Deconstructing Downton Abbey
Historian Margaret MacMillan on the global TV sensation
Downton Abbey, the critically-acclaimed and immensely popular series depicting the lives of British aristocrats and their servants in the early 20th century, kicked off its third season this week.
Writer Jenny Hall spoke to historian Margaret MacMillan about the allure of the show—and its hits and misses. MacMillan, author of Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, is the warden of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford and a professor of history at the University of Toronto.
Do you watch the show?
I quite enjoy it, though I haven’t become as hooked as some people. Bits of it were very good, but the melodrama increases as it often does in a series, as the writers struggle to find new and exciting things to keep the series interesting for viewers. Remember the mysterious Canadian who appeared wrapped in bandages?
What is your take as a historian? For many of us, TV and movies are the only way we engage with the past.
I think anything that gets people interested in the past is good. But if you really want to understand the past, you have to go to more than one source. A television series, no matter how well done, is not going to give you as full a picture of the past as reading memoirs, novels and historical studies. But anything that makes people aware that there were societies in the past that are different from our own, is good. It makes us think about our own society, too.
Unlike many other period pieces, Downton Abbey depicts the life of the servants as part of the story. Is it a faithful representation?
It’s a fairly favourable depiction of what it would have been like to be a servant in one of those great houses. You get a sense that the servants are all well housed and clothed and fed, which wouldn’t have been true. A lot of servants in those days worked extremely hard. They had virtually no holidays; they were up at 5 in the morning. You never really quite got a sense of the long hours.
There was a curious relationship between servants and the people they worked for. They lived in very intimate contact with each other in a way in which most of us would find very uncomfortable today. The servants would know pretty much everything that was going on.
Downton Abbey depicts big events—World War I, the flu epidemic—through the lives of the family and the servants. What are your thoughts about this?
I think it’s easier for people to understand the great movements in history if they can see them in very personal terms. You can read that 20 million died of the influenza epidemic, that’s almost too big to comprehend. Seeing what it meant to a family is different.
Is there anything you think the show does particularly well?
One of the things that comes out in the show is how much more acquainted people were with death. Babies often died and things that we would recover from easily today because of antibiotics often killed people then.
The other thing that’s interesting is that one of great strengths of the British landed classes generally was that they tended to have primogeniture—the eldest son inherited everything. On the show there’s this whole thing about Lady Mary and how she has no brothers. Even though she’s the oldest, she can’t inherit. Primogeniture kept the big estates together, whereas in Germany, Austria, Hungry and Russia, all sons inherited, so the big estates were broken up.
But what was also happening, and you get a sense of this in Downton Abbey, was that those who depended on owning agricultural land for their wealth were beginning to feel the pinch. That was partly because of places like Canada. When the prairies opened up in the 1870s and 1880s, suddenly there was a lot of cheap grain coming into Britain. A lot of the big families were finding it very hard to keep up their establishments, and estates were being sold. There’s one scene where Lady Mary is going to marry this ruthless businessman and they go to see a house they’re thinking of leasing. Lady Mary knows the house—it belonged to neighbours who had to give it up. In a way, the people you see in Downton Abbey are a doomed class.
One of the things that struck me is how the show depicted World War I and its relationship to the class system. You had characters of different classes fighting alongside each other.
There was still a class division within the British army—officers tended to be upper class or educated middle class. You did get officers and men living in very close quarters and that was often an eye opener, for the officers in particular. But Britain did still have an entrenched class system after the First World War. The war hastened the decline of the landed upper classes, though. It was expected that their sons would be officers. The death rate for young officers who were on the line was high—there were parts of the line where the life expectancy for a lieutenant was two weeks. In some families, virtually every male of military age got wiped out. There were horrendous losses in the other classes, too. But the aristocracy was a small class. They were losing their power anyway for a number of reasons, and fact that so many of them got killed hastened their decline.
The other big social change we see is women’s rights. Sybil, the youngest daughter, agitates for the vote for women.
Women were starting to have careers before the war, but upper class women were still expected to marry and not work. The first world war changed things because women started doing things that men traditionally did. You see them in Downton Abbey learning to drive cars. Other women worked the land, worked in factories. I think one of the reasons women got the vote after the war was recognition of the fact that they had been playing an important part in society through the war.
Are you surprised at how popular the show is? Why is it so compelling?
The students at my college in Oxford are fanatical watchers. They’re the last people I thought would be interested. Old people are supposed to be nostalgic, not young people!
It interests us because it’s such a different way of life, living in those beautiful country houses. They tend to show sunny afternoons and people having tea on the lawn. They don’t show the cold, miserable winter nights. And until the 20th century, if you got something like appendicitis or pneumonia, you could easily die. Think of all the things that we get that would have killed you in those days.
Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9 pm on PBS.