The Economics of Downton Abbey: Introduction to Season Four

This post does not contain plot spoilers – I’ll be watching Season Four as it airs on PBS.  

Welcome back to The Economics of Downton Abbey! I look forward to covering Season Four. As we await the opening episode of Downton Abbey (tonight on PBS!), let’s take a quick look at some socioeconomic issues that characters could be facing this season.

Cast of Downton Abbey Season Four
Cast of Downton Abbey, Season Four

Britain in 1922

Season Four of Downton Abbey begins in 1922, six months after the death of Matthew Crawley. Economically, Britain is still recovering from World War I. Unemployment is high, economic output has yet to return to pre-war levels, and low demand has stalled a lot of industries (Aldcroft, 1967). Over the next few years, technological changes and other economic improvements would boost industry, but for the moment, things are still difficult. Financially, the fate of Britain rests with the United States due to war reparations that have yet to be paid, and tensions between the two are palpable (Ahamed, 2009 and Costigliola, 1977).

Socially, too, things are no longer on solid footing.  The relationships between the upper and lower classes are changing, but not without resistance. As values and expectations change, class politics become heated, threatening the upper hand of the upper class (Jarvis, 1996). With the rise of clerical work and the advent of department stores, working- and middle- class women are beginning to see more opportunities beyond their traditional roles. Sociologist W. G. Runciman writes that, while large changes aren’t seen until after World War II, domestic service is losing its allure as the economy begins to encourage other work opportunities (1993).

At Downton Abbey

As for our Downton universe, I expect things will remain difficult for Lord Grantham money-wise.  As we learned last season, it was a difficult time for landowners. According to Runciman (1993), the early twentieth century saw increased taxation on land owners, including significant increases in death duties (taxes on property inheritance). With Matthew Crawley becoming joint owner of the estate before his death, death duties will almost certainly have to be paid.

The management of the estate could be cause for concern as well. Prior to his death, Matthew Crawley had been pushing for updated management of the estate. Now that he’s gone, it seems unlikely that the very traditional Lord Grantham will make a concerted effort to continue the updates. Though perhaps Thomas Branson, in his role as estate manager, will manage to persuade Lord Grantham to continue what they started.

The storylines of Lady Mary and Lady Edith have the potential to show opposing paths for unmarried upper-class women.  Mary’s unexpected widowhood will highlight the difficulties of her position. As the more traditionally minded sister she will no doubt seek  to marry someone with money to maintain her socioeconomic status. Edith, exerting her independence as a working woman, could showcase the changing perspective on women’s rights and societal norms.

Below stairs, I expect that technological advances will continue to lighten the workloads – though Carson might not fully approve. The focus on the servants could also highlight some of the broader social changes occurring for the lower classes – including the beginnings of greater social mobility. This season will also have some new characters, with the potential to move some story lines beyond the estate’s staid boundaries.

While at times the show’s plot lines seems over-dramatic (the New York Times likens the show to a “Harlequin romance novel in morocco leather binding”), there are many insights viewers can learn about the socioeconomic issues of the day. The show incorporates real events and demonstrates economic, technological, and social changes of the era through the eyes of the characters. While watching Lord Grantham balk at making (much-needed) changes to the management of his estate, Carson eye the newly installed telephone suspiciously, and Lady Edith arrive at the newspaper office in London to work on her column, viewers can gain insight into the broader changes taking place in Britain in the early 20th century.

As I mentioned in my introduction for Season Three last year, The Economics of Downton Abbey series is not meant to point out historical discrepancies. Rather, the series uses Downton Abbey as the inspiration for a closer investigation into economic and social issues of the time.  I look forward to the new season and the socioeconomic challenges it brings to light.

Posting schedule

Like last year, I plan to publish one post per episode and have it up on the blog the week after the episode airs. My next post will discuss the opening episode of the season and will be posted the morning of Sunday, January 12. Click over to the upper right-hand corner and you can subscribe by email to get an alert when a new post appears. I hope you follow along!

Further Reading

Ahamed, L. (2009). The Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. New York: Penguin Books.

Aldcroft, D. H. (1967). Growth in Britain in the Inter-War Years:  A ReassessmentThe Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 311 – 326.

Costigliola, F. C. (1977). Anglo-American Financial Rivalry in the 1920sThe Journal of Economic History, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 911 – 934.

Jarvis, D. (1996). British Conservatism and Class Politics in the 1920s. The English Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 449, pp. 59 – 84.

Runciman, W. G. (1993). Has British Capitalism Changed Since the First World War? The British Journal of Sociology Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 53 – 67.

Image retrieved from PBS.org.

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