Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Ask Me Anything -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 8

Last Saturday, my beloved aunt emailed me to say: “It is traumatic to think that Downton Abbey comes to an end.” This week’s “season finale” was the second-to-last episode of the historical drama that, even its doldrums, somehow kept us coming back.

The show takes a week off, and then returns March 6th for the “Christmas special” that will hopefully tie up all the loose ends. Sunday night’s episode was rather traumatic in its own right, as Mary and Edith’s feud reached epic new heights and Barrow’s misery finally found its climax in a much-foreshadowed suicide attempt. Not even Molesley, finding his footing as a teacher who can hold his students “spellbound” in Daisy’s words, could quite dispel the air of stressed-out gloom. Still, my favorite moment of the episode was, without a doubt, when he captured the interest of his students with his own life story – and then turned their attention to history.

One of the very best parts about writing this column over the last three years has been the questions and comments from readers. Along the way I’ve usually incorporated questions into future columns, but now that the end is nigh, I thought it would be fun to dedicate a whole column to answering the backlog of questions I’ve gotten. So, without further delay, the AMA version of Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian!

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Where did the Crawleys’ money go? Why is it so much harder to afford a great house now, versus before World War I?

The specter of the fall of the great house from its dominant position in English society has haunted Downton Abbey since its earliest episodes. During this season, we’ve seen one neighbor sell out and auction off his heirlooms, while another wanders the empty halls of his once-grand home in a fog of delusion. At Downton, the crisis seems a little less dire, at least from the perspective above stairs: better pig-farming, careful decisions about tenancies, and the occasional concession to modern tourism, it seems, might do the trick. Although it’s hard to find anything sympathetic about Lady Mary these days, her decision to keep Downton a going concern really does require nothing short of steely resolve and a ruthless sense of purpose.

But why? The answer can be found in the enormous shocks of World War I and its associated conflicts, and in the decisions made by governments to deal with those shocks. The First World War was staggeringly expensive: In addition to claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, it also demolished an economic and financial system that had held steady for over a century. In Jane Austen’s world, money could be invested safely and expected to return an absolutely steady 5% per year (give or take a small amount), and inflation was essentially zero over the long term. In order to pay for the war, European governments went into debt and abandoned the gold standard. Inflation became a fact of life. After the war, those same governments opted to pay their debts by devaluing currency; at the same time, they imposed taxes on the wealthy in a variety of ways, while retaining (and in some cases even expanding) welfare policies that ensured a minimum standard of living for the millions who had sacrificed so much during the war.

Highclere Castle Highclere Castle

Between 1910 and 1950 there was an enormous reduction in inequality, which endured until the 1980s. Families like the Crawleys, who for generations could count on their investments making a steady return and on the value of their assets remaining more or less the same, rapidly lost their huge comparative advantage. Their inherited wealth was worth less each year. Even a relatively stable country like Britain experienced an average of 3% inflation per year between 1913 and 1950 — in other words, a tripling of prices over these decades. In the words of economist Thomas Piketty: “For British rentiers, this was nevertheless a spoliation of a sort that would have been unimaginable in the nineteenth century.” British investors also lost out on foreign assets: the Anglo-French character in the Dorothy L. Sayers novel Clouds of Witness who has lost nearly all his savings through investing in Russian loans that were repudiated in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is emblematic of a classic case.

While there were certainly bright spots in the British interwar economy, agriculture wasn’t one of them: Britain had been a net importer of food for many decades, and the government’s economic policy was not aimed to preserve a class of wealthy landed estates. The value of great houses in particular plummeted, while the cost of everything else went up. If Lady Mary wants to hold on to Downton Abbey, she might want to consider investing in the new car and airplane factories in Coventry or in residential properties in London and the new Home Counties suburbs rather than trying to run a household on outmoded economic premises.

Maybe the most interesting thing to think about, though, is how Downton is set at the start of what looks increasingly like a blip. The decades in the middle of the twentieth century saw high level of growth and low levels of inequality. In the thirty years since 1980, we’ve moved closer, in many respects, to the economic landscape of the late nineteenth century. History, it seems to me, moves in circles and spirals as well as straight lines.

Is it realistic for Molesley to be hired as a teacher? And, would it be more lucrative to work as a village schoolteacher or a servant?

In addition to being the realization of a lifelong dream, Molesley’s part-time job teaching history and literature (my subjects!) to the village schoolchildren is, without a doubt, a great career move. As his students’ reactions suggest, teachers occupied a much higher social rank than domestic servants did. Broadly speaking, their remuneration reflected that fact: a qualified teacher could hope to earn £350 per annum in 1924, but a butler might not make more than a third of that. While Molesley does not have the educational qualifications that would enable him to teach in cap and gown (like his headteacher does), neither is he on the fast track to being head butler in a large establishment or hotel.

Molesley’s path to a teaching position, however contingent, is certainly unusual. Most teachers in elementary schools would have attended secondary school, followed by training at a college or university. Some still learned their trade largely through serving as “pupil teachers,” a kind of apprenticeship usually supplemented by formal training, to which the pupil-teachers gained access by sitting for examinations. While in 1920-21 only about half of teachers currently working in elementary schools were formally trained, this route was rapidly disappearing. Secondary school teachers, by contrast, generally began teaching either directly after graduating from their own secondary education, or after taking a degree in the relevant subject from a university.

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Yet this was also a moment when the demand for free or subsidized education was rising sharply. The number of entrants to secondary schools in England, for example, rose by 50% between 1913-14 and 1918, and there were many more qualified students than available places. The title of a Labour Party policy statement from 1922, Secondary Education for All, became a kind of rallying cry. In this context, I don’t find it impossible to believe that a local schoolteacher, recognizing Molesley’s learning and talent, would take him on as a temporary staff-member teaching a limited number of subjects. If he’s to thrive, though, he’ll probably have to find a way to earn more official qualifications besides acing an ad hoc “general knowledge” exam.

There seems to be a real dearth of friendships on Downton Abbey. Is this historically accurate, or just a choice of the shows’ writers?

Life for a servant in a great home could be profoundly isolating. Socializing with locals was likely to be difficult, between the long hours, the distance to the nearest town or village pub, and subtle distinctions of class and occupation that might rule out, for instance, friendships between agricultural laborers and under-butlers hoping to climb the ranks. Based on accounts like Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, I would expect the servants of Downton, especially the younger ones, to be more connected to their home communities. A young woman in service would return to her family for a holiday, for example, bringing cast-off clothing from the ladies of the house to her sisters and friends. But otherwise, it’s not surprising that the servants find most of their companionship among their own tight-knit circle.

That isolation is especially brutal, obviously, on Thomas Barrow. Having made enemies over the years, and easily scapegoated as a gay man, he is the target of rather relentless bullying this season. Mr. Carson makes it clear that he will be laid off as the Downton staff shrinks. Mrs. Baxter, who comes from the same place as Mr. Barrow, is a realistic and sympathetic ally. But, as in previous seasons, this is a relentlessly straight view of queer life. It focuses only on Barrow’s loneliness, and never on the possibility that he could be seen and supported by other gay men in interwar Britain’s embattled but thriving queer subculture. Even Bertie Pelham’s poor cousin is portrayed, rather pathetically, imagining himself an artist as he admires the fishermen of Tangiers; I hope that Bertie’s misinformed, and his cousin was actually living it up with proto-Sebastian Flyte types.

Edith, Mary, and the rest of the family would have had, by contrast, a rich and intricately layered network of friends and acquaintances drawn from families of similar rank. There are little glimpses of this sort of thing – Shrimpie and his family; Tony Gillingham and the woman he ultimately marries – and, of course, suggestions that Edith might be at least on the fringes of a more Bohemian literary circle in London. But the show’s writers choose not to develop this world fully, which, given the confines of the form, is understandable. My own quibble is that they replace those friendships with unrealistic upstairs/downstairs intimacies such as the confidences shared between Anna and Mary. Those kinds of “friendships” obscure the power dynamic between employer and employed, and stand in strange contrast to Mary’s obsessive snobbery in other aspects of her life.

Could Barrow decide to assassinate his employers and seize Downton Abbey for the Irish Free State? Also, why has Branson gotten so boring?

Oh, for the days when Tom Branson was a fire-breathing revolutionary plotting to humiliate visiting Army bigwigs! I’m not sure I see Barrow taking up the Irish cause, but I would certainly rather have seen him get involved in his local Communist Party branch, say, than cut his wrists in the bath. This was a delicate moment for left-wing politics in Britain. While the threat of a general strike had helped to avert British involvement in conflict with Russia in 1920, that sort of thing was widely seen as not quite constitutional. The Labour Party, clawing its way to respectability and electoral plausibility, was dogged by claims that it was really in the service of international communism. But the dreamers and the auto-didacts met faithfully in their tiny branches across England, reading popular Marxism and waiting for the day when the working man could have his say in national and international politics. I think the combination of earnestness and low-level cloak-and-dagger style would have appealed to Barrow, honestly, and what could be more Downton than invoking the trope of the queer communist? (I jest, mostly.)

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As for Ireland and Branson…the Irish Free State, by 1925, was a peaceful dominion governed by a party that sought good relations with Britain and a role in the Commonwealth and the League of Nations. Originally, just about everyone in power thought that the partition between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland (which remained part of the United Kingdom) was going to be temporary. A Boundary Commission was supposed to revisit the issue in 1925, but its initial findings were leaked to the press, there was, in Carson’s word, a brouhaha, and the border ended up remaining the same.

All of which is to say that there was not much going on for an Irish nationalist in 1925; the Irish economy remained fairly weak and dependent on high levels of emigration, so Branson is probably wise to stay in Downton’s orbit. But there’s really no need for him to follow Mr. Spratt’s lead and serve as the Agony Aunt to the dueling sisters of Downton. I’d like to seem him run for office as a moderate Labourite, to be honest, and maybe do some flirting with lady motorists once that garage of his gets built.

Were there any influences from the Asian colonies in any of the designs (fashion, interior) on set of Downton? 

British fashion and design in the 1920s was rife with Asian influence, both from colonial holdings and mandates and from areas where Britain had informal economic or diplomatic connections such as China and Japan. Some of this was inherited from the 19th century: the ubiquitous “Oriental” or “Turkish” carpets, for example, and “Indian” or Kashmiri shawls. Historian Deborah Cohen cites a prevailing pan-Asianism, with, for instance, “occasional pillows of Indian embroidery to cushion the backs of visitors crouching in unfamiliar postures at inlaid Persian coffee-tables.”

Asian influences were arguably even stronger, though, on the new design trends of the early twentieth century. Japonisme inspired a generation of artists around the turn of the century, though by the 1920s Chinese influence was even greater, and Chinese art was featured in a series of important exhibitions during these decades. The eclectic Art Deco movement drew on inspiration from a wide range of global traditions, including Japanese lacquered surfaces and the simple lines of Chinese hardwood furniture, which chimed perfectly with the stripped-down interwar aesthetic. Irish designer Eileen Gray pioneered the use of lacquer, which she learned in Paris from Seizo Sugawara, in western design. Large tasseled cushions, red lacquer-work furniture and Chinese-style “pagoda” lamps were popular items in middle-class British interior décor of the 1920s. At the other end of the scale, the Empress of Britain, a Canadian Pacific ocean liner, featured a “Cathay Lounge” featuring, in Anna Jackson’s words, “ornamental fretwork, pale gold ceiling, columns faced with black glass and lacquered vermilion and ebony furniture.”


In terms of clothing, the iconic loose garments of the 1920s, which contrasted so sharply with the corsets and structure of earlier fashions, were in part inspired by the Japanese kimono as well as Chinese garments featuring round necklines and tubular sleeves. Paul Poiret’s “Kimono coat” is the most famous example of this. Textile designs were influenced by Modernist abstract and geometric patterns but might include, for instance, paper lanterns and tiny birds to add an “Eastern touch.” In addition, batik, the Javanese method of hand-dyeing textiles using wax resist, was popular in the 1920s; new designs were produced at centers such as the Glasgow School of Art. The spirit of all this is perhaps captured by the journalist who noted in 1922: “Jade is all the rage at present. It owes its popularity, no doubt, both to its romantic association with the gorgeous East and prehistoric art, and to the beauty of its delicate colour.”

Yet, despite this profusion of Asian-inspired design, only a limited amount seems to find its away into the sets and costumes of Downton Abbey. I asked my partner, who has a degree in theatrical costuming, and a colleague, Jessica Shires, with a degree in fashion design, for help spotting examples, which clustered in costume rather than set design. They both immediately mentioned Lady Sybil’s “harem pants,” which were based on another of Poiret’s Eastern-inspired creations.

My colleague also pointed out the Mandarin collars, floral embroidery, and wide-sleeved kimono-style jackets and robes. As for interior décor, as my partner joked, Downton Abbey “doesn’t really dabble in any strong style except 19th-century baronial.” This is in keeping with the show’s overall insularity: you’d never know, for example, that the British Empire was at its territorial height and that colonial nationalism was a source of continual debate during these years. Shrimpie vaguely worked in India, and that’s about that. America figures much more strongly as an overseas destination and influence. In making this choice, the show sidesteps important questions about the effects of acquiring and governing – and losing – an empire.


British Textiles 1700 to the Present (V&A, 2010)

Deborah Cohen, Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions (Yale, 2006)

Anna Jackson, “Inspiration from the East,” Art Deco 1910-1939 (Boston, 2003)

Lance G. E. Jones, The Training of Teachers in England and Wales: A Critical Survey (London, 1924)

John Lawson and Harold Silver, A Social History of Education in England (London, 1973)

Anne Massey, Interior Design of the 20th Century (London, 1990)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, 2014)

Brian Simon, The Politics of Educational Reform 1920-1940 (London, 1974)

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