Downton at War

[Spoilers ahead - but come on, it's been a decade!]

 In an attempt to stave off the Lockdown Three boredom, two weeks ago I sat down to finally watch Downton Abbey. Yes, I know I'm a decade late to the party.

When Downton first aired in 2010 I rather quickly concluded that it was a poor ITV imitation of the Upstairs, Downstairs revival that aired around the same time. I loved Upstairs, Downstairs for all its 1930s scandal, and didn't see how Downton could match up to it.

And in terms of Downton's first series I was probably right. Its seven episodes speed from Titanic to war, making superficially short work of the period from 1912 to 1914. But if I thought that was speedy, it was nothing on series two - the First World War series - that is a whistlestop tour of the period from 1914 to 1920.

It felt in many ways that that Julian Fellowes and his vast cast couldn't wait to be done with the war. It was a necessary distraction for the characters, that had to be acknowledged in order to tee up the interwar years, but that created an awkward roadblock in the progression of the show's dynamics and relationships. This seemed especially the case when from series three onwards, barely any time seemed to pass at all.

Yet, I have to confess I did enjoy the series and was really getting invested in the characters, even if their problems were largely ridiculous. But for all the enjoyment, I'll never not be a historian watching things set in the First World War and Downton Abbey did raise some interesting points about how we do and don't characterise the war in popular entertainment.

The main narrative of the series is the house's transformation into a convalescent home, a place for soldiers to recuperate after their discharge from hospital. This was typical of many stately homes at the time. I lived in Manchester during the First World War centenary and the Downton set-up was very reminiscent of the convalescent home at Dunham Massey, near Altrincham that the National Trust re-created in 2014. 

I liked also that Sybil trained as a nurse, becoming the first of her sisters to do something practical. Initially, I had thought this was too much of a cliched role to which the character was clearly not suited, but it did turn out to be a decent storyline of character development as she proved herself hardworking.

However, my main question by the end of the series, and I say this with great, if unwarranted, affection for the character, is what on earth did Mary do for the entirety of the war? Other than sit around, feeling sad about Matthew, that is. It would have been really nice to have seen her getting involved in philanthropic efforts to support the war, as many aristocratic women did. Where Sybil was doing something expected in media of women's war roles, it would have been nice to see Mary depicting another activity by which she could make a difference. Clearly, she was hardly one to get her hands dirty, but organising Flag Day charitable drives or other contributions from the village may have been nice.

What would have been particularly nice - and I know I speak from bias here - would have been if the convalescent home and Downton hospital could have had something like a YMCA hut. Cora could have presided, Daisy could have manned the urn, and it would have proved a more suitable outlet for the occasional concert that was lazily hosted in the house. From this side of things, the series came across largely as a waste of good female characters who played into modern expectations rather than giving them individual purposes.

And then you have the men in the show, for the divide in storylines is largely by gender. Matthew, despite a surprising amount of home leave when he is able to get repeatedly home to Yorkshire, gets injured. His batman William, who brought little to the show, was sacrificed as an unmissable character (I, like Daisy, would quickly forget about him). But Matthew became disabled by injury, confined to a wheelchair and unable to have children for a conveniently short amount of time. Such an injury was used in the plot to further complicate Mary's conflicted feelings towards him and their potential future, something that came across as a little lazy and somewhat unfair.

War disability becomes a major theme in the series, perhaps a trope of Home Front life, but justified given the context of the convalescent home. Yet, the oddest storyline within this was that of Patrick (or was he Peter?), the Candian soldier who had received facial injuries and who may or may not have been the Crawley sisters' cousin who was thought to have died on the Titanic. I always expected this story to come back in later series, but it never did, meaning that the whole plot point hinged on his wounds which were both stopping anyone from recognising him and providing him a mask to conceal his identity behind.

This was the one part of the series that felt really unfair. Both Edith and Mary, who each claimed to have loved him, allowed themselves to believe it was only Patrick's scarring that stopped them recognising him and very much used the wounds as a tool upon which his  whole identity depended. It came across as unsympathetic and the fact it was so brief only further confuses me in hindsight.

Moving away from injury, there was also the background storyline of Tom, the Chauffeur who was soon to run off with Sybil. He's presented as a political radical, an Irishman who won't fight for the Crown. This is a fully understandable perspective of the time, although the question of why someone who so hates the British aristocracy is so willing to work for them, is never settled. Yet, I would have liked to have seen more tension on this, particularly around the Easter Rising which is only mentioned in hindsight to Tom by other characters. If nothing else, it would have made for some funny one-liners from the Dowager.

Watching the series in 2021, it is easy to forget that series two of Downton Abbey predates the centenary and thereby dramas such as Parade's End and that one about the nurses (Google reminds me it's The Crimson Field). Would the series have been much different if it had come a few years later? 

The answer perhaps, unsatisfactorily, comes in series five when the campaign for the village's war memorial gets underway. This series is set in 1924 which is surprisingly late for such a campaign (although not unheard of). It seems particularly jarring given characters who survived the war, namely Matthew, are now long-dead by other causes. It is less surprising, however, when one realises this is the series that was broadcast in 2014, right at the start of the centenary.

In that vain, the storyline becomes about righting a wartime injustice, of getting Mrs Patmore's nephew, Archie, remembered on a memorial after he was shot for cowardice. Lord Grantham, gallant as ever, eventually funds his own  memorial plaque, having got distracted when seeking a memorial for the convenient death of his unfortunately named dog Isis, straight after the declaration of the Islamic State caliphate (this really is a whole other tangent).

Perhaps then, the First World War series had a lucky escape from more of these justice-driven plots, righting the 'forgotten' histories of the war. Clearly, the show was only ever meant as entertainment, yet I think it is interesting to reflect on its representation of the First World War, especially when placed within the broader timeline that roughly spreads from All Quiet on the Western Front, via Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder, to most recently 1917. To a historian, they not just show us history, but also show us how we see our history, and in so doing how we see our societies within it. 

And as someone who watched the whole of Downton Abbey and its film within ten days, I am only left to wonder what was Henry Talbot's war service? My guess is artillery officer.


If you're interested in someone talking far more eloquently than me on this, Jessica Meyer's brilliant article 'Matthew's Legs and Thomas' Hand: Watching Downton Abbey as a First World War Historian' is available to read for free online:

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