Thursday, September 29, 2011

Downton Abbey and the Great War, and a fearless woman from Oz ….

I am counting down the days until I go to the UK at the end of October, so I can catch a few episodes of the new Downton Abbey.  I can’t wait until it hits the screens here in the USA – and I don’t even have a television (I am generally so disappointed with almost everything on offer, it’s just not worth it. Instead I watch movies or TV series I’m interested in on a big screen linked to my laptop – it works for me!).  

I know there are those – somewhere – who didn’t care for Downton Abbey; people who are sticklers for the facts of life at the time, and are of the opinion that Downton Abbey was a bit of a costume drama circus.  But this is television, and to tell the truth of a period well in a manner that engages people, sometimes those facts of life at the time must be subject to a little massage.

I thought the series caught the mood of those years leading up to the Great War in 1914 very well indeed – and (for those of you who know what I am talking about) – that final scene at the end of the first series, when war was announced in the midst of a summer garden party, just took my breath away. I knew it was coming.

In fact, as soon as the series started, I knew how it was going to end, who might enlist immediately, who might be lost, who would come home terribly wounded – and how everyone would be changed forever.  And I think we all knew that Lady Sybil, the adventurous youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, would be throwing herself into the deep end as soon as she could.

The interesting thing for me was the way women were portrayed in the first series, so that viewers learned a little more about the social pressures and opportunities of the time – cultural realities that were to change as a result of war.  There was the young maid who was secretly teaching herself typing and secretarial skills – only to be reprimanded for thinking she could rise above her station. I loved the way she did just that in the final episode – but how might that opportunity change with war? For the daughters of the aristocracy, there was the pressure to find a husband given the limitations of inheritance. And at the other end of the scale, we learned about industrial unrest, and about the lower classes questioning the way of the world as it was – remember the young chauffeur, another one who had socialist ideas?  And there were the characters who would never want the old order to change – Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess has some more surprises coming, I would imagine.  Going back to that final scene in the first series of Downton Abbey, I felt the garden party represented a microcosm of life, in a way.  So many of those who have chronicled the age speak of the golden summers before war was declared – but golden for whom?  Maybe we were only given just a few scenes of the truly poverty stricken because it doesn’t do much for the costume envy factor.

I’ll be coming back to Downton Abbey after it’s been aired over here in the USA – I am looking forward to see how the period of the Great War is treated, and how those beloved characters develop throughout a time that effectively launched the 20th Century. It may have officially begun some 14 years earlier, but to all intents and purposes, the world was till in the Edwardian age during the years 1900-1914.

And before I leave you this week, I wanted to share something of a super book I'm currently reading, published in 1915:  A WOMAN’S EXPERIENCES IN THE GREAT WAR, by Australian author, poet, journalist /war correspondent, Louise Mack.  She reported from the front line for two British newspapers – the first woman war correspondent in the Great War.  What is interesting – bringing me back to Downton Abbey and the manners of the time – is that she travels to the front lines in Belgium as if she were setting off on a little European tour, and in her memoir she admits that, “When I look back on those days, the most pathetic thing about it all seems to me the absolute security in which we imagined ourselves dwelling.”   Indeed, while being escorted to Antwerp by a general, she drops a bag, to reveal a pair of brilliant blue evening shoes with high heels and silver buckles.  And while in Antwerp in the early days of the war, she describes being in her hotel room during a Zeppelin raid, and of course there is a complete black out:

“It seemed to me that the supreme satisfaction of having at last dropped clean away from all the make-believes of life, seized upon me, standing there in my nightgown in the pitchblack, airless room at Antwerp, a woman quite alone among strangers, with danger knocking at the gate of her world.”

That’s Louisa Mack. 

Last week’s post, about the women who went into the workplace during the Great War, resonates with the  final paragraphs of Mack’s memoir, when she arrives back in London after being so close to the fighting:

“And while we are laughing the train runs into Victoria Station and the soldiers leap joyously out into the rain-wet London night.  Then dear familiar words break on our ears, in a woman’s voice.
‘Any luggage, Mum!’ says a woman porter.
And we know that old England is carrying on as usual.’”

I’m sure I’ll be coming back to Louise Mack and her insightful observations.

Perhaps readers in the UK – where the new series of Downton Abbey is already on the screen – can tell us if they feel the time is being depicted in an authentic manner. I’d be interested to know – but try not to give us any spoilers!

And how do you feel about film and TV depictions of difficult times?  Do you feel that women, especially, are given a true representation?  And can you detect hidden propaganda in those films? Ah, there’s a subject for another post along the way….

Next Post:  Intelligent Economy – from an article of that title published in 1916.  Does this sound like something we need now????  Sign up for email alerts so you know when a new post appears - click on the "Subscribe by Email" option in the right-hand margin above.



  1. LOL. I read your blog this morning and ended up buying Downton Abbey (1st season) on dvd at Barnes and Noble not long after. It was on sale... The series appeared on PBS here some months back, but I missed it. So after reading what you thought about it, I thought I'd take a look. :-D

    Louise Mack. That name rings a bell. I think I should look her up and see if I can find her book. Hmmm.

    Great post as always, Jacqueline. Will let you know what I think of DA. LOVED Gosford Park. Clive Owen was a heart-throb in that one...and I liked the story. :-D

  2. Hi Marianne, and thanks for your post. I bought the DVD set of the first series, and I think it's due for another go-round while I wait for the second series to be available here in the USA. And yes, look up Louise Mack (you an Aussie and not heard of her?) - she's an interesting woman, one of those probably described as, "Before her time." The thing is there were so many women given that description, that it obviously was very much their time. Oh, and I couldn't agree more about Clive Owen!

  3. I'm a big fan of Downton Abbey. It's pretty fabulous. :) I saw it on PBS and bought it on DVD. I've watched it twice and have quite enjoyed seeing that whole Edwardian period, especially knowing that it's all about to come to a crashing halt. I'm looking forward to seeing the next series when it airs here in January - I'm curious to see how the war affects everyone. The more I learn about World War I, the more fascinated I am. I remember learning in school about how they kept pacifying the Nazis in the 30s because they didn't want another war. Of course, to us, it seemed ludicrous (hindsight being 20/20) and I never understood why England couldn't face up to the fact that a war was coming. Hitler was clearly not going to stop until he had everything he wanted. We had learned about the Great War, of course, and that it was horrible, but I never really understood how horrible until I started learning more about it in later years. It wasn't until I began to read more that I understood the full impact it had - and then the appeasement actions made a lot more sense. Louisa Mack's memoir sounds like an interesting read.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Eileen. I've been undertaking a fair amount of research on specific aspects of the 1930's over the past year (if I say any more than that, it will be a spoiler ...) and as you've pointed out, the key thing to remember is that Britain had not recovered from the monumental losses of the Great War - so many dead, the wounded still highly visible in society, a collective emotional as well as economic depression - it wasn't that Britain didn't know what was going on in Germany, but people just hoped it would go away. Of course, one man knew it would never go away and had been predicting as much more or less from the early 1920's - and that was Winston Churchill. We'll be coming back to that at some point, and from the point of view of the women of that generation. Thanks again for checking in!

  5. Great blog! As a student of WWI, I enjoy your novels and the bringing to life of the changed post-war world. The "Why didn't we stop Hitler sooner?" argument is often raised without understanding the total impact of the war. Not only was their a lack of popular and political will, there was also a lack of money and a deliberately scaled down military. In both France and England, the military leadership was discredited and portrayed as incompetent and wasteful. In Britain, the Victorian era of superiority was destroyed: In France, the "raison d'etre" was shattered. Neither country was willing to prepare for war again and certainly not withe the fervor of 1914. The USA may have thought war was heroic, but by 1918 no one in Europe would have agreed.

  6. Thanks, Don - your comment is spot-on. If one thinks about Britain and France at that time, it's was much like seeing a boxer, spent and beaten in his corner, barely able to see the enemy in the distance. I understand that only one country came out of the Great War without debt (and probably having made money), and that was the United States. The dreadful post-war economic crisis in Britain meant that the "land fit for heroes" was a very, very distant promise. Glad you're enjoying the blog!

  7. In the past year I've watched the DVD of the BBC series from the early 1990's House of Elliot, set in the 20's & 30's in England. It gave me a sense of the changing role of women during that time and, of course, the fashion. I often thought of Maisie while I watched!

  8. By the way, the book by Louise Mack is available on the Internet Archive at

  9. Hi Jeanne - thanks for your comment, and for the link to Louise Mack's book. The House of Elliot was a very good series, though I think I only saw one episode - now I think I might order the DVD's just to watch from the beginning. Good recommendation.

  10. Sadly, it was reported on the morning news that Maggie Smith suffered a stroke and will not be available for filming Downton Abbey in the near future. I thought she was brilliant in her role as dowager.

    A lot of the people who left "service" with the advent of the war did so because they were needed elsewhere, especially young women who were put to work in the War Office and the military in secretarial positions. Men who did not qualify to fight had to pick up the slack as air wardens and on the farms and in the factories, etc.

    WWI surely brought an end to life as they knew it. In the end, it lifted the lower "serving" classes into middle classes and opened alot of doors that might other-wise have remained closed.

  11. Oh dear, I hadn't heard about Maggie Smith's stroke - indeed, i've just checked a couple of news sites, and nothing being said there. What a dreadful shame.

    Those women who left domestic service at the outset of WW1 went into many, many different fields (click on Introduction to the Blog, above), and I'll be looking at how they fared both during the war and afterwards in upcoming posts. In the UK the "middle class' as we know it today was born in the years following the war - it didn't really exist before the war, but that time brought about such enormous changes in society. Thanks for your comment, Susan - I'm still quite stunned to hear the news about Dame Maggie Smith.

  12. On 3 October 2011, the BBC announced that Marsh had suffered a minor stroke and would miss the beginning of the second series of Upstairs, Downstairs.[10] She was ultimately only able to appear in two scenes over the series,[4] and the show was subsequently cancelled.[11]

    It's Jean Marsh, not Maggie who suffered a stroke.