Previous installments of Mo Moulton’s “Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian” series for The Toast can be found here. Note: There will be spoilers.
Season 6, Episode 1
It is 1925, and change is coming to Downton. No one who watched Sunday night’s episode, the start of the airing of the final season of Downton Abbey in the United States, could possibly have missed this point. Repeated by numerous characters, it was underscored by the rumors of impending staff reductions at the Abbey — and even more by the auction held at a neighboring manor house, Mallerton, after its owners have been forced to sell. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” Lady Edith remarks as the family arrives at Mallerton on the day of the auction, prompting Lady Mary’s sharp riposte: “Will you be as philosophical when it’s our turn?”
But what sort of change, really, is looming? Viewers might do well to keep another famous phrase in mind, alongside Edith’s invocation of the passing of worldly glory: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In many respects, 1925 and 1926 were the years when it became clear that World War I hadn’t really changed everything after all. Electoral politics remained deeply conservative. The British state had expanded considerably during the war, and for a brief time after the Armistice of 1918 a raft of social welfare programs were funded in an effort to reward the nation’s sacrifices and make Britain a “home fit for heroes.” But by 1922, massive and ruthless cuts were imposed on housing, education, infrastructure, and transport programs — all victims of what became known as the “Geddes Axe” after the man, Sir Eric Geddes, who led the committee that recommended them. The Liberal party was in a shambles, and Labour, which promised to bring the voice of organized labor and the working class into government, had not yet come into its own.
Much to the Dowager Countess’s alarm last season, Labour enjoyed its first stint in power, as a minority government, in 1924, but that was over before the year’s end; a second minority government in 1929-31 would be equally disastrous. Outside of those few years, Britain in the 1920s and 1930s was governed exclusively by the Conservatives. Statistics about organized labor tell a similar story. Union membership had peaked in 1920, at 8.3 million workers, and there were more than 1,500 strikes that year. With a weakening economy and rising unemployment, however, workers began to accept lower pay; the years 1922-25 saw steady wage cuts enforced by lockouts when workers tried to resist.
The struggle playing out in mills, mines, and docks might seems far away from the domestic drama at Downton, but under the surface, a similar dynamic is visible. The working class seems to rising but is in fact being successfully kept in check by an upper class that changes its fashions, not its position in the social hierarchy. Sunday night’s episode presented three versions of the working-class Vandal at the gates: the woman trying to blackmail Lady Mary, Violet’s maid Denker, and our favorite below-stairs radical, Daisy.
Rita Bevan was a chambermaid at the Liverpool hotel where Lady Mary held her sexual try-out with Tony Gillingham last season, prior to deciding that she couldn’t marry him after all. She has turned up at Downton to extort money from Lady Mary: waving the hotel register in her face, she demands £1,000 for her silence. But her sharpest words are about class inequality, not sexual scandal. She mocks Lady Mary: “La-di-da, gracious great lady. You think you’re so marvellous, don’t you? Your lot’s finished. You’re going down, and we’re coming up.”
The most visually shocking moment of the episode was not the stagey auction scene, but the sequence in which Miss Bevan overcomes the resistance of Molesley and Mr. Carson, brushing past their objections to penetrate Lord Grantham’s library and make her demands: she’s waited, she says, “long enough.” Mary is determined not to give in, but her father saves the day, paying Miss Bevan £50 and demanding she sign a confession to having attempted extortion, to be used should she break her silence.
In some respects, this subplot points out the differences in sexual mores that divide the aristocracy from the working class (and, really, the middle classes, too). While Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, and Mr. Carson work themselves into contortions trying even to discuss sex, Lord Grantham is blasé about his daughter’s indiscretion. His swift, smooth dispatching of the would-be blackmailer suggests that this is far from his first time around this particular block. Sexual hijinks is nothing new for the upper classes, even if Mary’s gender means that she’s playing for higher stakes than her father or his friends would have been. Meanwhile, Miss Bevan’s bid for wealth is over: she’s paid off with a relatively small sum (£50 is worth around $3,500 in today’s money, at today’s exchange rates) and kept in line with the threat of the law: Under the Larceny Act, 1916, the former chambermaid could have faced up to two years’ imprisonment for her attempt at blackmail.
Then there’s Denker, the Dowager Countess’s sleazy lady’s maid. When the Dowager lets slip that the Abbey’s staff might be reduced, Denker seizes the chance to stir up trouble by relaying the news in the Downton kitchen and then to her own comrade in the dower house, the dour butler Spratt. Here, the historical context does not entirely support Downton’s narrative: Between the censuses of 1921 and 1931, the number of indoor domestic servants actually increased, though never back to prewar levels. This was driven by high unemployment rates, which left many young women, and a few young men, with fewer options outside service than they would have liked. Middle-class households began to switch from full-time servants to hiring charwomen and other workers on a more casual basis. But Downton and its dower house were certain to remain in the five percent of households in England and Wales that continued to employ indoor servants in 1931.
Violet Crawley’s method of putting her maid back in her place is, however, pitch-perfect. In front of Isobel Crawley, who has come for tea, and Spratt, Violet “accidentally” tells Denker: “I shall miss you… Oh, I’m sorry. No, forget I said that. After all, nothing is settled.” The implication is brutally clear: no one’s job is safe, and Violet is the boss. As she tells Isobel after a shaken Denker has left the room, she has no intention of doing without a lady’s maid, but: “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.” She would have had an ally in Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister who successfully kept Labour out of office through a policy of divide-and-conquer that convinced working-class voters that Labour represented only a few greedy special interests. Upper-class ascendancy is founded on the prevention of working-class solidarity.
And finally, Daisy, a much more surprising (and probably unwitting) Baldwinite. When she hears that the new owners of Mallerton might turn out long-time tenants, including her father-in-law, Mr. Mason, she boils over with indignation. At the auction, she confronts the new owners and berates them for their lack of consideration for tenants who have given their lives to working the land. The incident nearly costs Daisy her job, and understandably so: it was shockingly rude. What’s more interesting is that her demands are essentially conservative. She’s attending the auction with Mr. Mason (who looks strikingly like Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing member of Parliament whose election to the Labour leadership has had British politics in a tizzy since the summer). But what she wants is for things to stay the way they’ve always been. When Mr. Mason points out a wedding gift, one of the many items for sale, and remembers that he contributed half a crown to purchase it, Daisy says: “It’s as if they were selling your past as long with their own.” She spots the new owner, and she’s off. She might as well have quoted Baldwin’s famous speech, given in May 1924, that lauded “the sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land.”
But why should Mr. Mason have to bow and tug his forelock to any great landowner? By this time, many people associated with the Labour party were calling for the nationalization of land as a method of wealth redistribution. The prewar Liberals had passed land legislation aimed in part at what they saw as the negative effects of great landlords on the national character. And even the Conservatives, anxious to prevent any socialist confiscation, recognized that democratizing land ownership was crucial. The great transfer of land, not from the old gentry to the new rich, but from the landlords to their tenants, was already underway. But Daisy, in true Downton fashion, betrays her left-wing tendencies and instead waxes nostalgic about an imaginary past in which men like Mr. Mason found their greatest happiness through knowing their place.
Matthew Cragoe and Paul Readman, eds., The Land Question in Britain, 1750-1950 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Lucy Delap, Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain (Oxford, 2011)
Guy Routh, Occupation and Pay in Great Britain 1906-1960 (Cambridge, 1965)