The Enduring Appeal of "Downton Abbey"

Sep 24, 2019

Downton Abbey, the wildly popular PBS television series, is now on the big screen.  We talk with a UNH historian about how accurately the series depicts life in that era and how it reflects the role of women in a time when being a servant was the largest occupation for women.  We consider the appeal of British royalty and why this latter-day "Upstairs/Downstairs" continues to attract such a loyal following.

Air Date: September 25, 2019

GUEST:  Nicoletta Gullace - Associate Professor of History at UNH.

Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors.

Laura Knoy: 

With all the turmoil in the news these days, binge watching the lush British TV drama Downton Abbey sounds like the ultimate escape. But for six seasons, the show reminded viewers that life has never been easy or simple, not even for the high born Crawley family living on an estate the size of Central Park. Downton Abbey, you said 100 years ago, beginning in 1912. It depicts the Crawley household upstairs and downstairs as its characters lived through immense political and cultural upheaval. World War One, the Spanish Flu, the Irish War of Independence and challenges to the class system from labor, socialist and women's movements. The show's combination of history and high society captured millions of American fans. And so now Downton Abbey is back in movie form. Today on The Exchange we cast an historians eye on this television phenomenon. What it tells us about societal and political change in Britain a century ago, Our guest for the hour is Nicoletta Gullace. She's an associate professor of history at U.N.H, with a specialty in British history. And Nicoletta, it's really nice to meet you. Thank you so much for being here. So it's easy to think, as I said in that introduction, that with an impeachment inquiry launched in the U.S. House and Boris Johnson's leadership threatened in the UK and Britain seemingly torn apart by Brexit, the Downton Abbey just feels like total escape. But remind us of the trials and tribulations that people in this historical drama faced. It's pretty sobering.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, yes, the Crawley family had survived the First World War where they lost one of their servants and where Matthew, the heir to the estate, had served. They had lived through the Spanish flu, which Cora caught and almost died in, which sort of fortuitously killed Lavinia, who was Matthew's fiance, say, who happened to leave all the money they needed to save their estate. Which reminds us also that during the 1920s, many of these grand estates were in quite a precarious position. They were experiencing higher taxes. And in the final series, they do show a neighbour of the Crawleys having to have an auction and sell all the things for their estate. So we're reminded that the aristocracy of this time, as wonderful as their lives seem, were in a moment of real difficulty where it took great wits for the Crawley family to hang onto their fortune.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and World War One, for goodness sake. I mean, 20000 British men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. So when you think about, you know, again, all that's going on today, there was some really tough times back then.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Yes. That was an extremely difficult moment, not just for the aristocracy, but for all the people of Britain. It was the largest single loss of life the British army experienced in its entire history. And that includes all the very deadly battles of World War Two as well. So it is a kind of iconic moment. And these series, I think was brilliant in casting Matthew and his servant going through that historical moment. And it coincided approximately with actually the British celebration of the centenary of World War One, which really remains a scar on the heart of Great Britain.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and if you go to Britain, you see so many memorials and graves all over. It's very, very moving. I'd like to talk a little bit more about war, where one Nicoletta, before we move on to some of these other themes, just to remind everyone again that, you know, things seem bad today, but this was also incredibly challenging. Most Americans don't pay that much attention to World War One. Nicoletta, why is that?

Nicoletta Gullace:
It's it's an odd gap in American history, I think, because Americans did actually not only serve in World War 1, but we're kind of crucial to turning the tide and creating the allied victory. And I think historians are beginning to re discover the First World War a little bit, but we certainly don't share the absolutely massive loss of life that European countries saw. Germans lost over a million men. We can't even count how many Russians were lost. The British lost what they considered the flower of their youth. Aristocrats died, did in disproportionately high numbers. They made up the officer. Class, many of them volunteered like Matthew, and an interesting thing about the British officers is because nutritional standards were so much higher for the rich than the poor that the aristocratic classes, the upper classes were actually considerably taller than the ordinary men in the ranks. So the German sharp shooters learned that they had to take out the tall guys and that way they got the officers and ha. And it was absolutely decimating to that class of individuals.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. That's fascinating. I had not heard that before. I also read and you can correct me if I'm wrong. Please, Nicoletta, that part of the reason that after the war you saw this sort of challenge to class hierarchy in Britain is because the nobility automatically got to be sort of the leaders. That's the way things were. And some of these men, you know, really weren't that good at it. But there wasn't a merit based system of who would make a good general who who would not. It was just automatically assumed that the nobility would make a good general. And and after the war, some people said, you know, that Lord didn't do a very good job.

Nicoletta Gullace:
I think there was a lot of criticism of the officer corps, many of whom had come from these elegant public school backgrounds, gone to the top military academies and were members of the upper classes. And so many ordinary men and working class men lost their lives. They were told that when their officers blew the whistle, they need to climb over the top of the trench and walk forward. Yikes. This strategy worked fine in the 18th century. In the 19th century, not so fine when your enemy has machine guns. Well, go ahead. And I think men began to realize that this was just a slaughter and a carnage that was useless. It was to gain just a few feet of ground often and at this astronomical loss of life. And I think when men came back, these working class people wanted their rights. They wanted to have a piece of the governance of the society. They wanted to be recognized for their sacrifices. And they felt entitled to more than they had had before.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and I've read entire books on sort of World War One and all the cultural and societal changes that stemmed from it. There's a couple more that I want to ask you about, Nicoletta, because it's so interesting. There's a character in this series who does in the war, he sees what's going on, you know, these ridiculous orders to march a couple feet and everybody's mowed down. And he says, I'm out of here. And he does what I understand a lot of men did. He injures himself so he can go home. The French call it "le bon blesseur." It means you. It's the good wound. You you warned yourselves you can get the heck out of there.

Nicoletta Gullace:
It was called a blighty, an injury that wasn't severe enough to hamstring your ability to have a good life. But was enough to get you sent home. And yes, Thomas the servant, Thomas, who at that point is kind of a villainous character. We see him doing that. Of course, it wasn't considered to be a noble or good thing to do, but people did do that. Yet if you were caught, the consequences were quite severe. It was considered a cowardly thing to do and a dishonorable thing to do, and you could be court martialed for it and even potentially shot, though they tried not to use that punishment too much because so many men at that time in this war were suffering from shell shock, which is what we now call PTSD. And they began to recognize that what was once upon a time they considered to be cowardice, which would have resulted in the man being shot. They were now being recognizing it as a mental illness caused by chronic time under shell fire. And so they began to try and cure some of these men. So we see during this the First World War, an attempt to move away from the harshest penalties against men who was desperate to get out of the battle.

Laura Knoy:
That is interesting. And I have read that because these blighteys, as you call them, were such a big problem that after a while you could get in pretty serious trouble for doing that. That's correct. But people took the risk anyway, because what was going on in the trenches was what? Yes.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Getting your head blown off or getting thrown in jail. Well, we'll take jail.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, exactly. Well, speaking of the trenches in World War One, there's another character who has lung damage from the gases in the trenches. So we're reminded of that. One of the lead characters, Matthew, is severely injured. Meanwhile, on the homefront, Lady Edith's first fiancee is a good deal older than her. And many people say you shouldn't marry this guy who's way older than you. And she says, look, there just aren't new young men left.

Nicoletta Gullace:
That's right. The First World War actually created a demographic crisis with the loss of marriageable young men for women like Edith and we see two trends in that time period, we see some upper class women marrying a bit down the social scale in a way that they might not have before. We see some women marrying younger men or older men to try and find a suitable partner. Even though men their own age may have been killed and we actually see increased numbers of what we would call Boston marriages, women in sort of suddenly romantic relationships with one another who decided to move in together as opposed to seeking out men. So we have a bunch of changes as a result of the First World War in those marriage patterns.

Laura Knoy:
Very interesting and it makes sense. There's so few young men left for these women to to be with.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, they're certainly it's certainly a very damaged population. Yes.

Laura Knoy:
The family turns one of its great rooms. One of these big, beautiful drawing rooms into a hospital for the wounded during the war. How common was that?

Nicoletta Gullace:
That was fairly common. I think the aristocracy wanted to prove their relevance in this sort of cusp of the modern age where they were seeming to be sort of more an irrelevant extravagance. And one of the ways they showed their patriotism was to open up their houses to things like hospital work. Remember, that Sybil becomes a nurse at that time. She tries to learn cookery. She wants to help. This wasn't uncommon during the First World War or the Second World War. And the opening of the houses was very true to life. And in fact, I believe that a Highclere castle, the castle used for Downton Abbey actually was turned into a hospital at one point during the First World War, and they actually had photographs of that, that they could use as they recreated those scenes.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, so the real castle that was used to film the series and the movie Downton Abbey was actually used as a hospital,.

Nicoletta Gullace:
I believe. So it was very common at that time.

Laura Knoy:
Well, as you said, one of the daughters of this aristocratic family does become a nurse in World War Two to the shock and horror of her family. And here she is going down to the kitchen asking the head cook, Mrs. Patmore, for cooking lessons as she prepares to take her nursing courses.

Audio clip:
You don't mind, do you? Oh, it's not that I mind, m'lady. I only need the basics. How to boil an egg, how to make tea. Don't you know how to make tea? Not really. You're right. It is a joke. But when I start my course, I don't want to be a joke. Will you help me? Course we will, won't we? Well, if you say so. Let's get started. Do you know how to fill a kettle?

Laura Knoy:
OK, so that's kind of funny. Yeah. She doesn't know how to make tea. What does that say to you?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, a lady like Lady Sybil would have been waited on hand and foot from the time she was a small child. So she never would have needed to boil a kettle or boil an egg or make tea. And in fact, one of the things that it causes Daisy and Mrs. Patmore to laugh when she realized she doesn't know that. Further down the scale, almost anybody would have known how to make a cup of tea or boil a kettle. But for these aristocratic women, Sibyl recognizes her lack of independence because of her lack of skills. And she tries to fill that in so that she won't make a fool of herself during her nursing course.

Laura Knoy:
So speaking of simple and the idea of marrying downward, because again, there just weren't enough young men for these young women to be with. She marries down. Yes, she does. Just remind us.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, what happens with Sybil is that she is being driven around actually to things like suffrage meetings by the handsome chauffeur, Tom Branson, who is also an Irish nationalist and an aspiring journalist. And there's a very romantic scene where he takes her to a suffrage meeting, which has, I think, some socialist speakers. And she faints in the crush of people and he carries her back to the car. And after that, they begin to fall passionately in love and she ends up wanting to marry him. And one of the things one of the escapisms of Downton Abbey is they do a great job of depicting the horror of her family over this. But at the end of the day, the family reconciles themselves to Mr. Branson. It would have been very unlikely for an English aristocratic family to reconcile themselves and even to entrust their estates to an Irish nationalist, particularly one like Branson, who's eventually accused of burning aristocratic houses in Ireland. So this is a little bit of a leap of faith. And I think one of the things we love about Downton Abbey is that they, it's a wonderful depiction of these events like World War One, the Irish wars of independence and things like that. But things usually turn out okay in a way they might not have in real life.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, well, and I appreciate that about the series World War I. Definitely a lot of Americans don't know enough about that incredibly important war. I myself, even being a huge history buff, really didn't realize that there was still this, you know, Irish rebellion going on 1919, 1920 all the way up to 1922. So give us a little more on that Nicoletta, please.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, what happened in 1916 Sinn Fein organized what's known as the Easter rebellion, and it was a rebellion meant to hamstring Britain at that very difficult moment of the war. The same year as the Battle of the Somme. And to create an Irish free state and a sort of coup de etat. The British sent in soldiers crush the Irish rebellion killed many of the perpetrators, creating a group of martyrs that the Irish then rallied around. And at the end of the First World War, there was an incredibly strong push for Irish independence from Great Britain. Ireland had felt itself to be under the boot of England for many, many years. And finally, eventually in 1922, Irish Ireland did gain its independence, but with Northern Ireland still part of Britain. And as you know, that remains an issue even today.

Laura Knoy:
Right. With Brexit and so forth, again, reminding us of the importance of these historical events as depicted in this series and now new movie. And just reminding us also about the huge turmoil from a century ago. You're listening to The Exchange on NHPR. So, Nicoletta, while we're talking about this sort of marrying up, marrying down, and Sybil marrying handsome Tom Branson, the chauffeur, I want to just play a little bit more. Here is a clip where Isobel Crawley. She's the, the sort of more middle class member of this aristocratic family. Here she is talking to Tom, who, as you said, becomes a son in law, about the challenges of moving up that social ladder.

Audio clip:
It must be odd being alone in that great house. But I'm not alone. There's people I know well. Except they're all downstairs and I'm up. Why not take the opportunity to spend some time with them? I don't think Lady Grantham would approve of that. No, but I doubt she approves of the working class learning to read.

Laura Knoy:
Okay. Again, that's a clip from Downton Abbey, by the way, to let listeners know. We're talking about the series today, partly because it teaches us so much about this incredibly important time in history, but also because it is a new movie. But we will not put out spoilers. OK. Nicoletta and I are not going to ruin the experience of going to the movie for you. So a little bit more on just the changing roles of women we talked about. Lady Sybil learning how to make tea boil an egg, becoming a nurse. How else did the war change the way these Crawley women saw their role?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, one of the things that the war did for British women in general was give them the opportunity to show their patriotism. Women's suffrage organizations and actually particularly aristocratic women formed nursing corps, some of which raised money to fund ambulance, ambulances and ambulance corps. Women themselves staffed those ambulance corps and went overseas to France. One of the reasons aristocratic women were important in this were they were the only women who knew how to drive cars because they actually had access to things like automobiles before the First World War. So they had a technical skill that would have been relatively rare. And women use the First World War to show their patriotism, to show what they were capable of and to contribute to the war effort. And they used those contributions as an argument of why they ought to have suffrage. And in 1918, there was a new suffrage bill passed the Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised working class men who had been disenfranchised when they left their residences because there was a residency requirement and enfranchised women over 30. So this was sort of the first moment that women in any capacity were granted the vote. So I would argue that that comes directly out of their experience contributing to the war effort.

Laura Knoy:
Wow, give us that date again, please. Nicoletta, when women over 30 got the right to vote?

Nicoletta Gullace:
It's 1918.

Laura Knoy:
And how does that correspond with the U.S.? I think the U.S. is a little bit behind.

Nicoletta Gullace:
It's a little bit behind that. And again,it's a couple of years later. Exactly. And it is this moment in history, this early 20th century moment, where women are having more opportunities, becoming more vocal about their rights, and are successfully making a case of why they should be represented and should be able to cast a vote on who will represent them in government.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and of course, how do the both the patriarch of this family and his mother, the Dowager old Lady Grantham, as we heard earlier in that clip, how did they feel about women's suffrage?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Are they one of the things I find very interesting about Downton Abbey is, though, Lord Grantham is cast as a Tory, a kind of conservative country gentleman and Lady Violet, as, again, your conservative aristocrat. They often have a couple of quips or bon mots criticizing some of these things. But at the end of the day, I think one of the reasons we love Downton Abbey is their hearts are always in the right place. So Lord Grantham always supports his daughters regardless of what they've done. And Lady Violet always supports her granddaughters, regardless of what they've done. So whether it's been sexual intrigue or the illegitimate birth of of baby Marigold or of Mary needing to be the steward of the estate and look after those things, they stand by their families. And that takes them down the path of progressivism.

Laura Knoy:
More in just a moment on what Downton Abbey teaches us about the huge social and political moments from a century ago. That's coming up in just a minute. So stay with us.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy, with all the political turmoil in the news, both in the U.S. and in Britain. It'd be easy to think that life was simpler a century ago. But the hit TV show and now new movie Downton Abbey reminds us of the huge political and social upheaval a century ago, just to name a few: World War One, the Spanish Flu, the Irish Fight for Independence, an emerging labor and women's movements. We've been talking about all this with Nicoletta Gullace. She's an associate professor of history at U.N. H. With a specialty in British history. And we'd love to hear from you. What do you think the TV show and now the movie Downton Abbey. Although we won't put any spoilers out there about the movie. What do you think this phenomenon tells us about British history and high society, how things changed 100 years ago? There are a lot of political and social trends back then that still affect us today, as Nicolletta has been telling us. So, Nicoletta, we've been talking a lot about the changing role of women. Huge theme in this series, World War One. Women had to step it up on the homefront. Many went over to the continent to become nurses, gaining them a new level of independence and freedom. So then the war is over. They come back. What about property ownership for women in both, you know, in all classes? Were women after the war given the right to manage and own property?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, the history of women's property rights is very interesting. One, it was one of the first and most aggressive of the feminist issues of the late 19th century. Traditionally, British women and women in many other countries, their property was owned by their father. And then upon marriage, their property was owned by their husbands. And Millicent Gareth Fawcett, one of the early pioneers of women's suffrage, said that her enlightenment came when she was robbed of her purse on the on the High Street in London. And when somebody caught the robber, they brought him to court and they read from the docket a purse belonging to Mr. Henry Fawcett. It was stolen from the person of Mrs. Henry Foss. And she was so horrified by that, the idea that her purse was listed as her husband's property. And that's what it was by law, that one of the things she advocated for was married woman's property. A woman's earnings would go to her husband. They would be his property. So by the late 19th century, this is already beginning to change. In Downton Abbey. However, the very first episode of the show shows us that the Crawley women do not have access to their property. And this is a very interesting case. Robert Crawley marries Lady Cora because she is a wealthy American buccaneer with a huge, enormous dowry. And one of the things that creates the character of Lord Grantham is that he cares primarily about his job as a lord of this great estate, which is losing money, as many of them were at that time. He marries Cora and locks her fortune into the estate. So Cora's fortune becomes not his, but Downton Abbey's. And that estate can only be inherited by a male heir.

Laura Knoy:
A woman's money is locked into an estate. And yes, it only be inherited by any sort of random man that the eldest daughter chooses to marry.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, not no. The eldest blood relative. Not who the daughter choses to marry. So what happens is, Mary sensibly agrees to marry her first cousin because Robert has no sons. The state will go to the first cousin if Mary marries that cousin. And this was not uncommon at the time. The estate. She would remain locked together with her husband as the lady in Lord of the Estate. She would become Lady Grantham eventually. Unfortunately, that cousin dies on the Titanic. Thus enter Matthew. And a lot of that first episode is Lady Violet actually expressing outrage that this fortune is going to this commoner. This. This middle class attorney, the son of a doctor. This nobody. And she wants to go hire a lawyer to break the entail and make it possible for Cora's fortune to go to the girls. In fact, Cora and Violet are in collusion about this. And Robert says it can't happen.

Laura Knoy:
That's really interesting. And that's going way back pretty early in the series. So I had forgotten about that. So while you're talking about Matthew as a commoner, he's a third cousin or something and he ends up being a huge love interest in her life. But over dinner, the Crawleys discuss Matthew's intention to keep working as a lawyer. This is after he is made the heir to the estate. Let's hear how the family feels about Matthew's decision to keep working.

Audio clip:
What will you do with your time? I've got a job in Ripon. I said I'll start tomorrow. A job? You do know, I mean to involve you in the running of the estate? Don't worry. Plenty of hours in the day. And of course, I'll have the weekend. And what is a weekend.

Laura Knoy:
Okay. My favorite part of that clip is Lord Grantham. A job. How dare you work? What do you think about that, Nicoletta? What does that say to us?

Nicoletta Gullace:
I think that Downton Abbey does a wonderful job of pausing over those small nuances that reflect to audiences, particularly American audiences or working class British audiences, how different the lives of the aristocracy were. They depended largely on unearned income; rents from their estate, investments, and it was considered sullying and lower class to actually dirty your hands working, whether it be as a lawyer or anything else. And Matthew finds it outrageous that he would just sit and be a gentleman of leisure, sort of managing the estate in some abstract and distant way when he actually has a job. The most famous line from that clip, however, is Violet asking what is a weekend? And it's printed on mugs. Oh, we see it all over the place. And of course, for a woman like Violet who had absolutely no responsibilities, there is no difference between Monday and Sunday. All of it is part of a life of leisure expense and being waited on hand and foot. So it's a tiny clip you played, but does a beautiful job in illustrating the difference between our aristocratic lifestyle and what would have been a middle class one at the time.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and what's so interesting about this series, not just reminding ourselves of World War 1 and its devastation, the Spanish flu, the Irish War for independence. But all these social changes that come in slowly and are with our modernized, we say, well, of course. But back then, you hear in that clip, it's shocking for people. I want to play another one. This is where Lady Edith. My favorite character, announces that she will be writing for a newspaper and you're going to hear varied reactions from her family.

Audio clip:
Listen, everyone. You have a journalist in the family. Since we have a country solicitor and a car mechanic it's only a matter of time. You're not encouraging this. She hasn't agreed to anything yet? Mama, talk to her. Talk to all of them. Say something sensible. Yes. Let's hear how a woman's place is in the home. I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home. But I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there. Oh granny, thank you.

Laura Knoy:
So that kind of shows, again, Lord Grantham and the Dowager Violet, very conservative for, reflecting some of the conservative values of that society. But at times kind of backing those girls up.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Exactly. And I think we need to sort of keep track of the fact that Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, develops the characters. So on one way, in one way, they are reflective of a historical time period. They are reflective of a person of their class during that historical time period. And yet they're also fictional characters who do develop their own particular themes. And I think Lady Violet's theme of sticking up for her granddaughters is a big part of her appeal on the show. So even faced with the potentially the potential violation of having Edith working as a journalist for pay and actually having her name in the paper as an author, something that Lord Grantham would have found unsuitable and beneath their family. Lady Violet is willing to stick up for that because she sees that Edith is actually spinning her wheels and does not really have an interest or a passion in life at this point.

Laura Knoy:
In a way, it was brilliant to create this series with a lord who has three daughters. If he had three sons, it might, you'd have a complete, you would be just as interesting, probably. He's a very talented producer, but you would have a whole different set of issues. The idea of the women at that time were not expected to work and were expected to behave in very strict ways creates a lot of thematic material for historians.

Nicoletta Gullace:
I think that's absolutely true. And I also think Julian Fellowes is also a novelist, is a master of the formula. Remember that Downton Abbey is a soap opera. It rethink of the popularity of the reproductions of Jane Austen's novels and things. Young girls who need husbands make great Sunday night entertainment. And so the romances of each of these girls as a theme. That is something that can really draw viewers, in particular the female viewers. And for women, of course, they the way they made their fortune most commonly would have been through marriage, securing their position in society. That's what they would do. And so it has a more enormity for them than it would perhaps the sons. So I think the fate of these three girls, which are intertwined with each other and yet quite separate, becomes fascinating, as does their attempt, Mary's attempt particularly, and her ultimate success in regaining control of the estate.

Laura Knoy:
That's another theme that stretches throughout the six seasons. So plenty of women in this series are working. I'm talking about downstairs now in this mansion and they're working very hard. The servants. How important were these big wealthy families, Nicoletta, when it came to employment for women?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, in the period before the First World War, domestic service was the single largest employment sector for women, and they were often very poorly paid. They could be working anywhere from maybe being the only servant in a small household to being a member of a huge staff like the staff of Downton Abbey. And what was interesting about the First World War that I think took people aback, particular pickle like the Crawleys, was with what rapidity these girls left domestic service in in in order to go into munitions factories and other very strenuous, difficult work, yet work where they had far more independence, where they weren't beholden to a mistress, where their morals weren't being policed at all times and where their free time was their own.

Laura Knoy:
Well, let's hear a little bit about that in this clip. Servant Gwen defends her choice, just as you said, Nicoletta, to leave service to become a secretary. Here she is talking with Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper, and Carson, the butler.

Audio clip:
I have done nothing to be ashamed of. I bought a typewriter and I've taken a postal course in shorthand. I'm not sure whether either of these actions is illegal. Will you tell us why? Preferably without any more cheek. Because I want to leave service, I want to be a secretary. You want to leave service. What's wrong with being in service? Nothing's wrong with it. And there's nothing wrong with mending roads, neither. But it's not what I want to do. I should remind you that there are plenty of young girls who would be glad of a position in this house.

Laura Knoy:
Today on The Exchange we're getting a historian's take on Downton Abby, the series and the new movie, just how it reminds us of these huge political and social trends in Britain a century ago. You're listening to The Exchange on NHPR. So, Nicoletta, what is that clip bring up for you, it kind of exemplifies what you're saying just a moment ago.

Nicoletta Gullace:
It does, and I think the series begins in 1912 and ends now with the movie in 1927. And this is a period of enormous change and opportunity for women. The typewriter itself, which Gwen masters and there's a wonderful whole episode where Sybil helps Gwen get the typewriter and where Gwen learns how to type it. The typewriter was a technological innovation at that time. We see it emerging in the late 19th century and women were considered to be particularly good at using the typewriter because of their small hands. Typewriter and the idea of things like secretarial pools gave young women new opportunities. And someone like Gwen wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to again have a more independent lifestyle than she possibly could, even in a grand stately home like Downton Abbey.

Laura Knoy:
In other interviews about this Nicoletta, you said that most of us, even though we aspire to be Lady Mary or Lady Edith and where, you know, live that lifestyle, most of us would have been. Daisy, the cook's helper.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Yes. I think that part of the fantasy of Downton Abbey is that we imagine ourselves into the shoes of the girls, the upstairs girls, their beautiful clothing, their gorgeous jewelry, their life of leisure, the fact that they have people waiting on them hand and foot and men who dress for dinner every night and escort them down to the dining room. It's just a well, it's a wonderful fantasy. But the vast, vast majority of us would have, in fact, been Daisys. We would have been working below stairs. We would have been carrying chamber pots. We would have been cleaning cauldrons. Or perhaps if we were lucky and ambitious, we would have been like Gwen going out on our own to become secretaries or telephone operators or shop girls or something like that. Very few of us would have lived that life of luxury and leisure.

Laura Knoy:
What kind of employment did these great houses offer for men, especially young men?

Nicoletta Gullace:
What? These great houses had a variety of jobs for men. The servants were in them, were themselves very hierarchically organized. You know, somebody like Mr. Carson would have been at the apex. He and Mrs. Hughes, the butler and the housekeeper at the apex of the servant class. And then it would have gone all the way down to the lowliest scullery maid and hall boy. The hall boys blackened shoes, the scullery maid, which is what day is Daisy started out at, would clean out the hearth and scrub pots. Some of the better class of servants, these would be people with a bit more intelligence, often people who are better looking, they would be selected by looks, could actually rise and become a lady's maid. So Anna Bates, for instance, has done well for herself. She's not a Daisy. She actually gets to groom Mary and put on her dresses and fashion her jewelry. And those servants who were who would appear in the the public rooms, the rooms where the aristocrats were, were much more presentable and considered a higher class. And this is something there was a great deal of aspiration for. For the men we've seen in the series how both Thomas Barrow and Mr. Moseley aspired to have better class of job as butlers. They wanted to be in tails. They wanted to be serving at dinner because, again, these were considered more classy jobs than some of the jobs that kept you below stairs more. One of the better gentlemanly jobs with the job of valet, which Mr. Bates has. And of course, Tom Branson was a chauffeur, which was also a job that took technical expertise because he had to be able to repair cars.

Laura Knoy:
So there is some mobility downstairs.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Yes, that's correct. All right.

Laura Knoy:
Well, coming up in just a moment, we will talk more about some of the historical, cultural, political trends evident in Downton Abbey, the series, and to some extent the movie, although we'll talk about that, Nicoletta, it's not quite as meaty as the series, perhaps.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. Today, with lots of political turmoil in the news today, both in the U.S. and Britain. We're looking back in time at how the TV show and now new movie Downton Abbey remind us of huge political and social upheaval a century ago. With us in studio Nicoletta Gullace. She's an associate professor of history at UNH with a specialty in British history and a couple more trends I do want to cover with you. One is the emerging labour and socialist movements. We should talk about that, but also the technological change that you see just over the 10 years or so that this series covers. People start out, for example, in horse and buggies and by the time the series is over, everybody's driving cars. Also, at some point in the series, the house mansion gets a telephone. Let's hear a little bit of the family kind of oohing and eyeing over this new device.

Audio clip:
Do your neighbors have one? Yes, they do in London anyway. It seems very wise to get a telephone now. If there is a war, it may be be very hard to have one installed in a private house. Well, let me show you where we're going to put it. First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I've feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, so it's easy to chocolate that sometimes I feel I'm living in an H.G. Wells novel. But yes, that's how it felt.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Yes. I think one of the things that attracts us to Downton Abbey is that it is a time that in some ways mirrors our own in this extremely rapid technological change that really mediated and altered the way people engage with the world. The very first scene of the very first episode of Downton Abbey not only involves Mr. Bates getting on a train, but a telegraph message coming to Downton Abbey. And that telegraph message is going to tell the news of the downing of the Titanic. When we think of this time, think of that massive steamship, that extraordinary piece of technological prowess. We think of the inside of the Titanic as this opulent and gorgeous and grandiose place. We think of the movie Titanic, but it is also an engineering feat of extreme sophistication. The telegraph means that news can travel extremely rapidly. And throughout Downton Abbey, we see this dwelling on technological change and the Abbey itself adapting to those changes. Lady Edith learns to drive a car. They get a telephone and you play that spot. Mrs. Patmore is horrified when a refrigerator shows up. And these are little sort of quotidian things that we're used to but what Julian Fellowes does, what the producers do in the show, is show us what this meant to people at the time. How big and enormous these changes that we consider everyday things, the introduction of these things changed the way people worked, the way they experienced the life and how quickly they could connect with other people.

Laura Knoy:
And the telephone was a marvel. And again, it's easy to sort of laugh at that. But I often tell teenagers when they go onto Google Earth and, you know, they can show me where they traveled in Europe last year. And here's the house where we stayed. I mean, I say to them, I hope you realize this is amazing. They say, eh, you know, so it's the same, isn't it?

Nicoletta Gullace:
It is the same. It is things that have become commonplace now. It forces us to look back and imagine what those things must have been like when they were introduced. And in this way, Downton Abbey, I think is very successful as serving almost like a living museum in the way somewhere like Old Sturbridge Village or something would because we get to see these objects in action. We might look at them in a museum, look at them in their static form. But what Downton Abbey does is create characters and having them respond to these technological changes and allowing us to dwell on what the meaning of this change was at that time in history. And I think that's one of its greatest values as a piece of historical fiction, is its ability to acclimatise contemporary viewers to the material culture and material changes in the time period.

Laura Knoy:
And again, just to appreciate that, you know, life has always there's always been struggles. And certainly this family, both upstairs and downstairs, experienced enormous struggles. Absolutely. So let's talk a little bit more, if we could, Nicoletta, about some of the social movements. And you've touched on this. But I had forgotten, you know, before I saw the movie on Monday, and I also started reminding myself about some of the themes. There's a big pushback, especially after World War One, as you mentioned, against the nobility. There is growing labor movements, union movements, socialist movements. How scary were these for great houses like like Downton Abbey?

Nicoletta Gullace:
These would have been quite alarming developments. These, as you have noted, Laura, the British aristocracy came out of the First World War wounded. And it's also at this period in time that we begin to see the decline of the Liberal Party and the emergence of the Labour Party as the primary political opposition to the Conservatives. Oh, that's interesting. Go ahead. So which suggests a kind of greater polarization than there had been before. And in the late 19th century, you saw the beginning of the labour movement. You had Keir Hardie, a great Labour Labour leader, show up to the House of Commons wearing his cloth workmen's cap instead of a top hat or a bowler hat. And what you get in this period after the First World War, you see in the early 1920s, the first Labour government. It didn't last long. But Labour itself is becoming a political force. In 1926 there's a massive general strike and many aristocrats actually served as strike breakers during that strike in order to get the country moving again. So that you do get a sense throughout the 1920s, which was a very volatile time economically and politically, of this kind of growing polarisation between the aristocracy and old conservatism and labour and sort of newer socialist ideas.

Laura Knoy:
That's so interesting because, of course, we hear a lot about the Labour Party now with all the turmoil in contemporary Britain debating Brexit for at least the past three years and Boris Johnson's authority being challenged. And I won't even try to summarise everything that's going on over there. But what would Lord Grantham think about Brexit?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Lord Grantham would have been horrified at the idea of joining the EU in the first place. He was a Tory aristocrat. And I think in terms part of the escapism of the Down Abbey offers people is an escape from the turmoil of Brexit and the looking back on an age that people remember nostalgically now, as this age where conservative leadership was wise and just and paternalistic, where there was an order of things where people knew their place in society, even if there were little mobility, is like going off and becoming a typist. And that Lord Grantham would never have wanted to give up British sovereignty to some larger European modern overarching power. And I wouldn't be surprised if some of the sentiment of the Brexiteers is again, dovetails with that nostalgia of looking back at Downton Abbey, looking back at a time when Britain was a great power. And over the course of the 20th century, between the losses of World War One and then the huge expenditure and losses of World War Two, Britain lost its empire in the period following the Second World War and lost its preeminence of one of the great world powers. And so I think some of the nostalgia that I think is endemic in Brexit and in the desire to leave the European Union is part of a desire to turn the clock back. So I think the two things could be related.

Laura Knoy:
That's very interesting, because there's no question in the movie and in the series, Britain is, you know, the dominant isle and the preeminent culture, at least that's how they see themselves. So there would be no interest in joining Europe in the first place.

Nicoletta Gullace:
Certainly not with Lady Violet or Lord Grantham, I don't think. On the other hand, we've already seen that Mary is a modernizer who is primarily concerned about the agricultural productivity of her estate. She's always thinking, how am I going to make ends meet? How am I going to make ends meet? She might have looked at the European Union as a good way to sell her crops without tariffs. So I think it's unlikely that Downton Abbey will continue all the way to the age of Brexit. But you can imagine or anticipate that the family themselves might have had some differences of opinion.

Laura Knoy:
Really interesting. This is The Exchange on NHPR. So, Nicoletta, I want to ask you a completely different question. These historical themes are fascinating and you're really highlighting what a good job the series producers do in bringing these historical themes to life. I think you called it a what did you call it, a living museum or something like that. Here's my question, though. I always wonder about this. We here in America fought a revolution to, you know, shed the yoke of this nobility and the idea that one person is above the other and we've got our sort of bootstrap mentality. And if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead and so on and so forth. This is the American creed, so to speak. This being the case, Nicoletta, why are we glued to this British nobility, monarchy stuff?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, I think on one hand we can identify with the servants on some level. They're very well-developed characters in the show. So we do have sort of a lower class we can root for. We know that Daisy and Mrs. Hughes both favor the Labor Party, though they still are doing their jobs downstairs. But I think also America, we're suckers for the rich and famous. And there's something about the allure of the wealth, this class, the aristocracy. They were also glued to the Kardashians, right? We're glued to the Trumps. But this is a nobility that is a little bit removed from that. This is a nobility of grace and elegance and tact and duty. So how much better to be able to sort of engage with that type of wealth and fame? And I think, you know, it's hard to find equivalence in the United States. We are Democrats in many ways, but where we might find an equivalent would be in the sort of nostalgia for the old south. For instance, when you think about Gone with the Wind and things like that, we also have a heritage in the South that echoes the the sort of thing that we see being celebrated in Downton Abbey. We have come to recognize that that is a completely unjust society, one based on slavery, that particularly in the North we find appalling to celebrate. And I think that Gone with the Wind does not have the purchase that it did in the 1930s. Some of the critics of Downton Abbey in Britain, Labour intellectuals, for instance, would argue that what Down Abbey does is very similar to what Gone with the Wind does. It gives us a very unjust society to celebrate and makes it all appear okay, because Lord Grantham is nice to his servants and because the servants themselves are content.

Laura Knoy:
So that soft, gentle focus, you know, maybe should be a little harsher, you're saying or at least the critics in Britain are saying to show that this was really, you know, really difficult, difficult, unjust life for these people downstairs. That's correct. So you've seen the film. We won't do any spoilers. What's the difference?

Nicoletta Gullace:
Well, I think I would say that the film is like eating candy. I never stopped smiling for two hours. It was so much fun. What the film does, I think and I'm not going to give a spoiler here because this is in the trailers. But what the centerpiece of the movie is, is that King George and Queen Mary come to dinner at Downton Abbey.

Laura Knoy:
And everyone is in a tizzy, upstairs and downstairs. And it brings up all these old concerns and issues. And we'll stop there, Nicoletta, because people will just see the movie. I went at four o'clock on a Monday and the theater was full. So thank you so much for being here. It was really nice to meet you. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.