Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Peace For Our Time -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 5

Here is Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister. He’s stepping off an airplane, only the second one he’s ever ridden, to face the crowd of reporters and anxious faces under a “very dirty and rainy sky.” He must be weary in his very bones: or is he elated? In his hand is the agreement, hammered out over a week of tense negotiation, that averted war by allowing Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia, the so-called Sudetenland. Chamberlain stands in front of the microphone and speaks; he waves the paper, signed in the early hours of September 30, 1938, above his head. A few hours later, in front of his residence at 10 Downing Street, he utters the words that will haunt the rest of his life: “I believe it is peace for our time.” Within months, Hitler will invade the rest of Czechoslovakia and then Poland, and World War II will be underway. In the face of Allied setbacks, Chamberlain will resign in the spring of 1940 and die a few months later, one of those unfortunates destined to be defined by a single, colossal mistake.

Sunday night’s episode of Downton Abbey felt different. It broke with its own formal conventions and left viewers making comparisons to other, more graphic media: Alien, The Exorcist, the “Red Wedding” scene from Game of Thrones. I’d like to suggest Mrs. Dalloway or The Silence of the Sea instead. What seems to be a simple domestic drama can be read, instead, as a dream-like meditation on the menace of war and the corrosive power of secrecy. This episode works through symbols and allusions, rather than Downton’s usual blend of realism and exposition.

Here, then, is Neville Chamberlain in 1925. He is fulfilling the expectations set by an extraordinary political family. His father, Joseph Chamberlain, ran a screw factory in Birmingham, where he became passionate about urban improvement as a method for bettering the lives of his workers. As Liberal mayor of Birmingham, he was an early, passionate proponent of what became known as “gas and water socialism”: he wanted to put those services within reach of every resident by putting them under the management of local government. So far, it’s hard to imagine the Earl of Grantham having much in common with this energetic, egalitarian entrepreneur. But in 1886 he split with prime minister William Gladstone over the question of Home Rule for Ireland, leading a minority faction of Liberal Unionists who ended up allying themselves with the Conservatives.

Although his two political sons, Austen and Neville, would also make their careers as Unionists allied to the Conservatives, they were profoundly affected by their Radical, Unitarian upbringing. A cousin described Neville as a “born social reformer,” and he shared his father’s passion for improving the lives of the working class. He worked tirelessly as Lord Mayor of Birmingham during World War I and entered Parliament in 1918. It is odd that the Downton servants, gossiping about their famous dinner guest, describe Neville Chamberlain as “no friend of the unions,” since he supported measures that would limit working hours, guarantee wages, and give workers representation on boards of directors. He even took a moderate position toward the unions during the general strike of 1926. It was the Labour Party that he loathed. As Minister of Health in the 1920s, Chamberlain focused his attention on slum clearance, rent restriction, and the provision of adequate housing for working people. He also reformed the way that local government was funded and scored a major legislative success with a Pensions Act in 1925.

But the Dowager Countess either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that Neville Chamberlain is a social reformer on a scale that would put even Isobel Crawley to shame. If anyone could derail the plan to merge the Downton Cottage Hospital with its larger York counterpart, she reasons, it would be the Minister of Health. She has a family connection: Lord Grantham’s father, we learn, was godfather to Anne de Vere Cole, the woman who married Neville Chamberlain and encouraged him to go into politics. And she has a line on him, too: His brother-in-law, Horace de Vere Cole, was known as the “king of the pranksters” for his many impersonations, hoaxes, and practical jokes. Violet knows that Neville was involved in one of those pranks, and she threatens to expose him if he won’t come to dinner. There is a neat bit of upstairs/downstairs parallelism as well: Denker, her lady’s maid, gets Spratt to save her job during this episode by threatening to reveal the secret aid he rendered to his ne’er-do-well nephew. But it is also another allusion to war.

Here is Virginia Woolf, then Virginia Stephen, hanging out with her brother, Adrian, and his friends, including Horace de Vere Cole. It’s 1910, and the British public has been inundated with patriotic stories celebrating the Royal Navy’s new “celebrity ship,” H.M.S. Dreadnought. Designed and built in great secrecy, the ship was revealed in 1906 accompanied by a tidal wave of plaudits for the British Navy’s technological superiority. In the context of the growing arms race with Germany, the Dreadnought and its successors were important justifications for increased investment in military research and development as well as cornerstones in the British policy of attempting to avoid war through a demonstration of overwhelming force.

The King of Pranksters could not resist puncturing this self-satisfied bubble. He, Adrian, Virginia, and some other friends dressed up in beards, vaguely “Oriental” garb, and brownface stage make-up and successfully boarded the ship by posing as a visiting “Abyssinian” delegation. The hoax earned wide press coverage and sparked mirth and outrage, but it would be decades before Woolf wrote about it. She waited until 1940, when, disgusted with the mythologizing and compulsory patriotism of World War II, she wrote up her version of the escapade and celebrated the young pranksters as ‘heroes who will not fight,’ in Danell Jones’s phrase.

So here, finally, again, is Neville Chamberlain, the Minister for Health fired by reformist zeal, sitting at Downton’s dinner table while combatants in the local hospital drama vie for his attention. “I thought I was here to be lectured by a united group, not to witness a battle royal,” he exclaims. But doesn’t he enjoy a good fight? “I’m not sure I do, really.” Here is Chamberlain the peacemaker, appalled at the appetite of those around him for battle rather than progress. For him, war was always beside the point. In 1915, he had lamented the German government’s “wicked ambitions,” which, he said, had “stayed the march of progress and had set back for an indefinite period reforms that might have bettered the lot of generations to come.”

But the 1920s and 1930s were years haunted by war: the pain and slowly unfurling legacy of World War I, which led with tragic consequence to the rise of Fascism and the outbreak of World War II. Beneath the beautiful clothes, the jazz-age culture, and the brave rebuilding are scars and terror. When Lord Grantham, stricken with stomach ulcers, vomits blood all over the table, he’s bringing all that tension and hidden suffering to the surface. Neville Chamberlain leaves Downton, still charming and kindly, but his shirtfront is spattered red. Despite his best efforts, there will be no peace – not in his time, and not, so far, in ours.


Andrew J. Crozier, “Chamberlain, (Arthur) Neville (1869-1940),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, online edition, 2013)

Danell Jones, “The Dreadnought Hoax and the Theatres of War,” Literature & History (Vol. 22 No. 1, Spring 2013)

Peter T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994)

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