Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Movin’ On Up -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 4

Social mobility is one of the ways people in modern democracies measure the health and freedom of their societies. Can hard work get you ahead? Will laziness be punished with a fall? To what extent do our parents’ fortunes determine our own? The answers to these questions say a great deal about what it’s like to live in a particular time and place. If this season of Downton Abbey has an argument thus far, it is that social mobility is increasing. Sunday night’s episode made this point particularly clearly.

Tom Branson is back from Boston. I suspect it was really last winter that drove him away, not homesickness, as he claims. But in any case, he’s a changed man. If acceptance into his wife’s aristocratic family softened his socialist core, American society has gutted it. He doesn’t feel the same way about capitalism anymore, he tells Lady Mary: “Not American capitalism, anyway – where a hardworking man can go right to the top all the way in a single lifetime.” Although he admits he’s returned to a country where that’s not quite true, he’s bullish: “I have a sense it’s going to change and in the not-too-distant future.”

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Britain was, as Downton illustrates, a deeply class-conscious society. But was it becoming more socially fluid? About three-quarters of the population of Britain were working-class in the interwar decades. The middle class was growing, absorbing members of the better-off working class into its ranks as office workers and shop clerks. World War I had lessened social inequality, at least briefly, and had more permanently raised living standards, especially among the poorest classes of society. But a changing class composition and a rising standard of living are not the same thing as social fluidity. The Dowager Countess sounded a great deal like Margaret Thatcher in Sunday’s episode when she declared: “For years, I’ve watched governments take control of our lives. And their argument is always the same — fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too — less control by the people, more control by the state, until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist.” Social mobility is, from one perspective, all about the individual: it is, ultimately, a measure of how far a person can roam, through luck, effort, or catastrophe, from the circumstances into which they are born. But it implicates social structures at every level.

Individual social mobility could be achieved through various means. Tom catapulted across class divides by means of marriage. It was by no means an uncommon strategy: in some respects, the marriage market may have been more open than the labor market, though it was more often women who rose in status through ‘marrying up’. In her lyrical memoir, Landscape for a Good Woman, Carolyn Steedman describes her mother’s interwar childhood. A working-class girl from Lancashire, she was raised on tales of Cinderella and understood intuitively that women, by wearing the right sort of clothing, could move at least temporarily across class lines. She didn’t get a prince, though she was able to use her connection to Steedman’s father to escape the hunger and deprivation of her own childhood.

Education was another, perhaps more obvious route to higher status: witness the gentle but decisive rise of Gwen, former housemaid. Back in the first season, Gwen was a restless servant who took a shorthand and typing course by correspondence in her spare time. Lady Sybil was inspired to help her escape a life of service, eventually getting her a job as a secretary with a telephone company. Gwen made good, getting involved with local government and marrying a local worthy. Despite it all, Gwen wonders how much further she could have gone, if she’d had even more education.


The role of Lady Sybil in both Gwen’s and Tom’s rise is significant. Downton Abbey is nothing if not nostalgic about feudalism, and the patronage of a progressive aristocrat stamps both characters’ rise with legitimacy. Daisy, impatient with the slow road to better things that leads through exams and schools, has nonetheless learned this lesson well. She is wild-eyed and restless, but her revolutionary plan is to pressure Lady Grantham to keep her implied promise and grant the tenancy of Yew Tree Farm to Mr. Mason. Even if she doesn’t always approve of its effects, this is a social fluidity which even the Dowager Countess could approve. The question which has exercised generations of policy-makers is: can the state, through its policies and institutions, make society more open?

Gwen’s husband is now treasurer of a school designed to help similar women gain education and opportunity. They both come to Downton to discuss the school, in which Lady Edith and Aunt Rosamund have taken an interest. While educational opportunities, especially for women, were broadening in these years, the educational system failed to be a real engine of social mobility, despite optimistic legislation and increased state involvement. In the words of the great historian Ross McKibbin, the system was more like “an obstacle course which continuously eliminated working-class children except those who proved, by clambering over the obstacles, that they were fit to be co-opted.”

Indeed, according to a recent survey of sociological literature, the opportunities for individuals to achieve significant social mobility were both small and fairly stable over the course of the twentieth century in Britain. Most change has instead come from there being “more room at the top”: children were able to do as well or slightly better than their parents as the professional classes expanded and overall affluence increased. Gwen is a typical example — she hasn’t undergone a social transformation, à la Tom Branson, but she has risen through education and marriage at least a step or two from where she started. And the specter of downward mobility that menaces Mr. Barrow is the exception rather than the rule.

In the last two decades of the century, however, those trends began to reverse. Increasing income inequality is now a source of major concern in the United Kingdom, as is the concentration of power in a tiny, stable elite. Lady Mary calls Gwen’s history a “twentieth-century” story. She’s right: it seems unlikely to be a twenty-first-century story.


Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Carolyn Kay Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987) (First pub. 1986)

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