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Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey Season 2’

Last night PBS showcased the Christmas special of Downton Abbey. Did you find the finale of Season 2 satisfying? Too cliched? Did you encounter unexpected twists? Or did you guess just about every plot point as my neighbor did? Warning to those who have not seen the Christmas special: This post contains nothing but plot spoilers!

Julian Fellowes with Dan Stevens and Elizabeth McGovern.

Julian Fellowes with Dan Stevens and Elizabeth McGovern. Credit courtesy Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

I found the details of how the Crawleys treated the servants at Christmas quite interesting, giving them gifts and allowing them a free day.  Sir Richard’s response to the Crawleys’ generosity towards the servants told much about him and foreshadowed the difficulties he would encounter with Mary. They are constantly at loggerheads and his jealousy towards her real feelings for Matthew bubbled over.Sir Richard’s jealousy of Matthew bubbles over. He and Mary are constantly at loggerheads. While he seemed a harsh man, in the end it turns out that he truly cared for the eldest Crawley sister. Even as they make googoo eyes at each other, an upright and uptight Matthew informs Lady Mary that they can never be together because of his guilt trip over Lavinia’s death. Her reply, “Didn’t they teach you never to make promises?” This story line, ending in their engagement, finally gives the viewer a happy ending

With Mr. Bates in prison, the viewer is beginning to wonder if things will ever go right for him and Anna.  I am beginning not to care. The trial was over the top and melodramatic, but it did showcase O’Brien’s attempts to say and do the right thing. As for Anna’s reaction to hubby’s impending life/death sentence in prison – violin strings please.

This viewer sorely missed seeing Sybil and Tom. Their absence created a glaring hole in the story line, although their good news about her pregnancy meant joy for Cora and a Fenian grandchild for the skeptical earl.

It was a delight to see Edith boldly cast her hook and line at Sir Anthony Strallan, one of the few able bodied single men left standing after the war, albeit a little long in the tooth.

In order to be thought a hero,Thomas absconded with the earl’s dog, Isis, a most foul deed that backfired. With this act he entered the pantheon of  the ten most dastardly villains in entertainment history. Isis escapes from the shack

The story of Mr. Mason, William’s father, and Daisy provided a sweet sub plot. Daisy talks to William via the ouija board and Mrs. Patmore.

Many plot points were tied up during the finale, which redeemed Season 2. I do hope that Sybil and Branson will return, for I felt their absence keenly. As for Bates and Anna, their down-in-the-luck story line is getting a little old. While a happy couple makes for boring fiction, the relentless bad luck that this couple experiences has entered the realm of the absurd. It is also time that Edith enjoys her moment in the spotlight. She’s changed this year. While she still gives Mary a couple of good digs, she has become a more rounded character. What did you think of the last episode? Alas we will have to wait 11 months before Season 3 airs. Can we even stand it?

Today I conclude this year’s coverage of Downton Abbey. Future posts will return to the Georgian and Regency eras, where this blog ideally resides. Thank you, readers, for your patience as my Downton Abbey fever ran its course.

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Season Two of Downton Abbey is winding down on PBS tonight with the Christmas Special. Americans can watch previous episodes online through March 6, 2012. All I can say is – it’s about time. I don’t know about you, but this season seems a bit long and dragged out. I don’t think the one-hour airings between 2-hour book-ended shows helped. Several of us talked over the water cooler at work and felt that the one-hour airings were too short and ended abruptly. Plus some of the plot lines were a bit predictable. Be that as it may, I still prefer this series heads and shoulders above almost anything shown on cable these days.

To assuage your Downton Abbey cravings before Season 3 airs (Yesss!), an excellent artist named Kyle Hilton has created a series of paper dolls for you to download and play with. (The concept was by Willa Paskin. Vulture commissioned the four sets of paper dolls.) Perhaps you could even create your own story lines. Matthew and Mary come with a surprise, and Violet’s been given a range of expressions! Or not.

The paper dolls that are missing whose story line I would like to change are those for Mr. Bates and Anna. Perhaps Kyle is studying up on prison uniforms of the time, or figuring out how to place those two dolls in their marital bed. I also miss having the earl and his countess.

I quibble, however. These are such fun! Click on the links below to print out the paper dolls. You will have to cut them out the old-fashioned way – with scissors.

Meanwhile, I shall be on tenterhooks all night long waiting for the Christmas finale. See you there and at the twitter party with moi and one of your favorite Janeite friends, Laurel Ann Natress, editor of the anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It. Hash tag: #DowntonPBS

Paper dolls courtesy of Kyle Hilton

Links:

Kyle writes about his paper dolls and why they are free:
Personally, I think artists selling artwork that is largely someone else’s intellectual property is wrong.  It may not be a clear, black and white illegal issue, but the selling designs of t-shirts, posters, or even something like these paper dolls that are based off something someone else created (like tv shows, movies, etc) is to me, a cheap and easy way to make money.  There are a ton of shirts and posters out there that get around the issue by not directly showing a character or a logo, but in my opinion are still depending on the intellectual property of someone else’s creation.  I know not every illustrator sees it the same way, but for me, I’d rather make these dolls because I love doing it, share them for free at the highest resolution Tumblr allows and not get involved in trying to make money that for the most part belongs to people like Vince Gilligan, Mitch Hurwitz and Tim and Eric.  Plus, how often is stuff free? Not getting money for these means I’m free to make terrible, terrible mistakes!

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Twists and turns keep the plot of Downton Abbey rolling. One twist was unsurprising – the arrival of Spanish flu just as the war was winding down. The flu pandemic that swept around the world and killed an estimated 40 million people (some scientists estimate that as many as 100 million died globally) in three waves in 1918,  1919, and 1920 spread quickly via troop movements and global transportation. One major problem in containing the pandemic was that in 1918 governments were primarily concerned with the war and were caught flat-footed in containing the pandemic when it struck. The first wave of the pandemic was the most deadly.

Flu pandemic image @Wikipedia

Flu pandemic image @Wikipedia

The Spanish flu resulted in a particularly virulent and lethal pandemic. At the time people did not yet understand how flu was spread or how to take precautions against it. All they could do was stay indoors and wear masks when venturing outside. Two age groups that were especially susceptible were babies less than a year old and healthy young adults between the ages of 15 and 35. The flu usually killed the very young and the very old, but this virus strain attacked teens and young adults with robust immune systems. Immune cells were activated by the virus, increasing the number of immune cells circulating in the blood and overwhelming the lungs with fluids.

Healthy young adults essentially drowned from within. Some patients died only a few hours after their first symptoms appeared; others died in a matter of days. Patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance.

In the US, twenty five percent of the population was afflicted by the flu. More remarkably, in only one year the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 12%.

As happened in real life, a number of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants contracted the flu. Some survived and others did not. Edwardian Promenade has written a more detailed account on this topic.

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My regular Jane Austen readers have been patient as I succumbed to Downton Abbey fever and began to cover events 100 years after Jane Austen’s death. Customs changed during that intervening century. Take the matter of dress. While proper Regency ladies changed their outfits from morning gowns to walking gowns when they went out, and changed into dinner dress when dining, by Victorian and Edwardian times the custom of a lady changing her clothes throughout the day had turned into a fine art.  One could get by with no less than 4-5 changes per day. A woman who packed to visit a country estate was sure not to be seen in the same outfit twice. This meant that for a 4-day visit she would need at the very minimum to have her maid pack 16 changes of outfits. One can only imagine the work of a lady’s maid to keep all the clothes and unmentionables in perfect (and clean) condition. Such attention to detail required quite a bit of organization.

Morning dress, 1815. Ackermann plate. While she looked proper in her at home attire, this morning dress looks stodgy compared to the Edwardian teagown.

Corsets were worn all through the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century. Women were constricted into these garments for most of their waking day, but there were times when they were free from these tight-laced garments.  During the early 19th century, upper class women at home would wear comfortable (but beautiful) morning gowns. Dressing gowns were also worn. Such gowns were meant to be seen by the family and close relatives only. The moment a woman expected to be seen, she would change into more proper dress.

Cora, the Countess of Grantham, lived during a time when teagowns were all the rage. These beautiful ornate gowns had the advantage of being simply cut and worn without a corset. It was possible that for just a few hours she could relax comfortably before dinner.

They were generally loose-fitting and elaborately trimmed, and gave full vent to the dressmaker’s or couturier’s skill and taste for theatricality. Tea-gowns were influenced by historical styles from eighteenth century Watteau-pleats, to renaissance hanging sleeves and empire waistlines and quite often, all of them at the same time. Never has so much love and art been invested in such an arguably unnecessary garment. All kinds of informal garments including tea jackets, peignoirs, dressing gowns, combing sacques, morning robes and dressing jackets also had their place in the leisured Edwardian lady’s wardrobe, all of them beautifully decorated and almost all of them now obsolete. 1900-1919: The Last Age of Elegance 

American dancer and actress Irene Castle wearing a teagown, 1913

It had long been the custom for a lady to entertain both male and female visitors in her boudoir. (Read my article on this topic.) During the Regency era, dressing gowns were quite plain and simple compared to teagowns.

1810-23 dresssing gown. Image @Met Museum

At times the teagown gave rise to temptation, for a woman could entertain in private and not need the services of her maid:

Worn between five and seven oclock,  gave rise to the French phrase ‘cinq à sept‘. This referred to the hours when lovers were received, the only time of day when a maid wouldn’t need to be there to help you undress and therefore discover your secret. – “Style”, The World of Downton Abbey, Jessica Fellowes

Early 19th century dressing gown. Image @Met Museum

Attired in her tea-gown, a soft flowing robe of filmy chiffon or fine silk, trimmed with an abundance of lace and often free of corsetry, the hostess must have been a tempting prospect for many men. Such loose gowns afforded women great comfort, ease of access and a tremendous sense of femininity. Little wonder then that whilst hemlines rose and fell the tea-gown, which had appeared in England as early as 1875 lingered on until the 1920s. – Edwardian tea gowns, fashion era

This Lingerie-style dress embellished with Irish crochet, c.1905 (below) can be seen in more detail on Vintage Texiles. Made of sheer cotton decorated with lace and ruffles, this sheer dress required a slip.

Edwardian teagown, 1905. Image @Vintage Textile

More on the topic:

Read more on the topic: Tea Gowns, Edwardian Promenade

Image of an early 19th century dressing gown at the Met Museum

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We’re well into Season 2 of Downton Abbey and some obvious patterns in coupling are beginning to emerge in this historical or historic melodrama. Let’s examine how some of our favorite characters are getting on, shall we? (Caution: there will be spoilers for those who have not kept up with the series. Some might also be offended by the language in parts.)

Bates and Anna: The Daisy Saw Chain of Desire

Yes, we will, no we won’t Yes we will, no we can’t. Yes we hope, darn she’s back!

It’s hard to remain on Team Bates when all this couple is allowed to do is react to circumstances beyond their control. We want to root for them, don’t we? The lovely maid Anna and stoic Bates have won our hearts from the start. After becoming sweethearts against his will (for he is married, after all, a minor matter), they give each other romantic looks and sighs, and confess their modest dream of starting their own inn and family.

Bates and Anna. Image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Then a nasty surprise in the shape of the very inconvenient Mrs. Bates arrives to dampen their plans (but not their ardor).

The wickedly delicious Vera Bates lights up the small screen with her foul plans to destroy the couple and the Grantham family because of her intense hatred for her husband. Bates turns into such a milquetoast when she spouts her venom that you just want to kick his butt to force him into action and whack her one. Alas, he remains a milquetoast.

It is up to Sir Richard to use his nouveau riche power and slap the woman down. Vera more than meets her match in Sir Richard, and frankly, these two spark more fire in their short scenes together than Anna and Mr. Bates ever could.

Poor Bored Lord Grantham

Being the head of a landed estate and master of a multitude of subordinates just isn’t enough to keep him busy, thus poor Lord Grantham is shown reading the newspaper in half his scenes in Series 2. His disappointment at not being given an active commission and sent to the front, where he would stand a 50-50 chance of being killed or maimed, sends him sulking to his small corner of the library.

To make matters worse, now that Cora has won her war of wills over Isobel, she has more important matters on her mind than to keep his lordship entertained. The soldiers must be taken care of: Lists made, sheets folded, accommodations planned, meals ordered, and the day in general organized.

Poor pitiful Lord Grantham is starting to feel neglected and lonely. Rather than working with his steward to reorganize his farms to grow vegetables for the army, and mobilizing his workers to do all they can for the cause, the earl behaves like a spoiled two-year old and attends to matters that are best left to others – namely that of hiring a comely war widow as the new maid. To be fair, Carson consulted him first, but shouldn’t this be Mrs. Hughes’ decision, plain and simple?

The Mary-Matthew-Lavinia Triangle

First Mary didn’t want Matthew. Then she wanted him. Then she changed her mind. Then she changed her mind again, which is when he left her, suspecting that she only wanted him for his eventual title not his humble self. Their parting in Season One gave satisfaction to noone but Mary’s sister Edith.

So Mary had to search in other quarters to snag herself a man. He’s not as pretty or accommodating as Matthew, but boy-oh-boy does her new rough-around-the-edges, no-nonsense and ruthless tycoon promise an exciting romp in bed. In the high stakes game that is the marriage mart, love played absolutely no role in Mary’s decision to bind herself to Sir Richard.

Woebetide Mary.

After rejecting his one true love, Matthew hied away from Downton Abbey, only to return two years later with a fiancee named Lavinia. His choice for a wife is as exciting as a crumpled piece of paper. On their first meeting, Mary sidles up to Lavinia with a polite but fixed stare and welcomes her to the Abbey. Lavinia, in awe of her surroundings and the fact that she will one day rule as supreme mistress of the premises, fails to notice the electric looks of longing and passion that pass between Matthew and Mary.

Masochistic Mary, who’s stiff upper lip is firmly planted in front of her clenched teeth, actually tries to be supportive of Lavinia while pretending to be a mere friend to Matthew.

C’mon, Mary! Fess up! One word from Matthew and you’ll drop Sir Richard like a hot potato and jump into Matthew’s sack. Mary experiences a hiccup in that desire when she discovers that Matthew’s unfortunate paralysis has resulted in his inability to perform those rites of passage that turn a blushing young bride into a woman of the world. But then she consoles herself with the thought that, thanks to Pamuk’s manly charms, she has already crossed that heavenly threshold.

Upon seeing Matthew lying prostrate in bed and learning that his prostate is of no use whatsoever, Miss Swire, who still hasn’t figured out that bees come from bees and birds from birds, cries her virginal heart out. She senses that whatever Matthew is trying to tell her must not bode well for their marital relations (whatever that means!).

As for Matthew’s steadfast love for Lavinia: I scoff. I laugh. I guffaw. Honestly, if both women competed in The Dating Game, Lavinia wouldn’t even come in third.

Upstairs Downstairs Love

First he drove her, now he wants to ride her. Branson’s a brash young Irishman who knows his worth. It’s a new age, and social unrest and the war have turned the world topsy turvy. It’s not unusual for a healthy young servant buck to turn his lascivious eyes on the master’s nubile daughter, but to act on his emotions and dare to declare his love? Now that’s awfully balsy of him…n’est pas?

Branson’s object of desire, Lady Sybil, is no namby pamby miss. She was all for the suffragette movement before the war, and actively supported Gwen’s right to improve her life with a typewriter. Sybil’s become a VAD, or volunteer nurse, and washed men’s bloody stumps and tended to their most intimate ablutions. She’s even seen their parts! (Our lovely Sybil has come of age in more ways than one.)

Still, her attraction to Branson, and his to her, is a social taboo that defies the world order as Lord Grantham and his mama know it. Will they find out? Will our hapless couple overcome all obstacles on their path to true love? Or will they part in sweet sorrow? Stay tuned as their world churns.

Lady Edith and Uh, Uh, Uhm ….

Lady Edith on her fine piece of equipment. Image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Poor Lady Edith. As if it weren’t bad enough to be caught in the middle of two dynamic and beautiful sisters, she was born with neither personality nor looks. It was Sybil who advised Edith to find her special talents. Well, we know all about one of them – to make Mary’s life hell. But then the war interrupted her favorite sport of baiting her sister. What to do? Drive a tractor, of course, and make sport with the farmer’s wife’s husband after digging deep furrows in his fertile ground. A discreet romp on top of the hay (with all their clothes on) and a joining of moist lips was all it took for the farmer’s wife to aim her proverbial pitchfork at Edith and order her off her man and the land she was plowing.

Poor Edith. Now what? She starts wandering around the house like her papa, with wide vacant eyes, making me wonder if Season 2 is turning into Downton Abbey and Zombies. Then, all of a sudden, Edith discovers the joy of letter writing and transcribing the thoughts of injured soldiers. She plumps up their pillows, fetches their newspapers and books, and takes lessons from the family dog to learn how to become a loyal and useful shadow.

Edith’s good deeds garner her accolades and she blushes from the unexpected glory. Can Edith be saved? Will she turn into an interesting character? So far she’s fooling everyone except Lady Mary, who turning bug-eyed keeping her eyes on both Matthew and her back-stabbing sister.

Yo Mama Wuz Right and U Wuz Wronged

We kind of liked Ethel from the moment we met her, didn’t we? Cheeky and uppity, a bit selfish, too assured, and totally clueless. She’s going to move up in the world and nothing, not even a maid’s position, is going to stop her. When O’Brien plays her tricks on Ethel we laugh,while feeling sorry for her. It’s our first glimpse of the young maid’s vulnerability. She’s all bravado and not too smart.

Caught by Mrs. Hughes in bed with an opportunistic snake, Ethel is cast out of Downton’s downstairs with nothing but the clothes on her back and a growing surprise in her belly. Alas and alack, Ethel’s story arc reflects events that actually happened in the past.

While the Lothario walks away with impunity, the seduced young woman must pay a steep price and become a social pariah.

This Marriage Makes Kim Kardashian’s Seem Eternal

William loves Daisy. Mrs. Patmore loves William like a son. Daisy adores Thomas, but he’s, like, TOTALLY unavailable.

Good old Mrs. Patmore, feeling sad about her nephew’s death, pushes an unwilling Daisy into William’s arm. “C’mon, luv”, she urges the young scullery maid, “It can’t hurt being nice to him – the poor sod is going off to war! What harm can it do?” So a reluctant Daisy goes along with the well-meaning cook and hands William her photo, which is akin to Britspeak for “engaged to be married.” Armed with her image, William knows that he can face a fearless death, which he does, for he returns from Amiens with shattered lungs and takes to his death bed.

Daisy is cattle prodded by the well-meaning staff to marry poor William, who is stoic with the thought that although he is unable to deflower her in his pathetic condition, he can keep her in flour (and butter and tea) for the rest of her life by bestowing her with his name and pension.

The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham, and Everyone Else

Whenever Violet encounters anyone, the two immediately become a couple, with Violet gaining the upper hand within a milli-second. Take Violet’s scene with the reluctant minister, for example. With a firm grip on her walking stick, a cemented half smile, and an implacable attitude, she twists his aging co hones by sheer force of her will until he succumbs and marries poor Daisy and the near-dead William, whose face has turned blue. Had Violet been born in another time and social strata, she would have become a dominatrix par excellence!

One other couple must be mentioned: Thomas and O’Brien. As thick as thieves, these two villains cannot get enough of each other and their machinations. Of all the couplings in Downton Abbey, surely this one is meant to last.

And now we can all settle in for the next installment of Season 2 and the goings on at the Abbey. From what I understand, Season 3 is guaranteed. Which coupling shall last? Which shall be fruitful and multiply? And which shall wither on the vine and remain barren? Stay tuned.

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Lady Almina

Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle during the turn of the century and through World War 1, had many qualities in common with the fictional Cora, Countes of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Upon Lady Almina’s marriage, her fortune staved off financial ruin for the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and helped to renovate the mansion.

Like Lady Cora, she allowed her house to be turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers, running it at her own expense.

WW1 soldier recuperating at Highclere Castle

On her orders, each wounded officer had the luxury of his own room, with down pillows and linen sheets. She  made beds and dressed wounds” (The Daily Mail).

Lady Almina put together a skilled orthopedic operation at Highclere Castle and she had very good nursing skills, so good that she was often sent some of the hardest cases.

Soldiers were nursed back to health on fresh linen sheets, propped up on fat down pillows so they could gaze out over a beautiful country park. Silver service dinners were followed by a game of cards in the library while sipping a glass of beer, naturally from the house’s very own brewery. A butler was even on hand to pour the convalescents a nip of whisky before dinner. – The Real Downton Abbey: How Highclere Castle Became a World War 1 Hospital (includes a video).

Playing games at Highclere Castle and enjoying home brewed beer

In this matter, Almina showed one of her kinder sides, for she was reportedly a terrible mother and lived largely a selfish and extravagant life until her fortune ran out. The war touched all lives and all class stratas, and not a family was left standing at its end that did not experience a loss:

“All their young men are gone,” lamented the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens of the sons of  Mells Manor, one super-romantic house in Somerset. That was in 1919 when he went to help choose the site of the village war memorial – a figure of St George on a column. The pain of the Horner family at the loss of their son Edward, the last of the male line, can be seen from his monument in the church: a moving statue of the young cavalry officer by Munnings. – The Telegraph, What Next For Downton Abbey?

For several centuries during wars and conflict, great country houses had been conscripted for medical services. One of the earliest country houses to be used as a hospital was Greenwich Palace, which was converted to a navel hospital in 1694.

During World War One:

A genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI. – Houses as Hospital: the country house in medical service

The numbers of wounded soldiers who were returned from the battlefields of northern France and Belgium were unprecedented. It was enormously difficulty to remove wounded men from battlefields riddled with shell pocks and guarded by staggered rows of  barbed wire barriers that were miles long. Scores of soldiers who could have survived under immediate medical attention were left to die unattended.  Medics practiced triage, making instant decisions and leaving behind those who stood little chance of surviving or who could not withstand the rigors of being carried to safety. Even when soldiers were successfully brought back to camp, many had to suffer a long wait, for doctors and nurses were overwhelmed, supplies were short, and field hospital conditions were ghastly. A large number died behind the front waiting to be transported.

The soldiers who were brought back to England overwhelmed the hospitals and medical staff that were available. Auxiliary hospitals exploded around England,  many of them the country homes of aristocrats. These houses were not ideally suited for their new positions. During the late 19th century, Florence Nightingale influenced the design of hospitals, noting the importance of separating unsanitary scullery sinks from patient beds, for example, and improving cleanliness and introducing hygiene. While country houses did not provide antiseptic conditions, they became ideal havens for convalescents and for those who suffered from tuberculosis, for these patients required clean country air.

In the second episode of Series 2, the less seriously wounded soldiers or those whose injuries were healing and who needed convalescence were sent to Downton Abbey.  In real life, hospitals and convalescent houses were staffed by a commandant in charge, a quartermaster in charge of provisions, a matron in charge of the nursing staff, and the local voluntary aids, who were trained in first aid and home nursing.

To accommodate the soldiers, family members were confined and restricted to certain rooms in their own home. One would assume this would not be a hardship, since the houses were so large, but the labor shortage and the need for injured soldiers to be housed in large rooms without going up the stairs would most likely necessitate some appropriation of a family’s favorite rooms.  Lord Grantham’s library was divided, so that most of the room became a recreational space and a small section was left to him. Downton Abbey’s central hall became a dining area. Such changes must have grated on the privileged class, who, while wanting to perform their patriotic duty, could not escape encountering the hoi polloi in their daily routine.

With so many men serving as soldiers, servants were stretched thin and forced to perform duties that normally were outside of their scope and that stepped over the boundaries of etiquette. Anna helped to serve at dinner, which would have been totally unacceptable during peace time. Carson, in an effort to maintain the status quo, ruins his health and thus worsens the situation when he is laid low in bed.

Due to the war and its many effects, society was in turmoil. Social change happened on many fronts and class barriers began to blur. As men fought and died in France, women, including those who formerly worked as servants, filled their positions in factories, corporations, and farms. Great houses began to feel the pinch of being short staffed, and genteel ladies who were accustomed to being served had to cook and sew for themselves.

To feed the army, country estates converted their flower gardens to grow fruits and vegetables. At Hatfield House, the Cecil family’s “fields and private golf course were filled with trenches and a man-made swamp to create a maneuvering ground for an experimental weapon under development, the tank.”*

Isobel Crawley, once a working middle class wife – until her son, Matthew, was suddenly propelled into the position of heir to the Earl of Grantham –  finds her true calling in ministering to injured soldiers. She was trained as a nurse and had performed charity work in caring for the sick. The need for her professional services made her feel like a valued woman again. Isobel’s zealousness in converting Downton Abbey into a convalescent home placed her in direct conflict with Cora, Lady Grantham, and continued her battle of wills with Violet, the dowager Countess. Isobel’s situation was not unusual, for during this war many people of the working classes who were professionally trained found themselves in positions of superiority over gently bred women who volunteered as nurses aids.  One Indian soldier remarked with some awe that a noble British lady had ministered to his wounds and treated him as an equal.*

It was only because of the war that a former footman like Thomas would dare enter through the front door or that a doctor could serve as head of the hospital and make decisions that overrode those of the owners of the house. Lady Sybil, whose support of the suffragettes was revealed in the first series, became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse), for there simply weren’t enough professional nurses to go around.

VAD Poster

In many cases, women in the neighbourhood volunteered on a part-time basis, although they often needed to supplement voluntary work with paid labour, such as in the case of cooks. Medical attendance was provided locally and voluntarily, despite the extra strain that the medical profession was already under at that time. – History of British Red Cross

VADs were trained for only a few weeks before working under professional nurses.

Only the middle and upper classes could afford to work for free, and to pay for the courses and exams that were required to become a VAD. Growing up with servants, many of these young women had never had to wash a plate or boil an egg. One girl related how amusing it was to serve tea at the hospital and then return home to have her own tea served by the parlour maid. – The Great War As You May Not Know It

VADs changed linens, sterilized equipment, and served meals, but many were also exposed to the rawer side of war and at times, when the influx of casualties overwhelmed the staff, VADs were expected to perform the duties of a professional nurse.

Red Cross VADs

VADs were generally from genteel, sheltered, and chaperoned backgrounds. Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners – the “Princess Di” of her day – reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was very much against Diana becoming a VAD, as Diana states in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. “She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them,” The Duchess gave in, but “… knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand,” Diana says, and goes on to admit, “I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years.” Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure. – The Great War As You May Not Know It

Serving as a VAD changes Lady Sybil, giving her a direction and purpose. Lady Edith, too, finds new meaning in an otherwise predictable life consisting of dinners, parties, and long stretches of boredom. Lady Sybil advised her sister to find her talent and pursue it, which Edith did. One wonders if Lady Mary will  find a similar passion before she throws her life away and marries a man she does not love or (we suspect) respects.

The strength of Downton Abbey’s plot threads this year is how they incorporate the roiling changes in class structure during a complex political time in which the necessities of war, the dissatisfaction of the working classes, and the continued growth of the women’s movement influenced the lives of the series’ characters. More on this topic later.

If you missed Episodes 1 & 2, they can be viewed on PBS’s site through March, 2012 at this link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/watch/index.html

Please note: You can watch Downton Abbey Season 1 on Netflix as a DVD or streaming.

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Gentle readers, Downton Abbey, Season 2 will be shown on PBS through February 19, 2012. I will be writing a series of posts to help illuminate some historical details that might help the viewer who is not familiar with the events of this era. World War I’s connection to Jane Austen is poignant: soldiers in the trenches and those who were shell-shocked or recovering from injuries read Jane Austen’s novels to escape the horrors of war and relive a gentler, more civilized time. 

Warning: Minor plot spoilers

Downton Abbey’s more somber subtext this season is due to the reality of war. Season 2 opens with Matthew Crawley at the Battle of the Somme in Northern France, which lasted from July through November, 1916, and symbolizes the horrors of World War One for the British.

Lady Sybil reads about the death of a male friend. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

The Great War was supposed to have lasted only a few months in the minds of British Generals, who were accustomed to quickly overwhelming poorly armed native fighters in the colonies. But this deadly conflict, triggered by Germany as its troops marched through neutral Belgium to invade France  (and which had been building up its cache of war equipment for a long time), lasted for more than 4 years. Casualties were so catastrophic that the numbers border on the unbelievable: Great Britain, 35.8% of the forces; France, 73.3%; Belgium, 34.9%; Germany, 64.9%; Austria/Hungary, 90%!

Battle of the Somme, 1916

Of the over 65 million troops fighting in that war from all over the world, including India and North Africa, nearly 60% were killed or wounded (PBS). Add to this total the killing of innocent civilians and animals, the destruction of villages and farms in Belgium and Northern France, the enormous debt and resulting poverty that European nations faced, and one can only shake one’s head and wonder how the world could have plunged into a second world war a mere 30 years later.

Here then are only a few features of a war which is still remembered for its destructiveness one hundred years later

Barbed wire

The Battle of the Somme was supposed to have gone smoothly after the British artillery spent a week shelling German trenches. Bombardment commenced on July 1st, 1916 and could be heard across the Channel in Britain: 1,738,000 shells rained upon German territory. It was believed that such continuous and massive bombing would open up gaping holes in the barbed wire that protected enemy lines, allowing British cavalry to rush through and overwhelm the Germans who survived the destruction of their trenches. This did not happen. German trenches were dug much deeper than was thought and were not pulverized. To their horror, the English immediately realized that the barbed wire also remained largely intact. This meant that soldiers could not storm the battlefield, but would be fatally delayed as they tried to cut through the barriers, allowing machine gunners to mow them down. And this is what happened. Over 60,000 British troops were lost that first day. At the end of the campaign, the British had lost 420,000 men (the French 200,000 and the Germans 500,000).

A wiring party going forward. Image @Daily Mail

Barbed wire had been used for the first time in the Spanish-American War and Boer Wars, but World War One brought its use in the battlefield to a new level. As soon as territory was conquered, a “wiring party” would go out to lay out barbed wire and protect their hard won land. Barbed wire was almost impossible to deal with until tanks were invented, although this piece of equipment was highly unreliable at first.

Modern weaponry

In my opinion, war has never been civilized or gentlemanly, but World War One raised the brutality to a new level that the stodgy British generals, in particular John French and Douglas Haig, were unable to fathom. The invention of machine guns allowed a single gunner to mow down hundreds of men within minutes. Flame throwers, known as Flammenwerfers in German, were portable and were first used by the Germans to terrify the British and French soldiers. The allies quickly learned to retaliate in kind.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Lady Sybil with soldier blinded by mustard gas. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

In 1914, the French were the first to unleash poison gas on the enemy. This gas was more an irritant, much like pepper spray is regarded today, and did not maim or kill. In 1915, the Germans used chlorine gas on the unsuspecting British, which leads to a slow and torturous death by asphyxiation. There were other gases. Phosgene gas would first go unnoticed and by the time the damage was felt, it was too late to save the victim. Mustard gas caused blistering both on the face and inside the respiratory organs. Many who survived mustard gas were permanently blinded. The vagaries of the wind often carried gas back to the troops who had unleashed it on the enemy. Over time both sides learned to wear gas masks, providing them for their horses and messenger dogs as well. However, the gas cloud killed any animal indiscriminately – horses, birds, wildlife, rodents that happened to be in its path died horrible deaths. Airplanes made their first appearance, dropping bombs from the sky and on civilians, and the mortality rate of fighter pilots was extremely high, ranging in the suicidal. German U-boats (early submarines) were amazingly effective in sinking ships and preventing food and ammunitions from reaching the allies.

Trench Rats

The rats were as big as cats some soldiers swore. Millions infiltrated the trenches, running over sleeping men and raiding their pockets or foodstuffs. Rats swarmed the battlefields, feasting on rotting corpses, first going for the eyes, then gorging themselves on the rest of the body until their bellies were swollen.

There was no proper system of waste disposal in trench life. Empty tins of all kinds were flung away over the top on both sides of the trench. Millions of tins were thus available for all the rats in France and Belgium in hundreds of miles of trenches. During brief moments of quiet at night, one could hear a continuous rattle of tins moving against each other. The rats were turning them over.” – Private George Coppard, Royal West Surrey Regiment

Rats can multiply by the tens of thousands in no time (one pair can produce 880 offspring per year) and there was no way to escape them. Although ever present, soldiers never quite became inured to these bold, opportunistic rodents.

Matthew on leave, with his fiancee Lavinia Swire, greeting Sir Richard Carlisle. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

In Downton Abbey Season 2 Matthew Crawley leaves the front and visits England quite frequently. The reality was that the men spent only part of their time in the trenches, rotating to different sectors. Typically they would spend 2 weeks in the trenches, a week in support lines or support trenches, two weeks in reserve, and then one week resting. Out of a year, a soldier would spend about 4 months in the front lines. This was about all they could stand. Living with the constant fear of death by shelling, sniper, or disease drove some men out of their minds. It must be added that as in all wars, the men spent countless days, even weeks, living lives of boredom which were interspersed with moments of sheer terror. The problem that many faced was that at any day their number could be up, and with odds worse than Russian Roulette, for there was a 1:3 chance that the next battle would be a British soldier’s last.

Thomas, now a medic, in the trenches. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Shell shock

A society known for its stiff upper lip would have a hard time admitting that its finest and brightest men could suffer from shell shock. During the early 20th century, shell shock was not yet clearly defined. Men suffering from shell shock exhibited a variety of symptoms, ranging from psychological blindness to stomach cramps and diarrhea, as well as facial twitches, uncontrollable sweating, nightmares, tremors, and an inability to eat or sleep. By 1917, as many as 1 in 7 men, or 80,000 British soldiers, were discharged from service for emotional disorders related to the war. Sadly, many were regarded as malingerers and sent back to the front. Some committed suicide, others deserted or refused to obey orders, in which case they were court-martialled or shot.

In Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham’s new valet, Andrew Lang obviously suffered from shell shock. O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid, shows uncharacteristic sympathy when she realizes Lange’s condition, because her brother suffered from the same malady and was misunderstood. Mrs. Patmore’s nephew, Archie, must also have experienced the same fear and panicked. He was not quite so lucky and was caught and shot for desertion.

Also read:

Life in the Trenches: Edwardian Promenade

Season 2, Episode One Recap on Austenprose

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Images Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

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