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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A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.

 

 

 

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Series 2 (Part 2) – Life, death, trust

Bloggers’ note: We would like to apologise for the delay as real life has intruded and meant that there is a delay with publication of our reviews

 

In the last episode, Victoria learns that she’s pregnant again and unsurprisingly she’s not happy as it is very soon after the birth of the Princess Royal. She is soon distracted, however, by a visit from a silk weaver from Spitalfields, seeking her help against competition from imported silk, especially from France. When Victoria raises the issue with her Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, he advises her that it would be unwise to introduce tariffs against imported silk and in the end the Queen decides to hold a ball where all the costumes should be made of Spitalfields silk. By buying and wearing clothes designed and made in Britain it is reasoned that the Queen and the court will set an example for the rest to follow, hence stimulate demand for the silk and lead to greater employment. Sir Robert isn’t sure it’s a good idea as he reminds Victoria that a ball might not be appropriate given the economic situation, and Albert agrees.

Despite any objections, plans for the ball get underway with the theme being a medieval one. Albert and Victoria preside over the ball dressed as King Edward III and his consort Philippa of Hainault and their costumes based on the tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey. Members of the household and guests are to come in medieval costumes made out of Spitafields silk and there is optimism that the ball will stimulate an industry that is in the doldrums.

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The ball also gives Victoria the opportunity to see Lord Melbourne again. He has been hiding the fact that he is gravely ill from her and has refused to reply to the Queen’s letters or allow her to visit him at Brocket Hall. He decides to attend the ball and despite his enforced cheerfulness it’s clear he’s not very well and after the ball she pays him a visit with a gift – a mechanical singing bird.

Just as Sir Robert fears, there is public criticism over the ball and on the night itself, an angry crowd marches to the palace to make their displeasure felt. Upset that her good intentions for hosting the ball have not been seen by the public, Victoria has the leftover food distributed to the poor but there is a small ray of light following the event, as a weaver reports that he has been inundated with orders following reports of the ball and description of what the royal couple and guests were wearing.

The next episode sees the birth of a Prince of Wales, the first since 1762, and just like with the birth of the Princess Royal, Victoria succumbs to post-natal depression. She is unable to bond with her infant son and does not understand why Albert is so besotted with babies: she thinks they look like frogs. Her condition is further worsened by the news that her father-in-law and uncle the Duke of Coburg has died and Albert is adamant that he should attend the funeral alone. Victoria insists on going with him but Albert tells her to rest, try to recover and bond with their two children.

Meanwhile, news of the “Boy Jones” incident has made its way to the papers which infuriates the royal couple and Baroness Lehzen is given the task of finding out who in the household has informed the press of the incident. Amidst all this and with Albert having gone to Coburg, Victoria falls deeper into depression. Her mother the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Buccleuch try to rally her especially with the latter assuring her that she isn’t the first woman to find herself in “low spirits” and being “out of sorts” (euphemisms for post-natal depression in the 19th century) while Sir Robert asks her to open a new tunnel designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Victoria refuses to attend citing her nerves, and this is a foreshadowing of her reluctance to take on her public duties following Albert’s death in 1861.

Albert’s homecoming gives him an opportunity to reminisce with his brother Ernst about their father and uncle Leopold. The latter is still meddling with his remaining nephews, plotting to marry off their cousin Prince Ferdinand to the Queen of Spain and engineering a marriage between Ernst (who has now succeeded his father as Duke of Coburg) to a German princess Alda, who is invited to the ducal palace to meet with her prospective future husband and his family. The meeting is not a success and it’s clear that Ernst is still harbouring feelings for the Duchess of Sutherland who he last met at the ball in the previous episode.

Meanwhile, still on the trail to find out who leaked the “Boy Jones” incident to the papers, suspicion falls on Francatelli who has been sporting an expensive new watch and new clothes. Mrs Skerrett confesses to Victoria and the Baroness that it was her cousin who leaked the information and that it was she who had told her of the incident. She also mentions that her cousin who sold the story was the real Nancy Skerrett but had fallen pregnant out of wedlock and she had taken her cousin’s place.  The episode ends with Victoria agreeing to attend the opening of Brunel’s new tunnel and Mrs Skerrett isn’t dismissed after all – impressed by her honesty and believing that people do deserve a second chance, she is asked by Albert to stay on as Her Majesty’s dresser.

Overall episodes 3 and 4 do present a few key aspects of the early 1840s such as the overall poor state of agriculture: not just in Britain but in Europe (one of the triggers for the revolutions of 1848) and the continuing technical innovations happening in Britain at this point in time (series 1 saw the railways, now it’s advances in engineering).  A corollary to this was also a revival in the interest in the architecture, art and culture of the medieval era as exemplified by the ball in episode 3 (the costumes were almost accurate replicas of the original as depicted in Sir Edwin Landseer’s portrait recording the event) however the real Albert was enthusiastic about the ball and was heavily involved in its preparation. The ball was, in the words of Ian Hunter, one way of using medieval motifs in order to bolster the position of Prince Albert and demonstrate the historical continuity of the monarchy from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards, as well as encouraging the revival of the ideals of chivalry in an era that was witnessing unprecedented change.

The attitudes depicted towards Victoria’s post natal depression was more or less accurate: while women then were aware that not every mother would bond with her baby and the possibility of feeling low after the birth, PND as a medical condition was not fully understood until the late 20th century –  although I wish that there had been a more thorough exploration of this rather than simply skating over the condition and showing Victoria as “cured” through receiving a gift of a new puppy. The death of Dash and Lord M’s exit from the programme was tastefully done and restrained: mercifully we were spared the hammy dialogue and OTT acting over character and animal deaths that certain programmes have indulged in. Ditto with Leopold’s revelation that he might be Albert’s father. While this could be construed as a classic soap opera plot point, at least it did not degenerate into the whole “Luke, I am your father” spiel.

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However, the whole downstairs storyline was the one glaring weak spot here. While it’s true that confidentiality and security are recurring issues with regards to the royal family and those who serve them, the way Mrs Skerrett has been written is pure soap. As mentioned in an review last series, the real Mrs Skerrett was part of a family that had been in royal service for at least two generations, she was well educated and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser but also liaised with tradesmen, suppliers and even artists such as Sir Edwin Landseer on behalf of the Queen and was in charge of the junior dressers under her. The way Skerrett has been depicted in Victoria shows a striking similarity to Miss Baxter from Downton Abbey, the competent and kind-hearted lady’s maid with a mysterious and shady if not criminal past. The time spent on this clichéd and frankly unbelievable story line would have been better spent on focusing on Victoria’s PND and how it affected her and those around her. It would have been a good way to explore further how attitudes towards female illnesses and childbirth then were different from now but alas, it was not to be.

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.

 

Film Review – Viceroy’s House: Photocopying Downton Abbey

Bloggers’ Note: Although this film falls beyond our time frame, we felt this warranted a review as the Mountbattens were regular fixtures in British newspapers from their wedding in 1922 until their deaths in 1960 and 1979 respectively.

With 2017 marking the 70th anniversary of Indian independence (and the creation of Pakistan as well), the release of Viceroy’s House is perfectly timed, a narration of the road to Indian independence and the birth of two nations. Directed by Gurinder Chadha( best known for Bend it like Beckham), she has partly drawn from her family history for this film. But most of the action is set in the magnificent Edwin Lutyens-designed viceregal palace (now the residence of the President of India) with its massive rooms and grounds which in the words of Edwina Mountbatten in the film, “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow.”

There’s a mention of her grandmother’s experience of being displaced as the boundaries between the two new nations were drawn so it makes me wish that she had brought her grandmother’s story to the big screen as a representative of what happened to millions of families. Instead what we get is a potted history lesson mixed with an upstairs-downstairs narrative that’s pretty much lifted from Downton Abbey. I will go further by saying that Viceroy’s House is a direct photocopy of Downton Abbey.

Viceroy's House poster

The year is 1947 and Britain exhausted by the Second World War is preparing to transfer power in India for 1948. Overseeing this is the new viceroy; Louis (“Dickie”) Viscount Mountbatten of Burma (Hugh Bonneville) accompanied by his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and their younger daughter Pamela (Lily Travers). At the same time, former policeman Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) arrives at the palatial viceregal palace to begin his new job as a valet to the new viceroy where he encounters a secretary, Aalia Noor, (Huma Qureshi), who he recognises as the daughter of one of the political prisoners he helped guard. Predictably the two fall in love but Aalia is already promised to another man and as her father reminds her, to marry him is honouring her dying mother’s wish.

Meanwhile Mountbatten is faced with a dilemma, should India remain as one nation or two with India as a Hindu majority (together with the Sikhs) state and Pakistan which would be a Muslim majority country? While he tries to reach a settlement between Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), violence flares across India and in the end, its accepted that partition and bringing the date forward for independence will help ease the violence. A senior judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) is brought into India to determine the borders between the two countries. With a very limited timeframe to do his job, and with the added disadvantage of never having been to India before, Sir Cyril struggles, especially as there are areas where the split between the two faiths is even. He confides this to General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), and he is shown a plan from 1945 that already showed the borders between India and Pakistan. When Mountbatten learns about this, he is shocked to learn that Churchill had authorised this to safeguard supplies of oil and to create a buffer against the Soviets.

Despite this, partition goes ahead and as a result, two nations are born while there is a massive movement of peoples between the two new countries. And what of Jeet and Aalia? Well, there is a sort of happy if slightly implausible ending in the manner of all soap operas. Actually, if I’m going to be honest, it was a jaw-dropping “wait, what? You are using THIS as a dramatic device??” moment, but possibly that’s just me.

As mentioned earlier, watching Viceroy’s House led to me to the conclusion it was a photocopy of Downton Abbey not only with the opening sequence and the upstairs downstairs drama but even with the casting of Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. This must have been the worst piece of casting since Dick van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins or Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October; Bonneville with his beefy frame is nothing like the lean Mountbatten. Neither does he have the real Mountbatten’s clipped tones, effortless charm and breezy self-assurance. Instead what we see is a man out of his depth, weak and hesitant – much like his Downton Abbey character Lord Grantham. The director doesn’t help this obvious miscasting by ending the film with newsreels of the real life Mountbatten as Viceroy – the contrast is glaring.

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Viceroy's House 3

If Bonneville reprises Robert then Gillian Anderson is Cora (and interestingly was reportedly offered the role before Elizabeth McGovern). She’s convincing as Edwina Mountbatten but her attempts at affecting a cut glass accent sometimes descend into parody. In addition she’s not really given much to do apart from constantly remind her husband of why they’re in India (hello, he’s the last Viceroy entrusted with the task of giving India its independence, I think he might know already), and act as a human United Nations statistics booklet (“Darling do you know that 92 per cent of the population are illiterate?”) in a script that very often recalls Downton Abbey at its expositional finest. And for a film that focuses a lot on real life characters, there is little done to flesh them out as people – who they really are and how their behaviours could have help affect the course of history. Nothing is made of the Mountbattens’ married life especially as they had been living virtually separate lives since the beginning of their marriage or the purported affair between Edwina and Nehru. Even Jinnah’s illness was not mentioned much less alluded to. There’s very little depth of character and sometimes it feels like the script is a taken from school textbook about independence – kept to the basics and shorn of the complexities. A feeling not helped by the almost insultingly brief running time – 106 minutes to explain a process that cost a couple of million lives. (Perhaps that should be “attempt to explain independence.”)

Ironically it’s the servants who are given the better storylines and scenes. They operate as a huge and well-organised team to serve the Mountbattens and while they are doing that they listen to the radio, read the papers and catch snippets of meetings. While they discuss and argue, the cracks between Muslim and Hindu start to show, especially when they have to decide what country they are going to go to after independence. A striking example was the two chefs and the look of anguish on the head chef’s face when he hears his deputy had chosen to become Pakistani is a microcosm of how politics has infiltrated a workplace where people have worked alongside together for years if not decades and have now been torn apart. Gradually we see the cracks widen between Hindu, Sikh and Moslem and degenerate into physical violence in an echo of what is happening outside the residence’s gates. There are also very poignant human touches that bring home the innumerable tiny human tragedies – Jeet’s colleague comes back from their village, where he has found their families dead or missing, but carrying a baby girl, the sole survivor of a massacre. A Hindu woman has picked up a Moslem girl who has escaped the killing of everyone on her train and wants to adopt her, and gets very angry with the official insistence that this is a queue for Hindus, the badly injured girl must go elsewhere. Little touches of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.

While Jeet and Aalia’s love story is pretty much standard soap opera fare, individually both characters have potential and yet are undeveloped. Jeet himself has an interesting background – a policeman who spent most of his career arresting and guarding pro-independence activists but whose father was killed by the British: but that’s never explored, and neither is the reason why he has given up his job as a policeman to be a viceregal servant in the dying weeks of the Raj. And what about Aalia? We don’t know much about what she thinks and feels as an individual: the tension between her clearly Westernised education and outlook as opposed to the traditional family demands being made on her is clear but ignored. What’s also omitted is the upper staff who are mainly British save for the major domo who is clearly Indian but is very Westernised, what’s going to happen to them? The major domo has a close working relationship with his immediate superior, the comptroller of the household (who is British) and yet what will happen to both men is a mystery, when actually that would have made a better storyline than what we’ve seen on screen.

Viceroy’s House major weakness however (and again this is where the similarity to Downton Abbey is in the distortion and trivialising of great events) is how the film glosses over Mountbatten’s incompetence and the intransigence of the Indian side. Instead blame is placed on Winston Churchill despite the fact that in 1947 he had been out of power for two years and was in no position to influence events (in fact he did vote in favour of the Indian Independence Bill and urged his party to do the same). This weakness is made worse by historical inaccuracies such as the view that Indians were not ready to govern themselves when in reality they were already native Indians serving as mayors and councillors as elected by their fellow Indians and by the 1930s the Indians were already outnumbering the British in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The constant bleating about “divide and rule” was also grating and conveniently forgets that “divide and rule” tactics were already used in India long before the British came.

The dialogue is heavily expositional and the narrative is simplistic, it’s all “Oh Jinnah wants Pakistan, what shall we do?” “Look, here’s a plan all handily drawn up in 1945 by Churchill with the borders neatly drawn in but don’t tell Mountbatten. That’ll sort it.” Independence and partition is wrapped up in about 10 minutes with contemporary newreels of massacres, long trails of miserable refugees and the Mountbattens and Nehru looking anguished over what has been unleashed.

The plus side is the visuals. If there’s one thing that this film does really well, it’s capturing the vibrant real-life locations of both the Viceroy of India’s residence and the streets of India. Filmed entirely on location, the grandeur of the main stage is fantastic to look at, whilst the costume design ranges from Mountbatten’s decorated military attire to the colourful uniforms and dress of the Indian servants.

Unfortunately for the success of the film I left the cinema feeling manipulated and that an agenda was at play. The film ends with the information that the director’s family fled the partition, that on the way her grandmother’s baby died of starvation and it was after nearly two years in a refugee camp that her grandparents were re-united. I’m not in the slightest downplaying this dreadful human tragedy, but it was one of millions, and it’s being used to peddle an essentially very selective view of the history that comes from two books – Freedom at Midnight, whose authors had access to the Mountbatten archives and the man himself and veers close to hagiography at some points  and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by a former Indian diplomat, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was a junior member of Mountbatten’s staff and who maintains that Churchill was the culprit for the bloodshed of partition.

As Ian Jack points out in a scathing Guardian review, historians have given this short shrift, but the power of film is such that there are going to be millions who take away from this the message that Mountbatten and Nehru were guiltless and that Churchill and Jinnah were the evil geniuses of partition. As Jack points out

Chadha denied the charge of anti-Muslim prejudice – persuasively, I think – but to my mind she and her fellow writers on the film, her American husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and the English screenwriter Moira Buffini, have committed just as great a sin, which is to take a breathtaking liberty with the historical record.

As he goes on to say The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office. Even so, it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.

And that’s the danger of this film, because film is a much more powerful medium than the written word and misrepresentation can be taken away as gospel truth (as demonstrated by more than enough viewers who think that Downton Abbey accurately represents early 20th century Britain). If people want to learn more about independence and partition, Viceroy’s House isn’t the film I would recommend. Viewers are advised to purchase, rent or borrow DVDs of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), a 14 part drama produced by ITV. Both explore the complexities of Indian society and politics in the dying days of the Raj and the road to independence in a sensitive and historically accurate way that Viceroy’s House has failed to do.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/viceroy.htm

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4302730/Viceroy-s-House-whitewashes-Lord-Mountbatten.html

Andrew Roberts. Eminent Churchillians (London, 1994)

Alex von Tunzelmann. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (London, 2008)

Stanley Wolpert. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford, 1996)

Women’s History Month

As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/an-american-at-kenwood-transatlantic-marriages-in-the-gilded-age/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/debs-delight-what-being-presented-and-the-season-was-really-like/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/debs-delight-part-2-lady-roses-court-presentation-and-a-right-royal-boo-boo/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/back-in-the-dolls-house-misrepresenting-post-war-women-in-downton-abbey/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/12/29/back-in-the-dolls-house-part-2-lady-ediths-pyrrhic-victory/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/spotlight-on-margaret-bondfield/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/women-in-black-mourning-fashion-and-etiquette-1870-1939/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/twelve-hours-of-danger-a-day-the-women-munition-workers-of-world-war-one-part-1/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/twelve-hours-of-danger-a-day-the-women-munition-workers-of-world-war-one-part-2/

Happy Reading!

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

For part 1 – see here

Delayed Reaction –  food rationing

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

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

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

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

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

13 loaves of 2lbs each, with

1½ lb Flour for puddings etc.

1/2 lb Flour for Cake

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

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

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

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

13 February

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The servant problem – grabbing opportunities with both hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion and aftermath:

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

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

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

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

armistice-day

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

 

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

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

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

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

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

Britain on the Brink of Starvation: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare