Neverending Rules: Clues to Understanding Downton Abbey, Part 1

By Tuesday, May 19, 2015 , ,

{Spoiler Alert: Spoilers from all seasons of Downton Abbey are contained below. Read no further if you still plan to watch any} 

For my fellow Downton fans out there, have you ever found yourself confused by how many rules there seem to be for the Crawley family? Why did Mary make a big deal about Sybil talking to the chauffeur? Why do the parents make such a fuss about marrying off their daughters? And why didn’t Edith just tell her mom about little Marigold upfront? 

Pull up a chair and let’s chat. I’m going to try to help. Since the storylines of Downton Abbey are so intertwined with history, it’s important to understand its context of early 20th century England. There is certainly much more than I can cover in adequate detail, but in this post and another soon to follow, I’m going to try to hit the big ones that I’ve picked up on from watching Downton and its special features, as well as from reading many books set in that time period.

{Photo Source: 7-themes}
1) Society/Social Status
You often hear these phrases tossed around on Downton, and that’s because it really was everything. “Society” referred to the social circles that were necessary for families to keep up appearances and for girls to find husbands. Lords and ladies of different families would regularly “call” on each other to chat and would mix at dinners and balls. If you had not “behaved” well (more on that in a bit), you would be excluded by this polite and respectable society. For example, rumors circulate about Mary’s indiscretion with the Turkish diplomat, Mr. Pamuk, in season 1, and as a result, after a few weeks in London, she comments that she got very few “invitations.” This refers to invitations to teas, balls, or dinners. She needed to be mixing with people at these events to keep up appearances with friends, families with eligible sons, and other important ranking people to have a good chance of marrying well and to represent the reputation of her family favorably.

The other major concept about class was that you were born into your social status and you stayed there. You did not cross class lines on pains of disinheritance and being shunned by the abovementioned society. Even casually associating with people of a different social class than yourself was not done. Helping those below you was just weird – if you were poor, you were supposed to stay poor because it was the way things were, and heaven forbid that you should start thinking above your station, which much of the upper class feared would happen in the lower ranks. Thus, the lower classes did not associate with the upper because they might get ideas of bettering themselves, which was not an accepted concept. The poor and the working class were there to work and depend on the aristocracy. For example, the farmers on Lord Grantham’s estate were dependent on his land and employment. This system clearly permeates the show. In season 1, Mary snubs Matthew for being middle-class, saying snootily to her sisters that “he isn’t one of us” (“us” being the aristocracy). Also in season 1, the servants are shocked that Gwen, one of the housemaids, is trying to become a secretary. And perhaps most notably, everyone is scandalized when Sybil announces she’s going to marry Branson. We modern viewers applaud Sybil for sticking to her guns and think Robert’s awfully unfair and snobbish to shout as he does, but an earl’s daughter marrying a servant would have been a disgrace of that magnitude. And we see the repercussions of their marriage carry through later seasons. In season 5, when the family visits Brancaster Castle with the Sinderbys, the butler treats Branson rudely because he would have been a lower ranking servant if not for his marriage to Sybil. Since Branson had not been born into a privileged position, by the day’s standards, he had no business marrying someone in one and thereby bringing her lower in the class system.
Allen Leech as Tom Branson and Jessica Brown Findlay as Lady Sybil
{Photo Source: Stuffpoint}
2) Decorum/Standards/Proper Behavior/Tradition
These terms are often used interchangeably, but usually refer collectively to how people were expected to behave morally. The standards of appropriateness were strict and public, and your reputation was known by everyone with whom you mixed. Everyone among the aristocracy at least knew of everyone else, and everyone had a reputation, which would in turn reflect on your family for good or bad. There were rigorous behavioral expectations, especially for young, single women. For example, unmarried men and women could never be alone together, and so knowing this, you realize what a big deal it is when Mary and Matthew are alone in the dining room in season 1. This is also why Edith comments to Michael Gregson in season 4 that it “feels so wild” to be out dining alone in a restaurant with him. It was!

Related to this, another important proper tradition was “the season.” Young ladies were “presented” at the royal court around age 18. This time of presentation, known as “the season,” signified their official grown-up status and eligibility for marriage. Once they had been presented, they had more freedom to mix socially without their parents always present, so the season lasted for several weeks in the summer and was made up of balls, dinners, and similar occasions that girls and their families would attend after the presentation. This is why it’s not appropriate for Rose to go out to nightclubs and such before her big presentation at the palace and why Cora keeps stressing to her that more will be possible once she’s presented.

All this focus on marriage was real because for girls, it really was the only way to survive and better themselves. This is why the parental figures in Downton are so focused on ensuring their daughters marry well. And marrying “well” did not usually have to do with love. It was important to marry into a family that was of good wealth and social status so that the families were benefited too. Mary sums up the time period well when she says to Matthew in frustration,

“Women like me don’t have a life. We choose clothes and pay calls and work for charity and do the season. But really, we’re stuck in a waiting room until we marry.”

Jessica Brown Findlay as Lady Sybil, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith
{Photo Source: Fanaru}
And this aspect of marriage was just one part of what you needed to succeed as a member of the English social system. It was just one cog in the very complicated clock of Great Britain. You had to marry well in the aristocracy or have a decent job in the working class, and to get those, you had to be on your best behavior at all times. It’s difficult for us as modern viewers to comprehend just how much proper decorum upheld the inner workings of the class system. Since a good marriage and respectable connections were so paramount, you had to behave. Everything – your good name, your ability to marry well or to be employed, your family’s good name – depended on you behaving appropriately. If you didn’t, you and your family could be “ruined,” as they say often in the show. And good behavior consisted of very conservative values – men and women did not touch in any way before marriage except during a formal dance, alcoholism was frowned upon, and any criminal activity would be a black mark on you forever.

There are examples of this all over the place in Downton. The first big one is Mary’s scandal with Kemal Pamuk. If made public, it would have ruined her – ruined her chances of marrying at all, having respectable friends, or being accepted by anyone in her circles. An aristocratic girl in that situation would have likely been disowned and cast out by her family. The principle is the same when Edith becomes pregnant out of wedlock in season 4. She says she doesn’t want to be the “county failure,” or “some funny woman no one ever talks about,” and these are accurate descriptions. Girls who got pregnant outside of marriage would often be sent away from home to live in seclusion, and you would never be considered respectable again. After the drama with Marigold in season 5, I heard people say things like, “She should have just admitted to her family that she messed up and gotten them to help her! It would have been fine eventually!” Well, in reality, no it wouldn’t have. If a sexual indiscretion was found out, the girl was disdained, disgraced, and sent away from decent circles. Unfair as it was, the girl was always the big-time loser. Exhibit A: the flirtatious, daydreamy maid, Ethel, in seasons 2 and 3. And after Mary’s fling with Pamuk, Cora refers to her as “damaged goods.” That sounds awfully harsh to us today, but it was the truth then. Though Mary’s frustrated when Cora says it, notice that she never denies it; in fact, she agrees with it when she confesses her mistake to her father. This is why so much work went into keeping the Pamuk scandal a secret, and it’s also why Edith didn’t tell her family about Marigold for so long. It’s why the appropriate thing to do would have been to leave Marigold with the family in Switzerland (which I still think she should have done, but hey, what’s Downton without a few convoluted storylines?)

The same standards applied in servants’ cases. Their behavior affected their ability to continue in their employers’ favor and to get good references for future jobs. Without good references, there was little hope of finding work. At the beginning, Mr. Bates’ past alcoholism and prison sentence, combined with his limp and age, would have put him in the dirty public workhouse. That’s why he’s so eager to stay at Downton. Similarly in season 5, Baxter is terrified of telling Cora about her prison record because a servant would be fired for that. And for a working-class woman like Baxter, a criminal record and no job or reference would almost certainly drive her to prostitution. And otherwise, servants had a duty to uphold the name of the family they served, because they would have wanted to be known as servants of a respected family. That’s why they do what they can to protect the reputation of the Crawleys. You see this in how Anna and Bates help Mary hush the Pamuk story and in how Mrs. Hughes helps Branson get rid of manipulative Edna in season 4. It was a neverending cycle, because on top of all that, the servants’ personal behavior would also reflect on the family, another reason to have clean records. This is why Mr. Bates feels he must leave in season 1 when his prison history and past alcoholism are revealed, and it’s why Anna is so desperate to hide her rape in season 4 – both of these instances would have brought shame on them and on the whole house they served, unfair as it was.
Brendan Coyle as John Bates and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates
{Photo Source: Fanaru}
 Talk about pressure, right?! Whenever I watch the show or read a book set in a similar time period, I feel very grateful that I don’t have quite so much riding on my behavior. The harsh expectations of that society are part of what make me admire characters of that era. They had normal human experiences and emotions, but also had to navigate this incredibly complicated social system. And hang around – there’s more to come! These people also had all those wardrobe changes and weird rituals to go through every day, which had to make things even more complicated. Stay tuned for more on clothes, dinners, and the seemingly endless army of servants below stairs at Downton.

*I do not own the rights to the photos in this post. All photos used were retrieved from credited Internet sources*

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