issues having a crisis of faith due to feeling unwanted during the war, realising that his marriage is not what it seemed and the family’s subsequent precarious finances. This is real story telling and not the half-baked and flimsy ones that we’ve seen on screen.

 

Don’t Mention the Empire:

When the TV critic Jim Shelley groused that the programme was pandering shamelessly to the Americans, it was an astute observation. One can see this with the casting of veteran Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother in series 3 then contriving her return in the series 4 Christmas special with her son Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow. The aforementioned special was seemingly designed to pander to Americans’ fascination with British royalty, pomp and circumstance as well as the endless parade of evening gowns and spectacle that the viewing public had come to expect.

Perhaps surprisingly for the producers and TV executives, the episode was greeted with derision and hilarity with the plot described as “ludicrous” and lacking credibility. Even the much-vaunted research and accuracy was panned, as several viewers pointed out mistakes ranging from the way the presentation was done down to errors in dress and uniforms.

This pandering to the Americans is perhaps one reason why the British Empire is conspicuously absent in Downton Abbey. For sure there are a few fleeting references here and there but it’s very much like Basil Fawlty going on about not mentioning the war. Just like with religion, Fellowes must have decided that the empire didn’t fit into his plot so it’s not mentioned at all. The only obligatory references are with Robert’s cousin the Marquess of Flintshire going to India to become a provincial governor, a fleeting mention of the Amritsar Massacre and listening to a radio broadcast of George V opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (a very convenient prompt to tell the audience that series 5 is set in 1924).

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, the empire might not as well exist in Downton Abbey. This is despite the fact that historically it was an omnipresent presence in British life and we are still living with its legacy for good or ill to this very day. The popular celebrity genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) through several episodes featuring the likes of actor Charles Dance, Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe, chef Ainsley Harriott, journalist Natasha Kaplinsky, actress Meera Syal and most recently choreographer Craig Revel Horwood have demonstrated how much the empire is very much interwoven into the very fabric of this country. We can see the empire’s influence in the food that we eat, in our decorative arts and architecture, not to mention that many place names up and down Britain have their origins in places that were part of the empire on which “the sun never sets.”  These influences have been cemented further following the end of the Second World War when immigration grew steadily from countries that comprised the former empire.

During the period in which Downton Abbey is set, the empire featured prominently in national life and everyday life (one example being the annual celebration of Empire Day). The positions of Colonial Secretary and Secretary of State for India were seen as prestigious, news concerning the empire was widely covered and the comings and goings of politicians and famous people from the colonies were headline news. There were also the various events that underlined the bonds between Britain and its colonies through industrial exhibitions held in major cities; the most famous being that held at Wembley in 1924-5. These exhibitions not only presented the best of home grown industry but also products from the empire such as timber from Canada, butter and lamb from New Zealand, cotton from India and others. In short, exhibitions such as those held at Wembley were, in the observation of Anne Clendinning, to “celebrate imperial unity and to increase mutual economic cooperation” as well as highlight the empire which was described by King George V as a “family of nations.”

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This idea of the empire as a “family of nations” isn’t a new one but it was used by Queen Victoria to cement the bonds between Britain and a growing empire during the second half of the 19th century with her sons and grandsons touring India and the white dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on her behalf. This was further underlined when Victoria’s son-in-law the future 9th duke of Argyll served as Governor-General of Canada. In 1911, George V went one step further by travelling to India to be present at a Durbar staged to mark his coronation as emperor of India; and following the end of the First World War, his sons all undertook tours of the empire on his behalf with the Duke of York (the future George VI) travelling to the Antipodes and Africa while the Duke of Gloucester undertook tours of Africa. However the most indefatigable was the oldest son, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) when during the 1920s and 1930s he became the first member of the royal family to visit nearly all parts of the empire during his world tours. These tours were so successful that in David Cannadine’s words, “the crown was made truly imperial and the empire authentically royal.”

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Royal tours followed a certain formula as described by Cannadine in his book Ornamentalism whereby “[t]hese were grand progresses by land and sea, lasting for many months and covering many miles, involving countless receptions, dinners, parades and speeches, and all carried on before vast, delighted and admiring crowds.” By the twentieth century, following Edward VII’s dictum that the more people see the royals the better it is for the country, the “arrangement for these tours became even more elaborate, and the tours even more novel, thrilling and spectacular, as the royal lineaments and sovereign symbols were brought vividly and vitally alive.”  There were also the reciprocal visits from African chiefs, Indian maharajahs, and royals from the various Pacific islands and sultans from Malaya where they were treated with the courtesy, deference, pomp and circumstance that their status demanded. All of these reinforced the idea that the empire was indeed a “family of nations.”

On a more personal level, the empire had an impact on huge swathes of the British population not just with what they consumed or bought but the personal and familial level. A huge percentage of the UK population had at least one family member or a friend living and working in the colonies. Thousands of people together with their families emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in search of a better life lured by the opportunity afforded by huge tracts of land for farming, herding and mining; a cheaper standard of living and the chance to start anew.

A cheaper standard of living and lack of career prospects at home also drove many young men to try their luck in the colonies. The empire provided career opportunities and prospects for advancement that were not readily available in Britain. This was attractive for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry as well as those from the upper middle classes in straitened conditions – there was the army, the colonial civil service as well as being on the staff of a governor or viceroy which allowed them avenues for promotion, enabling them to marry and provide for a wife and family in a way that would not be possible in Britain. Being an officer in a prestigious colonial or Indian regiment or being an aide-de-camp or private secretary to the viceroy or a governor-general made a young man a very attractive marriage prospect indeed.

There were also opportunities in the private sector for engineers, surveyors, bankers, scientists and the like as British firms and banks also opened branches in the colonies. Others saw the colonies as a way where they could be their own masters whether it be setting up their own business or acquiring land for farming or mining, prospecting for gold or other valuable minerals. For those who were not inclined towards government service or farming, the empire also provided prospects in the fields of religion, education, medicine and the social sciences. In short, the British Empire showed that there were rewards for those who were willing to take risks and leave the comfort zone of Britain.

In light of this, Downton Abbey could have made much more use of the empire with its storylines. For instance it could be used to write out characters such as Sybil after Jessica Brown Findlay refused to renew her contract. It’s true that Sybil, Tom and their baby daughter could have moved to America given they have family in that country but if they really wanted a fresh start and a clear break from their pasts then immigrating to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa would have been much better as the Bransons could create a new life of their own unencumbered by their backgrounds.

The same could also be said of downstairs, where it would be likely that at least a few of the servants would have at least known someone who had gone to the colonies for better work prospects, and again this could be another way to write out someone like Daisy or any of the footmen. Or even Anna and Mr Bates, the money that they have saved would have allowed them not only to open the guesthouse that they want but also perhaps begin a new life in any of the Dominions or try their hand at running at a rubber plantation in Malaya or a tea farm in India.

Crucially however using the empire would have allowed Rose to exit the programme at the end of series 4. The series 4 Christmas special could have ended with Rose departing for India to re-join her parents following her season. Given her straitened financial circumstances and her less than impeccable moral credentials, she would have had problems finding a husband in Britain especially as after the First World War there were fewer men to go around. In fact India would have been a much better bet if she was looking for a husband. There was the army, the Indian Civil Service, the Viceroy’s office, the staff of the various provincial governors (among them her father Lord Flintshire) and of course those who were working for British companies based in India. Rose would be no different to the numbers of young upper and middle class young British women going to India in order to find an eligible young man to marry. For the women who went to India and who were known as the “Fishing Fleet”, it was an attractive choice – as Anne de Courcy wrote:

“By the nineteenth century, India was seen as a marriage market for girls neither pretty nor rich enough to make at home what was known as ‘a good match’, the aim of all young respectable young women – indeed, perhaps not to make one at all. In India, where European men greatly outnumbered European women, they would be besieged by suitors, many of whom be richer or have more prospects than anyone they could meet in England.” (p. 3)

And that was the motivation to go to India especially as for women, the main goal was to marry and raise a family. For upper and middle class women, the social life such as the London Season and country house visits were all geared towards young women to make a good match but in reality a great number of them didn’t (especially after the First World War when Britain had been denuded of eligible young men). As Mabell Countess of Airlie and countless other social commentators observed, ideally a young woman should have received at least a proposal by the end of her first season and should be married by the age of twenty. A woman who had reached the age of twenty five unmarried was already considered to be an old maid so it’s not surprising that many young women were dispatched by worried parents to try their luck in India – a last throw of the dice before settling into spinsterhood and a future of caring for aged parents and/or nephews and nieces.

But of course, Rose stays on (even when there is no real raison d’etre to her character) and eventually marries the Hon Atticus Aldridge, the son and heir to Viscount Sinderby. Much was made of him being Jewish and while someone like him would have at least five years’ worth of debutantes to choose from with some as rich or richer than he is (thereby cementing an alliance between wealth and wealth) but no, love has to triumph even when it’s crowbarred in as a way of giving a redundant character something to do, and any parental objection to the match is dismissed as bigotry – forgetting that the parents (especially the Sinderbys) would by the standards of the time have legitimate objections to the match and not just with regards to religious differences.

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Once Rose and Atticus are married she is written out of the programme, but they make a brief appearance during the finale and its revealed that they are living in America. As Atticus works in banking and finance it would be more plausible to have based him in the City of London, where a number of Jewish founded banks such as Samuel Montagu might have provided a congenial niche for a rich and personable young man. If they were going to be posted overseas, it would be more likely that it would be Shanghai in China, which despite not being part of the British Empire had a substantial presence in commerce and banking. Why Fellowes had to contrive to say that they’re in America is baffling unless this is him still pandering to the American market until the very end.

 

Conclusion:

In our previous posts on Downton Abbey, we have mentioned several issues with the programme with regards to its writing, plotting and characterisation. Dramatic weight and rhythm has always been a problem with this programme, with trivial and irrelevant story lines being given equal time and importance with vital ones. There is as well no sense of the appropriate time for a story line and the programme itself has been riddled by one delayed action plot after the other; the war memorial; the lavish post-war entertaining after the family has lost its money rather than before the war, when it could be justified by having three daughters to marry off; even the family doing their bit for the war effort but not until the war had been going on for two years – all of these meant that these story lines have been robbed of their historical context and as a result the characters do not behave in a way that is of their time.

The history and its use and abuse as a narrative driver are a major issue. As stated earlier in this entry, Downton Abbey is ahistory not history. It might pay lip service to a few historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and real life historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain but in the end, the programme portrays a false and incomplete picture of the period, using historical events to forward the writer’s pet agendas when that suits and ignoring them when it doesn’t. It is false because while the drama might be set from 1912 to 1925, the attitudes displayed (at least the majority of them) are more attuned to today’s norms. In many ways Downton Abbey is a classic case of ideas that were commonplace and accepted in 1925 being suddenly being labelled “bizarre”,“bigoted” and plain wrong today to suit the sensibilities of the audience and reinforce a belief that somehow we are so much enlightened than some of the characters we are watching. From attitudes towards gay men and unmarried mothers to men shot for cowardice during the war, it seems that a writer like Julian Fellowes can simply erase history in his mind and convince himself that because he holds one opinion today, anyone who held a contrary opinion in the past (notably, of course, Robert and Carson) must have been some sort of knuckle-dragging, sexist, mouth breathing, ignorant bigot who can be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. No doubt of course there were people like that around in 1925 – the history of the decades that follow amply bears that out – but while people like Robert and Carson may well have held opinions that we regard as odious, they were not alone in that. Prejudice against homosexuality and babies born out of wedlock and men who deserted their posts in war (to name but three stories in Downton) was taken for granted – it is our attitudes that at the time would have been regarded as odd and out of the ordinary. A drama written with no appreciation or understanding that the past is a different country, and that fails to honour that past, good or bad, by imposing contemporary standards upon the standards of another era is one that does not deserve to be dignified with the name of a drama – it is mere pastiche. Fellowes’ historical blindness is amply demonstrated by the descriptions of Downton being set in a “gentler, kinder time” – a time when there was capital punishment for murder, corporal punishment in schools was commonplace, workhouses still operated and the horrors of the Great War were all too fresh in the memory.

Not only is Downton Abbey false, it is incomplete; and it is incomplete because of its omission of major aspects of British life and society during that period. What is worrying is that many people have taken what they have seen in Downton Abbey as gospel truth; as is the deeply damaging notion that people in the past are just like us only in funny clothes. As result it ends up being not only poor historical drama but poor drama full stop.

The programme’s omission of both religion and empire robbed Downton Abbey of any claim to be realistic or well researched. Crucially both could have given more depth to the narrative and added dimension to the characters and added a real understanding of an era. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be and yet again, we have to return to the question of why Fellowes set his narrative in the past when he is patently uninterested in exploring its real story.

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Book Review: The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families –  has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.

Transatlantic Marriage book

Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.

Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.

Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.

While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.

Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.

The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.

The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.

 

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

 

Book Reviews: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon

Once Downton Abbey became a household name, it was inevitable that curiosity about the history of Highclere Castle (where the series is filmed) and the family that has lived in it for more than 300 years would follow. And the current Countess of Carnarvon has obliged with biographies featuring two of her predecessors – Almina the 5th countess and Catherine the 6th countess. Both women could be described as chalk and cheese: with Almina forceful and gregarious while Catherine was more shy and retiring. One can see both biographies as a way to cash in on Downton Abbey’s success given that both women’s tenure as chatelaine of Highclere Castle coincided with the years in which the programme was set.

The connection with Downton Abbey is stronger with Almina’s story as there are some parallelisms between the real life Carnarvons and the fictional Granthams. The fifth earl of Carnarvon’s principal claim to fame today is assisting Howard Carter with his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. However this would not have been possible had he not married Almina Wombwell, officially the daughter of Fred and Marie Wombwell but in reality her natural father was Sir Alfred de Rothschild one of the wealthiest men in Britain. Through Sir Alfred’s generosity, Lord Carnarvon was enabled to carry on with his twin passions for archaeology and automobiles while Almina through marriage was able to rise above her uncertain social status – the classic case of money in exchange for title, status and in Almina’s case respectability. However the marriage seemed to be a love match: the 5th earl overrode all concerns about Almina’s parentage in order to marry her and their marriage to all intents and purposes was a happy one.

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The 6th countess, born Catherine Wendell, was an American but not an heiress instead belonging to an old but upper middle class family from New York. In fact her nationality and crucially her lack of money was one reason why the 5th earl objected to her as a potential daughter-in-law but her marriage to the only son and heir to the Carnarvon earldom was championed by Almina. At first the marriage was happy but gradually cracks began to appear brought about by the 6th earl’s affairs and Catherine’s depression and drinking problem. The marriage ended in divorce and while the 6th earl remarried the Austrian ballet dancer and choreographer Tilly Losch, that marriage too was unhappy and resulted in another divorce.

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Reading both biographies, their strengths lie in the way the current countess writes about the minutiae of life at Highclere during the tenures of both Almina and Catherine as countess and the comparison and contrast between the lifestyle of the fifth and sixth earls. The fifth earl and countess lived and entertained lavishly and opulently as befitting their status, all bolstered by Rothschild money, while the sixth earl and countess lived much more simply in contrast to their predecessors, thanks to the need to downsize after the First World War and pay off the fifth earl’s death duties.

Both biographies also shed light on aspects of life in a landed estate and the First World War that Downton Abbey has omitted – such as the elaborate servants’ hierarchy, the importance of the outdoor staff such as the gardeners, gamekeepers, work men and the estate managers and life between the wars when the Carnarvons saw the dispersal of the family’s collection of Old Master paintings, family jewels and vast acres of land. What is crucial as well is the author highlighting the role of Highclere Castle and the family during the First World War when even before war was officially declared, Almina had already offered the castle as a hospital as well as taking a course in nursing: which meant that by the middle of the war, she was able to assist during complicated and dangerous operations. Her husband on the other hand foresaw that aircraft would play a pivotal role should war break out and offered his expertise on aerial photography. Other members of the family also threw their weight behind the war effort, the most notable being the Hon Aubrey, the fifth earl’s younger brother, who was rejected due to being half blind but who decided to stow away with a cousin sent to the front. Instead of being sent home, his skill in foreign languages meant that he served as a liaison and translator for the generals and soldiers.

This showed how the Carnarvons were highly active in getting behind the war effort both on the battle field and the home front and this is a major omission in Downton Abbey. The unwillingness of the fictional Granthams to pull their weight and get behind the war effort flies in the face of historical reality when the aristocracy were offering their services with alacrity and performed their duties to the best of their ability.

However both biographies have some weaknesses. First of all is the title of the book; it’s important to get titles and forms of addresses right and to use both “Lady Almina” and “Lady Catherine” is incorrect since the use of “Lady” before a woman’s first name is only reserved for the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls and both women were neither. Call me picky but if the author can’t get that minor detail right – and these books are written by a countess so some familiarity with titles is assumed – what else has she not bothered to get right?

Another issue I have is the use of The Real Downton Abbey as part of the title, I see this as a form of insecurity – are these women not interesting enough for their stories to stand on their own two feet without the handicap of a mediocre period drama that happens to be filmed at the house?

There is also little to no analysis of both Almina and Catherine’s personalities, lives and the world and times they lived in. Of both biographies, Almina’s is much more interesting owing to her character and sheer force of will but there is no real sense of who the real woman was good and bad, warts and all. It’s also the case with Catherine but I suspect that fundamentally there is really nothing about the woman which would merit a much more in depth biography.

Both biographies are adequate as light hearted introductory reads to British aristocratic life at the turn of and the early twentieth century but there are other publications that are superior to both most notably David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990) which gives the reader a much more in-depth look at how the British aristocracy found themselves supplanted and reduced to irrelevancy by the twentieth century. As for Almina, I believe that in the fullness of time she deserves a better and more in depth biography that will supplant the current countess’s work.

 

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey by the Coutness of Carnarvon were published in 2011 and 2013 respectively by Hodder and Stoughton

 

Back in the Dolls House: Misrepresenting Post-War Women in Downton Abbey

Warning: Contains spoilers for those who haven’t watched series 6 of Downton Abbey

In 1917, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Bournemouth delivered her customary address to the sixth formers but on this particular day the speech had a sobering note “I have come to tell you a terrible fact,” she began. “Only one out of 10 of you girls can ever hope to marry… Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed.”

The statement proved to be prophetic as the interwar years led to the phenomenon of what has been popularly known as the “surplus women” – a term adapted during the early 1920s to collectively describe young women born between 1885 and 1905 who were unmarried by the time the war ended and were destined to marry late if they were lucky or not at all: which for many of these women ended up being their fate.

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Before we go any further it is important to establish the demographic patterns that had led to this situation. In 1911, the population of England and Wales stood at 36.1 million (the entire UK population which included Ireland totalled to 45,370,530). However, even before war broke out in 1914 there were not enough men to go around. In 1911 there were 664,000 more women than men in the country. This was because more boy babies died than girls; it was also because men emigrated to the Colonies in large numbers and due to the fact that men generally were exposed to more difficult, dirty and dangerous work. By 1914 nearly half a million men were leaving Britain annually to service the needs of Empire in places such as India, Australia, Canada and Kenya as soldiers, civil servants, clerks, engineers, surveyors or businessmen.

When war broke out many of these men came back to fight for King and country, only to be blown up, shot or gassed alongside those who had stayed behind. Between 1914 to 1918 over 700,000 British men were killed; one in eight of those who set out to fight, and nine percent of Britain’s males under forty five. A further 1,663,000 were wounded and more were felled by the influenza epidemic of 1918-9.  This huge loss, as John Lewis-Stempel pointed out “cannot be merely measured in corpses. There were also the invalids and the broken-minded.” Many died prematurely due to wounds sustained during the war, and by 1939 there were still around 120,000 men receiving pensions for shell shock and other psychiatric conditions. Outside this figure were several men who outwardly looked undamaged by the war but were suffering in varying degrees of physical and mental stress and strain brought about by their experiences at the Front.

As a result of the wholesale slaughter of young men many of who were buried in the fields of France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq); there was the lament of a “lost generation” or “the flower of England’s youth” which gave rise to what Ruth Adam called a “mutilated society”. These and various other epithets that sound hyperbolic to modern ears but they speak of what David Cannadine calls “the abiding sense of lost throughout the land was as real as it was unassuageable” and left a generation of what Gary Sheffield observed “parents without sons, wives without husbands, children without fathers. Even at a distance of over eighty years, the grief is palpable.”

This sense of loss was manifested through the number of war memorials up and down the country with the Cenotaph at Whitehall as the focal point of the nation’s grief and remembrance. Every year, Britain observes Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day and in the beginning it was a way to commemorate the millions of dead from the First World War. Since then it has transmogrified to encompass all wars fought in the 20th and 21st centuries, a sort of secular All Souls’ Day where people come together to remember all those who have died fighting or due to their wounds never to return.

The effects of the war on the demography of Britain were revealed in the 1921 census. While the population of England and Wales did grow to 37.9 million (the entire UK population excluding Ireland stood at 42,769,196), once the figures were broken down according to specifics such as age group and especially gender, the results were devastating, confirming the worst fears of the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School. In England and Wales there were 19,803,022 females and only 18,082,220 males – a difference of a million and three quarters.

Those who were young and unmarried when the war ended found themselves with an extremely slim chance of finding a man to settle down with and get married. Even those who were widowed didn’t fare any better, while some did manage to remarry, a majority did not and were left to raise their fatherless children alone with some bolstered by the help of the extended family. Many of the young men who survived were disabled or ill for the rest of their lives. As a result, personal columns began to carry adverts where women were even willing to marry any disabled veteran who needed a wife to care for him and it became commonplace to go to dances and social gatherings where because the women outnumbered the men sometimes by ten to one, woman were found dancing with other women.  The lack of men meant the rise of male escorts – usually men available to be a woman’s dance partner for the night while others became kept men by wealthy spinsters and widows.

In light of these sobering statistics, Lady Mary’s story line since series 4 with her suitors has been at best unbelievable and at worst panders to Downton Abbey’s collective amnesia about the First World War and its aftermath. Widowed after Matthew’s death in a car crash, the PR for series 4 breathlessly proclaims her main story line:

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Broken by the untimely death of her husband Matthew and left to bring up their baby alone, the series charts Mary’s road to rehabilitation. Her supposed future within the family shattered, she must begin to build a new life, establish her own role at the heart of Downton, and perhaps open herself to the possibility of one day finding love again.

The first two episodes mostly dealt with attempts to have Mary involved in the running of the estate that her son will inherit upon his grandfather’s death but by episode 3 it’s clear that her love life is going to become the main focus of Mary’s story line with the estate occasionally intruding as plot bunnies as she plays off the attentions of two men – Lord Gillingham, an old acquaintance and Charles Blake a middle class civil servant who is later revealed to be in the line of succession for a baronetcy and estate in Northern Ireland – the sole  thing about him that raises a flicker of interest in Mary. The “love triangle” continues into series 5 until both suitors remove themselves from contention with Lord Gillingham reunited with his fiancée and Mr Blake off to the British Embassy in Warsaw. Not long after, another suitor arrives in the person of Henry Talbot, a racing car driver.

Mary’s storylines since series 4 has been met with mostly incredulity and hilarity from viewers. It doesn’t help that the three men courting her all remarkably look similar which led to the men being nicknamed Identikit Suitor 1, 2 and 3 as if they had rolled off a factory assembly line. What makes it worse is that clearly there isn’t any chemistry between Mary and Gillingham, Blake or Talbot adding the fact that the actors portraying them have been described as wooden, robotic or like a refrigerator.

Lady Mary & Lord Gillingham

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Crucially what made the Mary and suitors saga  difficult to believe in the eyes of many viewers was its historical anachronism. As one viewer complained after watching the series 5 Christmas special:

Yet again Lady Face-Like-a-Smacked-Arse finds an eligible chap, apparently entirely undamaged by the war. Where do all these fit, healthy young men come from? I was told once, by a man who had been a small boy at the end of the first war that the thing he remembered most vividly about that time was that there were no young men on the streets; there were boys, he said, and old men, but hardly anyone in between. What really puzzles me is why Fellowes hasn’t lifted Trimingham from The Go Between and provided Lady M with a disfigured war hero amongst her suitors.

This is in contrast with series 1 when by 1914 Mary has had four seasons and still no marriage prospects. She was unofficially engaged to her cousin Patrick but didn’t want to commit to him in case someone better came around. This is actually wishful thinking on her part and that of her parents and to me reflects a more nouveau riche thinking that the more pragmatic approach that aristocratic families usually took. Due to primogeniture, the number of titled men (both peerage and baronetage) was small and the pool of men who held the two highest titles of duke and marquess were even smaller so the vast majority of peers’ daughters always married “down,” with importance given to the man’s ability to provide and that he came from a good family. The fact that even when the pool of men is unlimited before the war an earl’s daughter isn’t attracting even the scions of the new rich who would happily give her a lifestyle befitting her station in exchange for the connections that she could bring is baffling.

If Mary has been finding it difficult to land a husband before the war when there were more men around then having three suitors to woo her magically appear after the war is a head scratching moment especially as by the 1920s, Mary is moving into her thirties which was considered middle age then. Perhaps anticipating viewer reaction, Julian Fellowes during the launch of series 4 told the assembled press that: “I don’t think in Mary’s case it is believable that no man would have been interested: she’s very good looking, she’s clever, she’s very well placed, she has a big estate; these women are pursued.”

I find this statement hard to believe. Yes Mary might be good looking and well placed but as several story lines have shown, she’s not clever and is certainly wanting in character. And no, she does not have a big estate, it was her husband Matthew who was the heir to the estate and with his death next in line is their son George. Under the terms of Matthew’s letter of intent, Mary only has a life interest on his share of the estate that means no child will inherit and on her death it reverts back to the estate. And even if Mary was indeed the heiress to the estate given how landed estates including Downton were struggling financially and were worse off as a result of the war then that doesn’t exactly make her an attractive prospect.

Fellowes statement in series 6 is in marked contrast to what he says about Edith in series 3, which is set just after the war ended.

The officer class had suffered a very high rate of death…it would have been difficult for Edith to find a young man of the right age who came from an appropriate family, who was attractive, who had prospects… 

Such a woman would have to resign herself to remaining unmarried, or find a husband much older or younger than her or of a different class altogether. As the Crawley family is finding, war destroyed all the old certainties.

Series 6 ended with Mary finally marrying Henry Talbot and again the audience reaction was of incredulity. Leaving aside that it was all rushed and until the very last moment, Mary is reluctant to marry again talking about preserving the estate for her son and reminding Talbot of her obligations as a mother (leaving aside that she has not got over Matthew’s death and the manner of it), the wedding was at best rushed and at worst there was none of the happiness and warmth that radiated between her and Matthew. Fundamentally the “Mary and her men” saga is one that not only as I mentioned earlier summarises the programme’s collective amnesia about the war and its aftermath but also contradicts Fellowes’ professed admiration for “strong women”.

If one further breaks down the number of casualties during the First World War, there was a higher proportion of those killed from the upper and upper middle classes.  The chances of dying were higher if you were an officer than a private, not just because a higher proportion of middle and upper class men enlisted, or because the privileged public school boys could more easily be spared from their peacetime occupations than men in industry: not even because they were healthier. The reality of the front line was that proportionally, officers took more of a beating than their men. When the lads went over the top, officers and subalterns were in front. As Lewis-Stempel noted in Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War:

What the war did to the aristocracy is as clear as cut-glass. ‘Truly England,’ said Lady Curzon of the war, ‘lost the flower of her young men in those terrible days…There was scarcely one of our friends who did not lose a son, a husband, or a brother.’ Debrett’s struggled to keep track of the haemorrhage of blue blood; in 1915 Debrett’s recorded 800 members of the peerage, baronetage, knightage killed in action or died of wounds. Not since the wars of the Roses had the aristocracy been systematically slaughtered……….With sons and heirs dead and buried in foreign fields, country houses with broad English acres were locked up and sold at auction one after the other in the 1920s. The decline of the aristocracy had already begun with the reduction of the agricultural rents, but the loss of its scions accelerated the historical trend. Needless to say, the young aristocrats died because they were the junior officers, first over the top, last to retire. (p. 317)

It wasn’t any better after the war as aristocratic and upper middle class men were put at the bottom of the queue for demobilisation as well as those who served longer. Civil servants, men in essential industries, men expected to find work quickly and those who would took longer were prioritised ahead. Also as befitting the first total war in history, class and status did not discriminate in terms of physical and psychological stress and many upper and upper middle class men did find themselves living with either physical or psychological or both conditions for the rest of their lives.

So nine-tenths of the men of Mary’s age and status are dead, and the ones who survive have the pick of the women, some much younger and richer. And this begs the question, who wants a snippy chilly widow in her thirties lumbered with a child and a big house that’s going to be struggling financially? That is what makes her being inundated with suitors so unbelievable. She had four seasons when men were plentiful and the only one she could attract was a closet gay, duke or not – now she’s in demand? One struggles to see what Fellowes is trying to say here or even if he realises that he’s saying that Mary has to be rich to be attractive to men.

The reality is that Mary herself despite the outward trappings of being rich isn’t exactly well off. There are more than enough clues that the estate that her son will one day inherit is struggling financially (and yet the family seems to be resistant to economising on their lifestyle and selling off land and their London house) and personally she doesn’t have much money either. She does have some money which she inherited from Matthew which of course George will solely inherit on her death: unless she has children by Talbot which means she’ll have to divide what’s left of her money between George and any putative step-siblings. If Mary is conscious of her need to preserve George’s inheritance then marrying again is surely a bizarre way to going about preserving this inheritance.

Another problem that’s very apparent with the “Mary and her men” story line is that for all his admiration for strong women, Fellowes misses a golden opportunity to show women coming into their prime. As Virginia Nicholson pointed out, the war robbed nearly two million women of all classes high and low of what society deemed to be their natural destiny – to marry and become wives and mothers. The lack of marriage prospects meant that many women out of choice or out of necessity turned to paid employment and careers as well as attempting to break down gender barriers in professions and politics. There were also more women going to universities and proving their mettle in activities that were deemed to be for men only such as sports and aviation. Such opportunities were denied to women before the war and its aftermath meant that these opportunities were slowly becoming available.

With the likes of Margaret Bondfield, Nancy Astor and Carrie Morrison (the first woman to qualify and practice as a solicitor) blazing the trail in male dominated spheres such as politics and law, economic necessities meant that even upper class women had to earn a living as well. Lady Diana Cooper turned her hand to acting, modelling and writing to supplement the meagre pay of her husband who was a high ranking civil servant at the Foreign Office while Lady Cynthia Asquith already hard up as a debutante and wife was grateful to accept a position as Sir James Barrie’s secretary and develop her own writing career on the side after her husband returned with a drinking problem after the war. Nor were women obliged to be celibate – contraception was a reality and the liberated single woman of the 1920s was no longer spoken of as “fallen.”

However Fellowes shows none of these preferring to keep his female characters in very traditional roles and clichéd story lines. Edith is an exception yet her dabbling in writing, editing and owning a magazine is only a minor adjunct to her rackety love life which has turned to a romance version of the Book of Job. However, at least Edith is attempting to make a new life out for herself while Mary is trapped in a pre-war mind set. Instead of seeing widowhood as a way to carve out a life for herself and devote her energies into running the estate on behalf of her son until he comes of age, we see nothing of the sort. She continues to act in a spoiled and entitled way all while relying on her father and brother-in-law to bail her out of problems that are of her own making. In addition, the emphasis on her suitors shows that Fellowes is so wedded to his agenda of emotional relationships that he distorts history when in reality women of all classes after 1918 had difficulty in finding husbands to marry and by 1919, for upper class and upper middle class men, there were four years’ worth of debutantes to choose from and the numbers went up further in the 1920s. So what then is so special about her?

I see this as a sign of Fellowes’ lack of imagination and running out of ideas once he decided to kill Matthew off after Dan Stevens had refused to extend his contract. Once his main character was gone, Fellowes was reduced to using various distraction techniques for the last three series to cover up the fact that he has no idea how to take his narrative along. Instead of using a widowed Mary to serve as a mirror for changes that all women were finding themselves in after the war, Fellowes has resorted to the default and lazy story line of “finding love again” and the way he’s written the “Mary’s men” story line and even earlier with Mary and Matthew and Mary and Richard Carlisle, it seems to me that Fellowes is enamoured of Mary and wants to convince us that she has redeeming qualities. Yet we barely see any of these supposed redeeming qualities and what is it precisely these men see in her. I don’t think it’s by accident that her father says Mary has more suitors than Aurora. In the famous “Rose Adagio” sequence from Sleeping Beauty, the suitors turn up and Princess Aurora makes her choice, pirouetting between them. Series 4 to 6 is essentially one extended Rose Adagio sequence however instead of Tchaikovsky’s lyrical music and Petipa’s technically demanding choreography what we get are tedious dialogue, leaden scenes and crudely signposted plots made worse by the historical inaccuracy of story line in the first place.

It’s further not helped by her suitors being indistinguishable apart vocally, physically or temperamentally and all three being so wooden that they could be used to light fires. But of course developing them as characters isn’t the point, because they are not meant to have personalities – they present what they bring and Princess Aurora stands on tiptoe, pirouettes around them and makes her choice, in Mary’s case with all the interest of a woman who is not hungry selecting from a menu of rather dull choices. They have no agency – it’s not a question of do they find her attractive, do they want her as a wife – it’s all Mary. Which one will she cut out of the herd to service her and worship her and be the moon to her sun?

She is the princess obliged by her own limitations to marry because that’s what women like her have always done and she lacks the imagination to create any other life. “Oh dear,” her expression says, “I have to marry, which one will it be?” Not helped by the fact that Lady Mary betrays not a flicker of interest that she is choosing a man to be her son’s father and her husband for with any luck, the rest of her life. She looks on the process with the detached interest of a woman recently woken from a long coma and not quite in touch with those things called feelings and emotions. In previous series she deployed her two expressions – now she doesn’t even do that but, presumably under the impression she’s showing the famous stiff upper lip, acts and speaks instead as if should she show any expression or emotion something awful will happen. I imagine when I watch her that that’s what someone would look like after full body Botox: wholly unable to move or emote.

Increasingly I wonder what message Fellowes is trying to convey with Downton Abbey. It started off as the survival of a house and family in an era of great change but in the end in his hands the minutiae of a landed estate after World War One and the challenges it and the family faced just wasn’t enough to grip the viewer, so Fellowes fell back on the tried and trusted distractions of parties, dresses and romance to enable the audience to “identify” with his characters, along with the wearisome mantra of “change” and “showing strong women.” The 1920s itself  is an interesting time in British history, far more interesting than what the clichés of flappers, jazz, cocktails and the Bright Young People suggest. It was a politically and socially explosive time when people who didn’t have a voice before the war finally having that voice and are beginning to use it to make their voices heard and take their place in a society that is just beginning to recognise them as citizens. And yet we barely see any of that in Downton Abbey, it’s as if its inhabitants are still trapped in the 1850s or even a whole different dimension where the usual rhythms of life and the outside world don’t exist. You have to wonder why he bothered with all the historical flummery and just didn’t start to write an out and out soap opera set in the 21st century if he is so uninterested in the real story of the past.

Notes:

Screenshot of article from The Times 25 August 1921

Downton Abbey publicity photos from http://you-had-me-at-downton.tumblr.com/

Further Reading:

Sean Glynn and John Oxbrow. Interwar Britain: A Social and Economic History (London, 1976)

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (London, 1940)

Ruth Adam. A Woman’s Place: 1910-1975 (London, 1975)

John Lewis-Stempel. Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War (London, 2011)

Gary Sheffield. Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London, 2002)

Lady Cynthia Asquith. Haply I May Remember (London, 1950)

Lady Cynthia Asquith. Remember and Be Glad (London, 1952)

Virginia Nicholson. Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War (London, 2008)

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

David Cannadine. ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Joachim Whaley (ed.) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death (London, 1981) pp. 187-242

Angela Holdsworth. Out of the Dolls House – The Story of Women in the Twentieth Century (London, 1988)

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/interactive/vp1-story-of-the-census/index.html

Richard van Emden. The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and Their Families in the Great War (London, 2012)

TV Review: Million Dollar American Princesses (ITV3) Part 2

In a previous blog, I reviewed the first episode of Million Dollar American Princesses and was disappointed by the wasted potential of this documentary. Sadly the second and third episodes are no better.

ITV3 picture

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Actress Elizabeth McGovern attends The Downton Abbey Ball at The Savoy Hotel on April 30, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Episode 2 entitled “The Wedding of the Century” focused more on the doomed marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough. While much has been written and said about the Marlboroughs and the circumstances that led to the marriage and its inevitable demise, I take issue with the assertion that she would lose her money and title if she divorced her husband. This is patently not the case as William K. Vanderbilt made sure that Consuelo had her own money separate from the dowry which was for her to use as she saw fit and became her lifeline when the marriage collapsed. Another was the statement that after the divorce she lost her title which isn’t the case as divorced and widowed peeresses keep their titles until they remarry, they don’t lose it just because the marriage is over (as Sarah Duchess of York has).

Another example of ignoring inconvenient facts is that of Mary Leiter’s marriage to George Curzon (later Lord Curzon). There was also yet again another ham fisted shoehorning in of Downton Abbey when it was claimed that the Curzon marriage was the inspiration for the fictional Granthams. While indeed there is a similarity between the two, what the programme fails to mention is the main reason why the Curzon marriage was happy was because Curzon expected his wife to subordinate herself to him and his political career. Mary learned early on that her husband’s needs and career would come first, second and last: although to his credit, Curzon did acknowledge her support and encouragement.

The final episode entitled “Movers and Shakers” was the weakest of the three. The great era of the trans-Atlantic marriages ended around 1910 with the ascension of a new King, George V who had a xenophobic suspicion of anything foreign and this meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins. By this point as well, the supply of heiresses was thinning and not even the money the heiresses brought to their marriages could stem the tide of the aristocracy having to sell up, retrench and in many cases lose their homes and estates altogether.

What made the final episode the weakest was apart from the persistent errors in the usage of titles were yet again the inaccurate hyperbole and the clumsy shoehorning of Downton Abbey. The assertion that Emerald Lady Cunard (nee Maud Burke) wielded power and influence is a misnomer as David Cannadine observed that “exclusive, aristocratic society had been transformed so fundamentally that it was no longer clear that it existed in its traditional sense……[i]nstead of being an adjunct to political life, patrician society was increasingly being detached from it. And even functioning as a marriage market, it was by no means as exclusive as it had been thirty years before. As one of the most important institutions through which the traditional elite has exercised power as a class, London society was effectively dead by 1914.” By the 1920s, it simply became “society for society’s sake” echoing the words of the American-born MP Sir “Chips” Channon who once described himself, “In society I am a power. In Westminster I am a non-entity.” The same could be said of Lady Cunard, her entertaining might have brought together politicians, aristocrats, businessmen, journalists, artists, composers and authors but they were a far cry from the gatherings that Consuelo Manchester helped organised with her mother-in-law the famed “Double Duchess” where house parties and dinners were as important as cabinet meetings.

Another inconvenient fact that the programme skates over is that by this time the few Americans who married into the peerage were not heiresses but upper middle class women who were a far cry from the so-called Dollar Princesses at the turn of the 20th century. The likes of Catherine Wendell (later Countess of Carnarvon) and Nancy Langhorne (later Viscountess Astor) only brought modest sums with them upon their marriages. One is struck at the irony of Elizabeth McGovern narrating what happened to the aristocracy after the First World War with the increase in income tax and death duties when Downton Abbey shows the Crawleys in complete denial about the whole financial situation facing their class and the economic and political situation outside the Abbey gates might as well not be happening.

The biggest disappointment however was concluding the documentary with Wallis Simpson and the Abdication crisis. If the whole point of the documentary was about wealthy American heiresses then Wallis Simpson certainly does not fit the bill. I suspect she was included as another way to shoehorn how another American interloper made her way into the British Royal Family (a previous episode mentioned that Frances Work was an ancestor of the Duke of Cambridge and his son). In my opinion, the documentary should have ended with a woman who I believe to be the ultimate Million Dollar American Princess – Kathleen Kennedy, one of the daughters of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and sister of a future President of the United States. Like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Mary Leiter, she was part of a nouveau riche family and snubbed by the American elite – a snub which was compounded by their religion. However she succeeded where the likes of the Dollar Princesses failed – to bag the heir of a first rank peer and unlike the Marlborough or Curzon marriage, Kathleen’s marriage to the Marquess of Hartington was clearly a love match in the face of some opposition owing to their different faiths.

Kathleen Hartington

Crucially ending the episode with the Kennedy-Hartington marriage would have brought the documentary full circle. If the first episode was all about the financial decline of the British aristocracy then Kathleen’s wedding which took place during the Second World War and its tragic twist foreshadowed the fall of the aristocracy after 1945. Instead, what we have is a documentary that, much like Downton Abbey itself, ignored its material and the ability and potential to tell the viewer anything new or informative in favour of saccharine recounting of transatlantic “romances.”