Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian Part 7: Don’t Mention the War? -The Toast

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the-cast-of-downton-abbey1111Previous installments in this series can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road.]

Cousin Violet was full of pithy advice in this week’s episode. She deprecates the examined life upon hearing of Lord Gillingham’s period of self-reflection in Scotland (to be fair, it doesn’t seem to have done him any good); then later, at the church bazaar, she tells Lady Edith: “My dear, all life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one, then the next, and the next, until at last, we die.” And then she suggests they eat some ice cream, underlining the point that hers is a cheerful pragmatism rather than a despairing existentialism.

ba3.JPGHer advice is simultaneously reassuring and infuriating, suggesting a universal method for coping while seeming to overlook the gravity of the immediate situation. How, then, to live, and how to earn a living, in England in 1922? Downton Abbey alludes to aspects of this problem, but it fails to capture the full sense of dislocation that characterized this postwar era.

The most touching scenes took place in the servants’ quarters in this episode, and, as has been the pattern this season, the minor storylines were the most convincing and affecting. Thanks to the help of her erstwhile father-in-law, the lovelorn Daisy found a way to make peace with former footman Alfred before his return to cooking school. One love story ends: can another be far behind? Molesley and Baxter were charming as they bonded over their ups and downs. Taken together, Molesley and Alfred (and, by implication, Baxter) reflect some aspects of the changing patterns of employment in interwar England.

Molesley has been the face of unemployment in Downton Abbey. Left without work after Matthew Crawley’s death, he found partial employment as a grocery deliverer and on a municipal road crew before finally returning to Downton in the lesser role of footman. In the years before World War I, unemployment had come to be seen as a serious economic and social issue deserving substantial government intervention. Prior to this, it had been viewed as a peripheral problem, the incidental result either of mysterious market fluctuations or personal character flaws.

During the war, unemployment essentially disappeared; men were absorbed into the armed forces and the munitions factories, and, famously, women filled many of the jobs formerly held mostly by men. (The gender transformation is often overstated, though, so that the nursing work of the Lady Sybils of the world overshadows the generations of women who worked in factories, hospitals, and schools in the nineteenth century.) After the war, the centralized state direction that had mobilized this massive labor force was dismantled, and the government returned to its more laissez-faire roots, though pre-war systems of unemployment insurance and labor exchanges continued. There was a brief postwar boom followed by the recession in which this season is set; unemployment rose sharply, as did industrial unrest and strikes.

But Molesley is, in some ways, a very strange choice to represent this trend. He escaped war service through some special pleading with Dr. Clarkson, looking like the very vision of home-front cowardice, the sort of man who deserved the white feathers that were supposed to have been derisively handed out by young women to men avoiding military duty. If you didn’t know anything else about interwar England, you’d be forgiven for supposing that his unemployment was his just deserts. Lloyd George, after all, had promised serving soldiers that they’d return to a ‘Home Fit for Heroes,’ complete with jobs and housing.

woolfIn fact, returning to the regular work force was a difficult feat for demobilized soldiers, and especially for the many veterans who were still suffering the physical and mental after effects of their service. Unemployment was high among veterans; the disabled, unemployed veteran selling flowers or playing tunes for pennies on street corners was a staple of the British urban landscape at this time. Britain in 1922 was a nation still traumatized by World War I, and its struggle to reintegrate large number of veterans was a source of public debate and distress. Virginia Woolf immortalized this moment in Mrs Dalloway with the character of Septimus Smith, haunted by shell shock and utterly failed by the institutions surrounding him. Even Lord Peter Wimsey, the unofficial fictional mascot of this column, carried the war with him throughout the twelve light-hearted mysteries of which he was the star. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in particular, places him in the context of other veterans, many of whom struggle with the older generation’s willingness to gloss over the horror of the war and its aftermath as a mere unpleasantness.

And yet flowers were still bought and parties held, as Clarissa Dalloway reminds us, and the modernity of the postwar moment had its joys and compensations. Listening to Molesley and Baxter, you might think that the problem was to find good work as a servant. But the “servant problem,” as it was called, was really about the opposite: the trouble of finding anyone willing to work in service in the early twentieth century, at least for the pay and conditions that had prevailed in the Victorian era. Work in shops, offices, and factories was more appealing. Alfred’s decision to leave service and train as a chef is just one manifestation of a much larger shift; Jimmy may be annoying, but his restlessness is characteristic of his generation. And even for those who remained in service, life was changing. Fashion is a revealing barometer here. As a young woman, Mrs. Patmore would have gladly received the cast-offs of her employers and altered them to make her off-duty clothing. Daisy, though, was sporting a much more modern outfit on her day off, probably at least partly purchased ready-to-wear from shops in York or Ripon.

Cousin Violet urges the younger generation to accept the life they have been given and to carry on, just as she did. Her fundamentally sanguine philosophy ignores the ruptures, devastation, and transformation of the previous decade. On one level, Downton Abbey wants to grapple with those changes: higher hemlines, electrical appliances, headstrong young people. Yet the show, like Cousin Violet, and like the elderly gentlemen at the Bellona Club, prefers to push offstage the cataclysm that drove those changes as so much unpleasantness.


Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001)

José Harris, Unemployment and Politics: A Study in English Social Policy, 1886-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) (1984 paperback edition)

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