Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Death and Dyeing -The Toast

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Previous installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].

The beloved dog Isis, a yellow Labrador whose tail graced the opening sequence of every episode, has died. Last week, Cora and Robert let her sleep in bed between them on her last night; this week, we saw Lord Grantham ordering a headstone for her. Although it’s not depicted, we can imagine that the memorial will join a well-established pet cemetery at Downton.

The eminent historian of animals Harriet Ritvo has argued that, even before Charles Darwin pointed out that monkeys are our cousins, the line between human and animal had long been blurred: “determining the point where unlikeness became more significant than likeness had always been problematic.” Dogs have filled a dizzying array of roles in British society: as hunters, workers, companions, and entertainment. Loving dogs became a characteristic feature of the English by the end of the nineteenth century, an image fostered by the new animal protection movement, and breeding and showing dogs became an increasingly popular pastime.

Closeup of Lord Byron's "Epitaph for a Dog," Boatswain's Tomb, Newstead Abbey Closeup of Lord Byron’s “Epitaph for a Dog,” Boatswain’s Tomb, Newstead Abbey

But keeping dogs close, and remembering them formally, predates this particular moment. Memorials to cherished pets were commonplace in the eighteenth century and even widespread by the late nineteenth century. In the 1730s, the Duchess of Bedford built a Greek temple to honor her Pekinese; a dog cemetery operated adjacent to the Victoria Gate in Hyde Park between 1880 and 1915; and Lord Byron erected a mausoleum in 1808 at Newstead Abbey for his Newfoundland, on which is engraved the epitaph:

Ye! Who perchance behold this simple urn,

Pass on—it honours none you wish to mourn:

To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;

I never knew but one,–and here he lies.

In an essay on Victorians’ memorialization of their pets, literary scholar Teresa Mangum wonders if the practice obscured other forms of suffering in the nineteenth century, particularly that of creatures not fortunate enough to be pets: if, in other words, mourners “lost sigh of other animals as they strove to account for that most complex of simple things—living and feeling loved.” In some respects, Robert and Isis capture this dynamic. As a commenter on my column last week pointed out, Robert is too distracted by Isis’s illness even to notice his daughter’s distress around Marigold. Perhaps he prefers to love only when he can own, or perhaps, in a repressive emotional environment, loving Isis is a rare outlet for genuine feeling.

robert_coraBut loving an animal is never one-dimensional. In a sense, Isis’s last illness facilitates the reconnection between Robert and Cora; it also, inevitably, conjures up other losses. Robert’s decision to commission a plaque to commemorate Mrs. Patmore’s nephew is soap-operatic in its staging, but believable on an emotional level: while his own loss is raw, he’s able to feel Mrs. Patmore’s more keenly.

And it conjures up, too, the terror of love in a mortal world. It’s impossible to lose a pet without pondering one’s own mortality and the mortality of those we love. Downton Abbey has always taken its aging characters seriously. But this season, in particular, has gently shed light on their sense of themselves. In this season, we’ve seen Violet grappling with a bold offer from a long-ago flame, Isobel navigating the possibility of marriage to Lord Merton, and Cora reacting to interest from another man at a moment when Robert seems to take her for granted. One of the great pleasures of the show, for me, is its depiction of a long-term relationship at late middle age. And downstairs, Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore have all begun to ponder what life may hold when they are no longer able to work at Downton and must retire.

In 1924, Britain was shifting, demographically, toward an older population. People aged 65 and over made up seven percent of the population in the United Kingdom in 1900 and eighteen percent in 2000, though this may overstate the novelty of the twentieth century: the proportion of old people in the late nineteenth century was unusually low due to a high birth rate. It’s worth point out, too, that for those who survived childhood, living into their late fifties or sixties was not, historically, a rarity, especially for women. Downton’s portrayal of the concerns of its older characters is compelling, but also misleading.

On the level of social history, the show offers an unrealistic picture of the options available to retired servants. Through the Poor Law, the British state had long been providing last-ditch support to people unable to work due to ill health, disability, and old age. Around the turn of the century, policy-makers and economists began to theorize that some poverty might be structural. In other words, people might face predictable periods of shortage and privation, not because they were lazy or improvident, but because of economic and life cycles. The Old Age Pensions Act, which came into effect in 1908, was one result of this revolution in thinking: it offered a small pension to “the very old, the very poor, and the very respectable,” in Pat Thane’s words, in terms that avoided censure of earlier poor relief efforts.

This season has portrayed a good deal of planning for the future below stairs, and almost all of it connects real estate and family inheritance. Anna and Mr. Bates ponder the future of their rental property in London (if they can stop getting arrested for shady murders they might or might not have committed); Mrs. Patmore buys a cottage with a legacy from an aunt; Carson proposes going in on a small house with Mrs. Hughes to leave them both with a ‘tidy sum’ for retirement; Daisy betters herself through education while retaining ties to the farm she’s likely to inherit. Margaret Thatcher would have loved it, all this improving each shining hour with savvy investments and family fortune.

carson_hughesBut in reality the ultimate cushion for any of the servants at Downton would have been the new guarantee of an old-age pension from the state, a stop-gap between dependence on family members at best and spending last years in a workhouse at worst. The pensionable age was lowered from 70 to 65 in 1925, putting the system’s benefits within reach of many more. Fewer older people lived with younger generations following the World War I; they pieced together a living between pensions, other forms of public assistance, sporadic employment, and small sums from relatives or friends. A 1936 survey of York described the life: “A few for instance keep a lodger, others earn a few pence or are paid in kind for rendering small services. To ‘mind the baby’ for a neighbour when the mother is out, or to wheel one in a pram on washing day and do any necessary errand, will probably mean a square meal or ‘a mash of tea’ and some coppers, as well as discarded garments, if the neighbour’s husband is in good work.” It’s an enormous improvement over the hardships of mid-Victorian workhouses and outdoor relief, but it’s a far cry from Downton’s cozy cottages in the air.

And on the level of cultural representation, despite the careful research on manners and props, the show is reluctant to embrace its realistic aesthetic when it comes to its older women’s hair. Look at Mrs. Patmore’s red curls, Cora’s dark locks, Mrs. Hughes’s chestnut waves (seemingly darker now than in earlier seasons), even Baxter’s brown hair. Compare them with Carson’s and Robert’s gray. Molesley was mocked for trying to dye his hair earlier in the season, but if you think about it, nearly every woman on the show except for Violet and Isobel must be dying their hair, and several of the men, too. It’s become so standard that it’s almost invisible, but it’s completely anachronistic in a way the producers would never tolerate in another arena.

In the interwar years, hair-washing in general increased with the greater availability of hot water; a variety of new products were developed and advertised to help women achieve “brilliant,” “gleaming” hair. Take, for example, the claims made in Women’s Weekly in 1936: “Drene new liquid shampoo rids your hair of a dull film and shows all its gleaming loveliness. You will never realise how lovely your really is until you shampoo it with Drene.” (So Daisy’s gleaming hair is probably unrealistic, too, but far be it from me to knock Daisy.) Coloring one’s hair had always been possible, but it had, for centuries, frequently involved dangerous chemical (such as lye and lead) for only temporary and unpredictable effects. Hair dye entered a new phase in the twentieth century, with new chemical options at hand, notably hydrogen peroxide for bleach-blondes and Eugene Schueller’s new range of commercial hair dyes marketed under the name L’Oréal. But the taboo against dying one’s hair only began to lift in the 1930s—Caroline Cox and Lee Widdows cite the importance of Jean Harlow’s 1931 appearance in Platinum Blonde, though they point out that even she would only admit to putting “a little blueing” in her hair. Hair dye connoted frivolity at best, vain subterfuge or brash sexuality at worst; it was no surprise for an older woman to have gray hair.

Loss, aging, and death are hard to face, in any era and at any age. Perhaps Lord Grantham transferred some of his fears onto Isis and her death, but his is not the only blindspot. Downton acknowledges age, but it cloaks reality in dreams of cottages and illusions of youthful hair.


Caroline Cox and Lee Widdows, Hair & Fashion (London, 2005)

Sabine Hielscher, “‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Shine: An Examination of the Material Interactions in Women’s Hair Care in the UK,” Journal of Design History 26:3 (2013)

Teresa Mangum, “Animal Angst: Victorians Memorialize their Pets,” in Morse and Danahy, Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture (Aldershot, 2007)

Harriet Ritvo, “Our Animal Cousins,” differences 15: 1 (2004)

Harriet Ritvo, “Pride and Pedigree: The Evolution of the Victorian Dog Fancy,” Victorian Studies, 29: 2 (1986)

Pat Thane, Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (Oxford, 2000)

Rose Weitz, Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives (New York, 2004)

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