Downton Abbey : A Reminder of the Rate of Women's Progress

Marlyn Glen

11 January 2013


The third series of glamorous, glossy Downton Abbey came to an end  last month and already its fans are waiting impatiently for its return this year.

Some of them have already gone online to compose their own hypothetical futures for their favourite characters in this award - winning series.

There are over 2,000 such stories (link)

Through bankable actors , stylish costumes, idyllic locations, and good music , the series has shown aristocrats and their domestic servants  living in a palatial baronial home , each with their own separate status distinctions overarched by a shared system of class structure and layers of deference.

Downton is the country estate home of the Tory earl, Lord Grantham whose very wealthy American wife’s money has been the upkeep of it, and, as is subsequently revealed, he has also used it to make ruinous investments in failing Canadian railway companies.

Ed Miliband has already drawn political lessons from the series, comparison the fictional Tory Lord with real Tories in the Coaltion Cabinet.

“On the proposal on film tax relief, it's great to support great British success stories like Downton Abbey,” he told the House of Commons, “ A tale of a group of out-of-touch millionaires, who act like they're born to rule, but turn out not to be very good at it.

'It sounds familiar doesn't it? We all know it's a costume drama - they ( the Coalition Cabinet) think it's a fly-on-the-wall documentary”

The Americans have lapped up Downton Abbey.

Perhaps a few of them see in the drama a satisfying, subliminal message that the US did the right thing in casting aside rule by monarchy and aristocracy over 200 years ago.

Simon Schama has attacked it as “ cultural necrophilia" and that it serves up a “ steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.”

The programme’s producer defended it,  responding , “Downton is a fictional drama," he said. "It is not a history programme, but a drama of social satire about a time when relationships, behaviour and hierarchy were very different from those we enjoy today.”

Downton Abbey isn’t history.

It’s a period drama , with its share of melodrama, and set in a time in recent history when a new Britain emerged from World War One.

As such, Downton Abbey can serve as a reminder from drama to both men and women  of where women  have come from in the past century, and how much further women still have to progress towards equality of opportunity.

At the outset of the entire Downton Abbey series, we learn of the crisis gripping the Grantham family because of the threat to the supremacy of male succession in property rights

On the death of a father, the estate was inherited by the nearest male heir, over the heads of daughters.

The settled line of succession is in jepoardy when the cousin of Grantham’s daughter Mary, to whom she is engaged, goes missing, presumed dead, a passenger on the fateful Titanic.

To secure the family home and fortune, Mary must marry the next in line male heir, a solicitor cousin , Matthew Crawley.

In Downton , sexual coupling has very different outcomes for women from the different strata in the hierarchy of the house.

Upstairs Mary is seduced by Kemal, a young Turkish diplomat who gains entry into her bedroom by duplicitous means.

She informs Kemal that she “has never done anything with a man”.

He responds saying that they can have sex, which he will keep secret , which would allow her still to be a “virgin” for a future husband.

Disaster follows their adventure  when she awakens to find him dead in her bed. 

She is consumed by the fear of scandalising the highest circles of society.

But the story never spreads far enough.

Downstairs servant Ethel’s reputation goes through several degrees of humiliation. 

She is dismissed from her post when found in bed with Major Bryant  who was receiving treatment for war wounds at Downton Abbey, operating as a wartime convalescent home.

When she discovers that she is pregnant, she writes to him asking for help and to but he ignores her plea.

After his son is born, Bryant wants nothing to do with him.

Bryant returns to the war front and is killed in action in Italy.

Destitution eventually forces Ethel into prostitution. 

Matthew Crawley’s mother helps her by hiring her as a maid.

Ethel agrees reluctantly that her son can live with his well-connected grandparents, the Bryants.

However, Ethel’s past threatens to taint the name of Downton, and she is eventually sent to be “washed clean” from her days as a fallen woman, taking up a maid's post in Cheadle.

So Mary from the drawing rooms neither scandalises nor is ostracised, but Ethel from the sculleries scandalises and is ostracised. 

Downton has another of the sisters, Sybil, as the aristocratic advocate of Votes for Women  

Suffragette Sybil, unlike her Tory father, believes strongly that women should have the vote but sets the cause aside during the war to train as a nurse for injured servicemen. 

She reaches across the class divide to Downstairs Downton to wed the chauffeur, Branson, the fiery Irish revolutionary.

Neither Edwardian politics in general, nor specifically Votes for Women, is a topic of conversation downstairs in Downton amonst the predominantly female staff, since there was little time to do much else other than work ceaselessly.

In reality, in Victorian and Edwardian times, domestic servants endured terrible working conditions, with a longevity of working hours and drudgery with no set hours and time off.

Unlike industrial workers there was little scope or appetite to join a union.

The collection  - “ Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from 1820s to 1920s “ explains :

“In an occupation so rigidly authoritatian and hierarchical there was little sense of common purpose or common injustice; between the lordly butler and the lowly kitchen maid ,; the haughty housekeepr and the urchin stable boy no bond existed which could have brought them into alliance against the employer;

“ In large establishments where the toast to “The Master and the Mistress” was drunk nightly in the servants hall, and the employer-employee relationship was still essentially feudal, a “peasants’ revolt “ was unthinkable.

“Attempts to form a union of domestic servants in Dundee in 1872 came to nothing.”

The aristocratic way-of-life that depended on a large array of live-in servants and estate workers was one of the casualties of progress as the early years of the last century moved forward.

Periodic Goverment legislation restricted the hours of employment and working conditions.

Women had filled many of the jobs in various industries vacated by men who were sent to the war front , giving many women their first experience of a job that widened their horizons beyond the family home.

More choices of work became available along with better access to educational opportunities for young women.

Domestic service offered little improvement from pre-war standards of long working days with an early moning start and late night end, demanding workloads, low wages, and where “time off” was more often measured in hours rather than days.

There was no duty of care responsibiliy that a present day employer is charged with providing, and however well-intentioned a domesti servant’s employer could be, the reminders of the inferion status of the servants was all around, from the physical separation of the living quarters to the dress code conspicuous by its enforcement.  

Series 1 of Downton Abbey begins in 1912 where Sybil displays her support for Women’s Suffrage.

In reality it was 16 years later that all women over the age of 21 gained the right to vote.

In the world outside Downton,  a small welfare state was born, but the Five Giant Evils of “Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness, Disease” held sway in many parts of the country, their existence confirmed in the Beveridge Report, the cornerstone of the post –Second World War  welfare state.

It brought many benefits for women, such as longer life expectancy, a national health service, better housing and standards of education, more going on to university , more going into professional politics.

However to this day , sharp differences still exist between the opportunities available to women as there are for men, because of women’s family duties,  and thus their career prospects, the range of jobs open to them, and their earnings lag behind men.

But it’s another and better world for women today than for the working women in Downton Abbey.

A finishing thought .. how would the series have been received, how many column inches would have been written about it, fashion shoots held, TV interviews recorded  if instead of bering called “Downton Abbey”, the series had been “Downton Alley”, set in the grim backstreets of the industrial town of Downton where entire families lived in two rooms  or even less ?


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