Exhibition Review – Fashioned from Nature (V&A) and Voice & Vote (Palace of Westminster)

The natural world has always inspired fashion through patterns, prints and design as well as being a source of materials used to make clothes and accessories. Nature is an enduring theme and one that has never fallen out of fashion due to its timelessness and universality.

The V&A’s current exhibition Fashioned from Nature looks at how the natural world has influenced fashion and been a source of material for the production of clothes from the 17th century until the present – the downstairs gallery focusing on both these aspects. For centuries the demand for materials such as wool, fur and bone stimulated both domestic and foreign trade. Several places in Europe became famous for a particular product: such as England for its wool, Italy for silk and France and present day Belgium for lace. From the 17th century onwards, the establishment of global trade links and the acquisition of colonies outside Europe resulted in the introduction of materials and fabric such as cotton, pineapple fibre as well as the skins from animals such as the crocodile. The later development of faster means of transportation and production meant that such materials became more widely available and cheaper.

 

Another main aspect of the exhibition is with regards to the influence of nature in fashion design, with the enduring popularity of floral prints and embroidery seen in extant pieces and fabric swatches from the 17th and 18th centuries to the present day. Flowers were also popular as accessories such as hair ornaments and corsages pinned to dresses and gowns, and technological advances during the 19th century meant that the use of artificial flowers became widespread. This was especially the case for weddings where orange blossoms made of wax were a common alternative to the real thing.

Global trade and exposure also meant that materials could be sourced from abroad, whether it was new materials or as a way to top up or replace European stock. This was particularly true with fur and feathers: for instance the North American beaver was highly sought after the decline in numbers of the same animal in Europe. Exotic birds from the Americas, Asia and Africa also provided the feathers used to trim hats, fans, gowns and coats, which unsurprisingly led to issues around the environment cost and questions about the ethics of such a trade to satisfy demand for more and more fur and feathers in the name of fashion.

 

This brings me to the one major issue I have with this exhibition. While it was relevant to highlight the cost of fashion to the environment and wildlife, it is tackled in a heavy handed and patronising way. The sections dealing with how industrialisation and growing demand led to greater awareness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is treated in a much more backhanded manner with the implication that industrialisation was a bad thing over all. However those that deal with the present can’t resist beating the visitors over the head with shrill pronouncements about fast fashion being bad for the environment and workers’ rights in the developing world. I detect a sense of snobbery here as the exhibition’s interpretation puts the blame on the poor and those who cannot afford designer and sustainable fashion for any current environmental problems the planet is facing thanks to the rise of disposable fashion.

Overall the exhibition has a lot of offer in terms of content and information however I wish there was more about the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as they demonstrated how patient campaigning, royal patronage and generating awareness led to the egret’s numbers recovering after they were hunted to near extinction for their feathers. What was the big let-down in the end was the exhibition failing to ask and explore that all important question – shouldn’t the fashion industry and its allied sectors put its own house in order first before presuming to lecture the public on the negative impact of fashion on the environment?

 

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As we continue to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 which gave women over 30 the right to vote, the Palace of Westminster has decided to mount its own exhibition about the tumultuous road that led to female suffrage. Westminster’s offering however goes one step further as the exhibition also delves into the 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and the 99 years since the first woman took her seat as a Member of Parliament.

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Entitled Voice and Vote, the exhibition charts the history of the history of female suffrage and female participation in a chronological manner. Before the 19th century, not only were women barred from voting, they were even forbidden from entering the Houses of Parliament. After the Napoleonic Wars, a group of women managed to find a way to enter the building, watch and listen to the debates from the ventilator; this also coincided with calls for social reform and women were at the forefront of many of these campaigns which ranged from prison reform, abolition of slavery, improvement of working conditions among others.

When the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt following the 1834 fire, a Ladies’ Gallery was added so that women especially female relations of MPs could watch and follow the debates. However, heavy metal grilles were placed over the windows which obstructed the view and made the gallery hot and uncomfortable. One woman likened the Ladies’ Gallery to an eastern harem where women were literally shut up, out of sight out of mind; and eventually it became known as the “Cage” and yet another symbol of women’s lack of political and social rights.

The next two sections dealt with the struggle for women’s suffrage and while there was too much emphasis on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes on what should have been a more balanced view that included the suffragists (many of them men), it was fitting that this exhibition highlighted the stunt pulled by the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) where one of their members chained herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery, not only to submit a petition to grant women the right to vote but also to point out the hated symbolism behind the grille.

Women over 30 were finally given the right to vote in 1918 and the following year saw the election of Nancy Astor to Parliament. She was quickly allocated a space which proved to be inadequate as more women were elected as MPs and yet again highlighted that Parliament was still very much a male dominated institution. Despite the fact that women could stand for the Commons, the House of Lords was still barred to them and Viscountess Rhondda, who had inherited her father’s title, led the campaign to open the upper house to women. This was finally realised with the Life Peerages Act in 1958 while female hereditaries could take their seat from 1963.

The exhibition was on display at St Stephen’s Hall and given that the hall was undergoing repair and conservation work might account for the small space allocated – which is a shame as I believe that using the whole area would have demonstrated what major strides women had made in public life and cementing their place in history.  It may be slightly fanciful to suggest that the exhibition, by being shoved into a corner of a great public building, is symbolic in itself of the fight that women had and in many ways still do have to be taken seriously in the wider public sphere – it’s impossible to imagine new male MPs being designated as ‘Blair’s Babes’ or ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ in the trivialising and patronising way that female MPs have been. Despite the small space however they were able to recreate what it would have been like peering through the ventilator or the Ladies’ Gallery; and objects from the Parliamentary Archives and loans from other collections were able to bring to life key events in the struggle for the right to vote and participate in political life.

At present, women have occupied many of the highest political positions from being Speaker of the House of Commons to the Premiership. One leaves the exhibition thinking that women have come a long way but more needs to be done. A journalist once remarked that women would have true equality with men when they didn’t have to be at least as twice as good as men in any job to be taken seriously, and the rise to positions of power and influence of mediocre and untalented women was as taken for granted and unquestioned as that of their mediocre and untalented male counterparts. Looking around the current crop of female politicians perhaps women have achieved that true equality: no-one is really remarkable and some are outright mediocre or nonentities. No different to the vast majority of men after all.

 

 

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 1 September 2018. Photos were taken by blogger

Fashioned from Nature is currently on at the V&A (London) until 27 January 2019. For more information, please visit this link: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/fashioned-from-nature

Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament is on at Westminster Hall (Palace of Westminster) until 6 October 2018. For more information, please visit: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

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Book Review – Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars by Sian Evans

There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.

Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.

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The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.

Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”

That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”

There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties.  Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.

Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.

And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.

None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax  – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.

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.”