Downton Abbey: Guilty Pleasure With A Spot Of Women’s History

Downton Abbey
EntertainmentHistoryTelevisionWomen's Rights

Americans are having a love affair with the British period drama series – Downton Abbey. We just cheered as Dame Maggie Smith received the Golden Globe (best supporting actress) for her portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham in all her sharp witted, but loveable glory. On Monday mornings our new age water coolers (a.k.a. social media outlets) are abuzz with Downton chatter, while digital fan clubs and facebook pages continue to pop up overnight.

Enthusiasts looking to get an extra hit of the DA are even flocking to Broadway to see Downton estate heir, Matthew Crawley (actually, Dan Stevens, the actor who plays him) as he takes center stage in “The Heiress”.

So why are so many of us craving all-things-Downton and is there something the show and its rich historical subtext, packaged in riveting entertainment, can teach us about WYSK’s favorite topic… women?


How Do I Love Thee… Let Me Count The Ways

Do we love Downton because of the picturesque, elegant, and beautiful country estate; teatime – the very civil respite of the day; the long walks in the countryside full of fresh air; the dashing and sensible young Crawley; or the drama and conniving of the house staff? It’s likely a combination of all that and more as the show has become a welcome, time consuming guilty pleasure for so many.

Cup of tea with a chocolate biscuitAs Season 3 finally hit the US last week, Sunday evenings in American households are filled, once again, with a spot of PG Tips Tea, a glass of wine or sherry and a dog or cat snuggled on your lap as the drama begins again for the Crawley family and everyone in their household. As soon as the bells start ringing, the curtains are open on a new day and you see the hound’s wagging tail, you know you’re in a glorious place of rich comfort.

This world is so drastically different from our own – living at the turn of the century in an old English mansion in the countryside outside of London. But, nonetheless, one can bask in the intricacies of the relationships, decor, parties, the gossip in town, the niceties on display and the tell it like it is advice from the old lady whose charm is hidden in her sometimes overly cruel musings to her granddaughters such as, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit, dear.”

What I love most about this TV show is its ability to work history into its subtext starting with the very first episode of Season 1, which showed the effects of what happened to the Downton estate with the sinking of the Titanic in 1911. Every cultural norm of the time – from fashion and music, to social codes – is woven into the show’s fabric.

But Downton Abbey especially tells the historical journey of women’s changing roles at the beginning of the twentieth century. From Sybil’s interests in suffrage and marrying outside of her social class (the chauffeur… GASP), and Mary’s uppity nature of existing in her adulthood as the status quo of her father’s image, to Edith’s indecisiveness about her ultimate role… she is willing to settle for an old-fashioned woman’s life and an old man, though she seems to yearn for something else.

Edith Crawley_Sybil Crawley_Mary Crawley

As Mary reads outside on the grounds of the estate, she bemoans the life she is supposed to have as a proper married woman. She even acknowledges that it is a horrid existence for a woman to not feel that she has something meaningful to do in her life. Meanwhile, her sister Sybil has thrown herself into the tragedy of helping returning soldiers from WWI and through it she knows that she cannot go back to her previous existence of complacency.

Even the modernity of Matthew’s mom, Isobel Crawley, is in great contrast to the other women on the show as she goes out of her way to address social justice issues… helping the sick, the poor, as well as the maid who becomes a prostitute.

To put the implications of this kind of forward female thinking and doing in historical context, women in England did not gain the right to vote in a General Election until 1918. And that seemingly liberating victory came with a caveat… only women over the age of 30 could vote AND they had to meet a property qualification.

But as the telephone rings for the first time in the Crawley estate, the toaster heats up, the dresses loosen and lose their tight, cumbersome corsets, the dancing becomes faster and quicker and the sound of the roaring 20s is within earshot, the usual and customary social codes and morals change, and lean more toward a modern women’s world.


Would We Want To Turn The Tables And Go Back 100 Years?

Today, in our busy techie lives, where women work in addition to raising children, nieces and nephews, caring for elders and extended family or going to school and more, we may forget that women in the beginning of the twentieth century did not have a lot of choice. In fact, they had very little choice and your life was often dictated by the family you were born into.

In the world of Downton, the help doesn’t eat with the family, the family doesn’t even get dressed by themselves and the common way of long distance communication is via handwritten letter. But there’s something about Downton that attracts us, that we relish, that we are transposed by and our weekend comes to a halt.

Violet Crawley_Dowager Countess of Grantham

Could we women be yearning for a simpler time when lives were more defined and less fluid? This is the time when women didn’t have it all, but they also didn’t have to DO it all? What woman doesn’t like being catered to – yes, brush my hair, hand me my jewelry, serve me my dinner!

Would we want to turn the tables and go back 100 years? Honestly, I don’t think so – but one hour a week lazing over a computer, television, iPad or Kindle watching Downton Abbey is just enough to give us a taste of what came before us, as women continue to carve out our journey ahead in today’s 21st century.

Downton Abbey, Season 3 airs Sundays through Feb. 17, 2013 on PBS. I’ll be watching… will you?

Beth Rosenberg, WYSK Education Contributor About Beth Rosenberg, WYSK Education Contributor

Women You Should Know Contributor Beth Rosenberg is an educator with a specialty in art, technology and special needs. She teaches at NYU-Polytechnic Institute and at The Dalton School. She is also the founder of Tech Kids Unlimited, a program which teaches technology to kids with learning differences. Beth holds an MA in Art History and an MS Ed in Educational Technology. Find her at edubeth.net.

  • Sue

    I agree, there is absolutely something magical about this style of life, but give up all for what has come after? No way! I will enjoy the pleasure every Sunday night for an hour, but pick up my iPhone to chat about it a moment later. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Leah

    I was actually able to watch season 3 as it aired in the UK, and I promise I won’t spoil anything, but one thing I loved is that the women are really rising to the top! You see them challenging traditional roles and branching out. It’s very exciting. Tea time is a regular thing at my house, and when girlfriends come over, the antique teacups come out and PG Tips is served with Biscoff cookies. There’s something so special about those traditions because they require time. It takes a moment to brew a pot of tea, put everything onto a tray, and sit to enjoy it. You don’t hastily rush through tea sipped from a pretty cup, which leads to conversation, which leads to friendship. In today’s society with our busy-ness and rushing around, taking time to sit and simply “be” seems to have gone the way of the corset (not that we regret that one)!

    The Biltmore Estate in North Carolina is truly a modern day Downton in that the estate employs 1,900 people year round, and during times of economic depression, the estate has kept the town of Asheville going. Although I don’t wish to go back 100 years (you’re right about that, Beth), there is definitely something special about the traditions that surrounded the Downton time period. It’s incredible to see how the Biltmore operated and still operates…goes to show that time honored traditions aren’t all bad.

  • Debra

    As a Brit, watching the show Stateside, I am amused that Downton Abbey, has become fully embraced by my friends here. Even Michelle Obama requested season 3 the same time it was launched in the UK. It is really nothing more than a ” soap opera ” in essence, but it’s the subtext, or further more, what is not said, is the key to its success. Which as we all know the Brits, love to be tight lipped about most things, they hold close to their hearts… Uptight, is a label we used to be described as… Of course those who know about Brit culture and society, would say, that has dramatically changed. Some would say, we have learnt from our fellow Americans, to be more in touch with ourselves. However its gone perhaps even further then our fellow Americans would go. We read so much in Brit tabloids about drunken debuachery and excessive behavior, individuals flagrantly seeking their 15 mins of fame,found in some Mayfair gutter!! So This is why we love it DA so. we love the earnestness, the genuine responsibility, the modesty, the refinement, the reserved guarded behavior and mostly the un spoken comments that we know that can have a million different interpretations !

  • Shirley Sattinger

    After reading this wonderful article I ran out to Barnes & Noble to purchase the first two seasons.
    Thanks for the info.

    Shirley