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.
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:
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.
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.
Screenshot of article from The Times 25 August 1921
Downton Abbey publicity photos from http://you-had-me-at-downton.tumblr.com/
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)
Richard van Emden. The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and Their Families in the Great War (London, 2012)