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Emily, Downton Abbey

Historians have a tendency of picking apart historical shows or films, saying they are not “accurate” or are too “dramatic.” Well I believe that’s the easy way out. Why not see what’s good in a show? Rather than condemning these writers we should be celebrating the fact that they tried. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Taking what we know and trying to tell other people about it without boring them to death? Well I truly believe Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbeymade history interesting. It took the somewhat mundane history of the twentieth century and made it something that could interest a broader audience which resulted in it becoming one of the most popular British dramas of all times. It key to keep in mind that these types shows were not made to be analysed by historians so they cannot be judged as an historic source. Although it is should be the goal of the creator to make their show as accurate as possible, it is not the first item their list. Is this show completely accurate? No. Is it entertaining, exciting and interesting? Yes, to all of the above.

Downton Abbeyis sweet escape into the first class life of a British family in the early twentieth century. This historical period drama lasted only six series yet quickly became a popular show for all those who enjoyed romance, history and great character development. This show brings you from the sinking of the Unsinkable Titanic to the Great War to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The audience journeyed with each character during their triumphs and hardships. The creators made you feel a part of the show in every aspect of everyone’s life.

I foundDownton Abbeyto be a unique take of the early twentieth century. It was able to touch all kinds of people who led completely different paths, especially women. This was when problems like, employment, forms of contraception, premarital sex, divorce and the right to vote was beginning to be challenged by the women of this time. I found it very interesting that Fellowes addressed these making it more relatable for the modern audience while keeping the issues in the twentieth century. By doing this he has created somewhat of a bridge between women now and back then unifying them in the fight for equality for women.

Since this is a series there is so much to analysis so for the purpose of this blog post I will be will be the focussing on the eldest Crawley daughter, Mary Crawley. She was a strong woman who often went against what was expected of her. She was blunt and strong headed. Mary did what she thought was best for her although she still considered how it would affect the social standings of herself and her family. Throughout the show I became frustrated with her in times when she was being more selfish or too harsh and judgemental. Mary could be so cruel at moments and then be so charming, so it was hard to like her but impossible not to.

The issue that began the show and really made Mary a main character was that the Crawley estate could only be passed down through men, which having a family of all women created a problem. This meant if Mary wanted to grow old in the house she had always lived in she would have to marry a distant relative. Though she accepted this reality she did not let it dictate her decisions when it came to her romantic relationships. SPOILER ALERT she does end up marrying the man that her parents had hoped she would but she did not make it easy. The two of them are off and on, like any good romance is, each courting and being courted by others. In the end they professed their love for each other and confidently keep the estate in the family.

This series does a notable job of providing a new perspective on how life could have been back then. Typically when the relationship between the upper class members and their help is described it is harsh and there is a clear divide between the two. Though a divide is definitely apparent in the Crawley household, the servants are very well treated. The Crawley’s are fair and compassionate towards their workers and were willing to put their name on the line to save the integrity of their employees. At one point in the series on the maids had been convicted of murder. Mary, who had known this woman very well but didn’t know her whereabouts that day, testified for her. Mary knew that it would be a risk to do so, but she knew that her friend was innocent. This show made the characters actual people. They were kind and stood up for what they believed in. Though they were very aware of how they would be seen by the people around them they still did their best to do the right thing, they used their status for the wellbeing of others. This type of relationship is not totally accurate yet there were mostly likely households that functioned this way, though majority did not. To Fellowes credit he does include this type of relationship in the opposite light, possibly to make the Crawley appear even more admirable.

Overall this series, in my opinion is very well done. It follows the general timeline of events that were occurring and issues that were prevalent during the early twentieth century but does not make it their priority at all times. He was accurate were he needed to be accurate but his focus seemed to be the romances and the storyline of each of this characters. In the way that Fellowes includes the different relationships his characters may have created a conflicting reality for what those relationships would have actually been like, which will create problems for historians. It can be concluded though that by doing this it evoked a compassionate response from the audience. By approaching the relationships like this the audience was able to go through everything every character went through.

To conclude, I believe that it is not fair to use accuracy to determine whether a series is well done or not. If that were the case then every “well done” program would be very boring and no one would watch them…well except for historians. And I can promise you that even then they would still find problems with it.

Bibliography

Downton Abbey.Episodes 1-43, first broadcasted September 26, 2010, by ITV. Directed by Ben Bolt and written by Julian Fellowes.

Murray, Jenni. “20thCentury Britain: The Woman’s Hour.” BBC UK, March 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/jmurray_01.shtml.

Wallis, Lucy. “Servants: A life below stairs.” BBC, September 22, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19544309.

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Sheila McManus

Professor, Department of History

University of Lethbridge

(403) 329-2540