Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: What Happens Next? -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 9 – Series Finale

In the very last episode of Downton Abbey, finally, the dark horses got a chance to shine. I’ve always been a fan of Lady Edith, and I was beyond delighted to see her and suitor Bertie Pelham face up to their fears and emerge stronger and happier for it. The birth of a child out of wedlock was a serious issue for a woman in 1925. Since the final column surely wouldn’t be complete without a Dorothy L. Sayers reference, I’ll point out that, in similar circumstances, she kept the existence of her son secret from her entire family and nearly all of her friends, though she did tell the man she later married. I wish that Lord Grantham didn’t need Edith to become a marchioness in order to earn his words of praise, but I’m glad that she finally got to feel the love and happiness that have been so often denied her.

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Speaking of Sayers: Julian Fellowes is obviously a fan of interwar detective novels, having written a very funny pastiche in Gosford Park. Downton, too, has had its mystery-fiction moments, notably the recurrent question of whether Mr. Bates has or has not murdered anyone (his wife in the early seasons, the man who assaulted Anna more recently). The Bates family get their idyllic happy ending, but what was up with Lord Merton’s evil son and daughter-in-law? Surely we’re meant to conclude that they were killing him with chronic arsenic poisoning, which can masquerade as pernicious anemia. Thank heavens for Isobel Crawley, saving the day again.

Three weddings, no funerals: Downton Abbey, after a grim spate of blood-letting in seasons 3 and 4, gave us a poignant set of classic happy endings and proved itself to be comedy rather than tragedy. Only Carson is left with a mixed blessing: a pension (once again, the Crawleys are their own personal welfare state), a loving spouse, and a place to live, but the gall of seeing his place taken by none other than Thomas Barrow. Barrow, meanwhile, has grown “from boy to man” and takes on his new role graciously. Violet, too, is gracious at last, having recognized that Cora also has a core of steel competence. For a show that kept announcing change, what’s striking about the new order coming into view at the end of the episode is how much the underlying structures will remain the same, even as the personnel shifts.

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So what lies ahead? Historians are not notably good at fortune-telling; our preference, after all, is for what’s dead and buried. But I’d like to celebrate the end of this international phenomenon with a stab at “Watching Downton Abbey with an Psychic.” Their storylines might be neatly tied up, but as the camera pulled away from the New Year’s celebrations and the snowy Abbey, we knew that the Crawleys and their servants were heading into 1926 and a raft of new dramas – just without us to watch them. The next two decades will bring economic depression, another world war, and another set of social transformations; what follows is my fantasy about how our favorite characters might fare.


The ivy in the planters is dead, but the door still swings smoothly on its hinges. It admits a young woman, in her twenties but looking younger with her messy hair, cardigan, and sensible shoes. Although Sybbie tries to dress politely when she visits her aunt, there’s nothing, of course, that will quite meet Mary’s approval. Nothing does, these days. Anna lets her in and shows her, quietly, to the one of the few rooms still heated on the ground floor: the library, where Aunt Mary sits, ramrod straight, staring out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at an incomprehensible world.

Downton Abbey began with drama about entail, the legal structure that mandated that the Downton estate and the title of Earl of Grantham be passed down to the next male heir. In 1925, the Law of Property Act changed things. Although I still doubt it would have been quite so impossible for Lord Grantham to alter the entail back in 1912, the 1925 act explicitly empowered him to bar the entail. In other words, he could end the requirement that the heir had to be male and instead pass along the estate in the normal way, via a will. He could not have altered the inheritance of his title, however – a situation that apparently kept Julian Fellowes’s own wife from inheriting her uncle’s title.

On the other hand, he could have chosen to do nothing, and the entail would have persisted. Although you could argue that it only “matters” if little George Crawley were to die, I imagine that Lady Mary would have found a way to convince her father to change the terms of inheritance so that she would get the property outright in the end. By 1945, Lord Grantham would have been about eighty, but I don’t see him living that long: all that port and rich dinners and stress have already taken their toll. He dies of a heart attack in the mid-1930s, leaving Lady Mary to inherit Downton – though the town house, I think, goes to Lady Edith, who always preferred London anyway.

Tyldesley miners outside the Miners’ Hall during the 1926 strike Tyldesley miners outside the Miners’ Hall during the 1926 strike

In May 1926, Britain experienced a general strike. Coal miners, facing a decrease in their wages, went on strike to the slogan: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.” Somewhat reluctantly, the Trades Union Congress agreed to call a general strike, with workers in transportation and other industries joining the miners. (Domestic servants were not unionized.) The government was well-prepared for this contingency. They organized networks of volunteer strike-breakers, many of them young people from the middle and upper classes who saw the whole thing as a lark. It was raw class conflict turned into spectacle, and it ended with the humiliating defeat of the unions.

In my imagination, the general strike breaks up the détente at Downton Abbey. I see Lady Mary, grimly driving an omnibus through Thirsk, insisting, over Carson’s pained objections, that we simply must carry on. The scales fall from Tom Branson’s eyes: he and the Crawleys will never, truly, be on the same side. Although he keeps a low profile during the strike, he knows it’s time to make a move. He sets up his garage on the corner of the estate and moves into a cozy little adjoining house with his daughter, Sybbie. Daisy, too, is outraged, and I imagine that she’ll make more of a fuss about it. Perhaps, finally, she’ll say too much: but even if she stops working in the big house, I imagine that she and Andy will keep on at Yew Tree Farm…for the time being, anyway.

The Great Depression that struck the world from 1929 affected Britain profoundly, though not as disastrously as it hit other countries. Trade fell and output fell, unemployment rose. The effects of the depression were extremely variable, though. In Oxford and Coventry, where manufacturing of cars and planes was getting established, unemployment was down to a mere 5% by 1934, while Jarrow on Tyneside, the most famous emblem of this period’s suffering, saw a sustained rate of nearly 70%. Thirsk – and hence Downton – is closer to Jarrow than to Coventry, but the village economy is agricultural rather than industrial, which will lessen the blow. As for the Crawleys: the last thing they needed, of course, was another hit to their investment portfolio. But if Lady Mary took my advice and diversified with holdings in automobile companies, I think they’ll make it to the other side, though with an even smaller staff and having sold off a few more family treasures.

While the depression fostered extremism in other countries – the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, the raging Spanish civil war – Britain escaped the worst social turmoil. There was a fascist movement in Britain. Led by Oswald Mosley (no relation to our Molesley), the British Union of Fascists or blackshirts propagated a fascist ideology centered on anti-Semitism. In October 1936, an effort to generate mass support backfired. The blackshirts went to demonstrate in the predominantly Jewish East End of London, but were thoroughly routed by anti-fascists and the police in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street, and the movement never really recovered.

Benito Mussolini (left) with Oswald Mosley during Mosley's visit to Italy in 1936. Benito Mussolini (left) with Oswald Mosley during Mosley’s visit to Italy in 1936.

Still, fascism remained fashionable for certain people, particularly within the aristocracy. I see Lady Mary being attracted to this sort of thing: the need of the people for a strong leader, the appeal of trains running on time, large numbers of athletic men all dressed alike and marching in formation. After the birth of their daughter, she and Henry Talbot will drift apart, tacitly accepting each other’s lovers and dalliances and realizing that, after all, they never really had anything to say to one another.

Lady Mary’s flirtation with the far right will only deepen the divide between her and Lady Edith, who, as Bertie Pelham’s wife, has finally come into her own as a patron of literature and art. Perhaps Leonard and Virginia Woolf become friends and mentors, and Beatrice and Sydney Webb: they talk politics and art and beauty. Little Marigold, joined by a reasonable number of younger siblings, grows up in a slightly chaotic but always warm and charming household, where painters come for a weekend and stay for a month to finish that modernist landscape painting, and where debates about politics and truth never threaten the steady, loving bond between her parents. She’ll become an artist, maybe studying painting at the Slade School or sculpture at St. Martin’s. (I’d like to think that Lady Edith tracks down the Drewes and makes amends, but even I can recognize when a fantasy is getting out of hand.) I see Bertie and Edith helping to fund the Left Book Club, founded in 1936 to fight fascism, and holding discussions groups in their gracious parlor with plenty of tea and biscuits.

More adventurous leftists traveled, in the late 1930s, to fight fascism in person in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). About 4,000 Britons volunteered to join one of the International Brigades that fought on the republican side against Franco. Some were well-educated intellectuals: most famously, George Orwell, who recorded his experience in Homage to Catalonia. But most were working-class radicals who saw fighting in Spain as a way to stop fascism in Europe.

After ten years at Yew Tree Farm, Daisy and Andy, who I think married quickly in the spring of 1926, get restless. The truth is that neither a quiet farming existence nor heterosexual monogamy is enough for them. Andy did think Thomas Barrow was a little attractive all those years ago, but he didn’t know what to do with those feelings, any more than he knew how to admit he couldn’t read. And when Mrs. Patmore reacted with alarm at Andy’s question, “Does she like men?” It was because, deep down, she knew that Daisy, too, was more bisexual than straight. After years of marriage to Daisy, Andy’s not only reading pig-farming manuals; he’s also reading William Blake and Karl Marx. He suggests to Daisy that they start going to political meetings, first in Thirsk and soon in York, and before long they’re both chafing at the yoke of daily life as staid married pig-farmers. I imagine a stint volunteering in Spain as the start of a full reawakening for them both, with a future involving non-monogamy, radical politics, and a whole lot more fun.

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Speaking of Thomas Barrow: let’s give him a solid five or so years as head butler at Downton, maybe even a bit more. As Robert and Cora age, he becomes Lady Mary’s right-hand-man: a little bit ruthless, a little bit cruel, but also mellowed by the experience of sinking so low and then finally achieving a stable position. His new self-confidence and his new power combine to lead him, at last, into visiting the gay nightclubs and cafes of interwar London. To Mary’s never-ending dismay, he quits his position at Downton sometime during the depression to open a cinema in suburban London with his lover. Only Anna remains utterly reliable and faithful, though after the death of John Bates in mysterious circumstances, she’s a trifle abstracted.

When World War II begins, George Crawley is just 18. Sybbie is already at Somerville College, Oxford; he is due to follow her (Oriel, perhaps?). But when war is declared, he doesn’t wait to be conscripted but immediately enlists in the Royal Air Force, every inch the glamorous fighter pilot. He is one of those about whom Winston Churchill will say: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” While his mother protects Downton, George protects Britain.

Sybbie sits on the faded divan. Her aunts have paid for her medical training, and she’s grateful to them both, though it’s more fun to visit Aunt Edith, with all the little cousins and their friends underfoot and interesting characters wandering through the galleries and gardens of Brancaster. Downton must have been like that too, she supposes, when her mother was young; once again she tries, and fails, to imagine her mother in “scandalous bloomers,” her father in chauffeur’s livery. It seems like another planet.

“And how is your father?” asks Aunt Mary, her old-fashioned voice cultured and polite.

“He’s well, thank you. He’s been living in the London house – Aunt Edith’s London house – ever since Lord Beveridge got him the job at the Ministry of Health. It’s quite exciting really – papa says that everything will change for the people once the new health system is up and running.”

“What on earth can Tom have to do at the Ministry of Health? I shouldn’t have thought that a garage-owner had much to offer on that point.”

Sybbie takes another biscuit before she answers. She knows, because her father has told her, that Aunt Mary doesn’t really mean it when she says these things.

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“I think it was his experience in the York municipal government, Aunt Mary. And his work with grandmamma at the hospital.”

Mary picks a stray thread from her skirt. “Well, in any case, of course you’re proud of him, dear. It must be quite cozy for all you down there in London these days. You, and Edith, and Tom, and…I suppose…”

Sybbie feels generous and bold. “Yes, Aunt Mary, we see quite a bit of George, too. And he brings Albert, and sometimes we invite Mr. Barrow and Mr. Litchfield, too, when they can get away from the cinema. Did you know that Mr. Barrow got an award for bravery, Aunt Mary? It was for saving those children who in the theatre when the V-1 bomb hit it last January.”

“I don’t want to talk about that now, Sybbie. People are prosecuted for that – for that sort of thing. In time George will come to his senses and marry a woman. Let us not talk of it until then.”

Anna has come back in, nearly noiselessly. She interrupts the heavy silence that follows Mary’s outburst.

“Isn’t that nice, Miss Sybil. To think of Mr. Barrow and our George still being friends after all these years. My lady, we must make that trip to London some day soon.”

Mary looks out of the window, across the wide lawn. In the distance some child – is it Anna’s youngest? Or Mrs. Baxter’s change-of-life child? – some gangly child is fashioning a bridge across the eighteenth-century ha-ha.

“Yes, Anna. I suppose we must.”

And there ends my brief foray into fiction. I’d love to know what you think about where the characters of Downton Abbey ended up, in 1926 and beyond. Quite correctly, Fellowes gave Violet the last word, and so will I: “We’re going forward to the future, not back into the past. If only we had the choice!”



Robert Megarry et al., The Law of Real Property (2012)


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