While watching Episode Two of this season, I couldn’t help but notice that the grand house party thrown by the Crawleys seemed to be lavish display masking the difficulties brewing beneath the surface – both at Downton and in Britain as a whole. (The distressing storyline with Anna – literally masked by the party – is outside the scope of this blog, but The Toast had a great piece on it by historian Mo Moulton.) Perhaps the house party where Downton is “once more a scene of great splendor” is an attempt to reassert Lord Grantham’s social prestige as his financial position declines.
In the interwar period, staid parlor visits with close neighbors were replaced with frenetic socializing in the forms of night clubs and dancing in London, and long weekends in the country. The 1920s were a fairly gloomy period in Great Britain, economically speaking. Britain was losing its status as a world economic and political power (as the United States was rising to the top). War reparations were making things difficult financially and unemployment was high for the lower classes. Politically, the landed aristocrats and their interests were pushed to the margins with the emergence of professional politicians. It’s almost as if the increased social life of the upper classes happened in part to avoid thinking about the changing political and economic climate.
Weekend House Party
The weekend house party was a relatively new social custom that began before World War I thanks to the motor car. With the advent of the car, London society expanded to the country. The personal mobility that came with the motor car allowed guests to come and go with ease, and social life became more fluid, particularly in the interwar period (Cannadine, 1990). We can see this with Lady Edith, who seems to be constantly shuttling between Downton and London to visit with Mr. Gregson.
In his book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, historian David Cannadine writes that the house party was often an event for the ‘new rich’. (Though the larger British economy was suffering, individuals were certainly making money through banking, diversified investments,and other business pursuits in London.) The new rich went to the country in short stints for relaxation, while business ventures were conducted in the city. As Cannadine writes, the country was ‘a place were money was spent, not made’ (p. 359). In this sense, Lord Grantham is once again old-fashioned, gladly participating in the new custom of the long weekend, but remaining outside of London enterprise.
Unlike Lord Grantham, the new rich were interested in country houses, but not necessarily the land or the management responsibilities that came with large estates. The lack of interest in rural life is apparent in this episode. Lady Mary asks if anyone would like to go riding and the only person who agrees is Lord Gillingham, who also grew up on a large estate; the gentlemen from London have no interest in horse riding.
Difficulties Upstairs and Down
Cannadine notes that landed estates often ceased to be ‘economically viable’ in the interwar period (p. 98). Even the historian, F.M.L. Thompson, who believes that the decline of the great estates was exaggerated, admits that the interwar years were a ‘particularly bad time for heavily indebted estates’ (1991, p. 13). Agricultural income during this time was declining due to falling prices. Taxes (extending beyond death duties) were raised, and rental incomes were falling. During this episode, it’s clear that no expense was spared for the house party, but even so acknowledgement of the difficulties could not be avoided. Lord Gillingham discusses how his country house has turned into a school for girls while he remains in the dower house (normally reserved for widows). Viewers flip between his conversations with Lady Mary about the difficulties with the death duties, and Lady Mary’s attempts to persuade her father to agree to her ideas about the estate’s future.
Below stairs, it’s apparent that servant situation is also worse than it was before the war. The Crawleys have 10 guests staying with them for the weekend, but only three maids and two valets join the visitors. After Jimmy hurts his hand, Molesley is borrowed to assist as a footman (much to his horror) and Mrs. Patmore practically has a heart attack trying to prepare the meals. “Not like before the war, now is it?” asks Carson. “Very little is,” replies Mrs. Hughes. The weekend party, while recalling the old days of splendor, was an increased burden for the servants of Downton.
Cannadine, D. (1999). The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1990)
Rothery, M. (2007). The Wealth of the English Landed Gentry. The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 255 – 268.
The Presidential Address Series by F. M. L. Thompson:
Thompson, F. M. L. (1990). Presidential Address: English Landed Society in the Twentieth Century I Property: Collapse and Survival. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 4, pp 1 – 24.
Thompson, F. M. L. (1991). Presidential Address: English Landed Society in the Twentieth Century II New Poor and New Rich. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 1, pp 1 – 20.
Thompson, F. M. L. (1992). Presidential Address: English Landed Society in the Twentieth Century III Self-Help and Outdoor Relief. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 2, pp 1 – 23.
Thompson, F. M. L. (1993). Presidential Address: English Landed Society in the Twentieth Century IV Prestige Without Power?. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 3, pp 1 – 22.