Downton Abbey: Opening Episode Commentary

An excellent opener I thought. The two-hour premier made sure to highlight a few historical considerations of the time that will propel plot lines throughout the season. Here is a quick recap:

1) Lord Grantham lost all of Cora’s money in a bad investment, and now everyone might have to leave Downton. #HousingCrisis.  More to come on that bad investment, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), in a separate post later this week – I got my hands on a copy of the arbitration agreement that whether the company’s shares had any value following GTR’s rapid decline, and let me tell you now: it does not look good.  Poor Lord Grantham.

2) There is also a lot of chatter about what the loss of Downton would mean for the estate, the community, the staff, and the Grantham family. Little sentences here and there got the point across: Downton is a major employer for the area, and drives a lot of the local economy. Furthermore, the live-in staff would have nowhere to go. But Alun Howkins, in The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside since 1900, points out that the idea that a great house is the center of a socio-economic and cultural community is Victorian in its origins. Opinions on this were beginning to change by 1920.

And though the Granthams may have to downsize – to “a modest estate…we don’t have to go down the mines,” clarifies Lady Grantham – doing so would not be outside the norm: many large landowners were starting to move to smaller places for various reasons (the fact that their heirs were dead from the war was one key consideration). To take their place, farmers were beginning to buy small plots of land of their own, slicing up big estates. Landholding patterns began to shift, albeit slowly.

3) Tom Branson is making waves (surprise, surprise) not only with his tweed jacket at dinner but also with his Irish Republic fervor. The Irish War of Independence officially began in 1919 following Ireland’s declaration of independence.  By the time of Lady Mary’s wedding in the spring of 1920, tensions were high though violence had not fully escalated. Bloody Sunday will happen near the end of 1920, and Downton Abbey episodes will likely continue to include the Anglo-Irish War in some way. Will Tom join the army? Or will he become a spokesman/political figure of the new republic? I am leaning towards the latter at the moment.

4) More of a side snippet than a full storyline I think, but Ethel will give us a glimpse of how absolutely wretched life can be for women with no money. When I mentioned Ethel as one of the more enterprising characters on Downton in my last post, prostitution did not cross my mind. But no doubt Isobel will help her find “alternate employment” even if the topic won’t be openly broached at the dinner table.

Season Three is off to a good start. What are your thoughts so far?

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