Friday, January 6, 2012

Downton Abbey - It's Baaaack!

I know so many of you can’t wait for the arrival of Downton Abbey’s second series to hit the screens in the USA this weekend. I’m afraid I couldn’t wait, so I ordered the UK DVD set and was able to watch the whole series over a three-day period some weeks ago (one of my best investments – a code-free DVD player!).  Not only am I rather hooked on the series, but this time – as you know – I was particularly interested in how the Great War would be depicted on the home front, especially given the wires that seem to ensnare this particular cast of characters, whether upstairs or below stairs.

I’m not going to give any spoilers here, that would be so unfair, however, I’ll just say I was interested to see how the women were portrayed in this series, especially given my interest in women’s lives during the 1914-18 war, and how those changes impacted their futures in the following decades.  It seemed that each of the Crawley sisters represented the different ways in which women became more independent, how they experienced having a voice and a choice, and then exercised that new freedom.  In them we see both the joys of discovery and the disappointments that  can accompany taking a road never before traveled.  See what you think when the series airs, and in the meantime, I’ll be coming back, posting on this blog about the lives of women during that era.

The naysayers were out in force when the second series of Downton Abbey aired in the UK. There were criticisms regarding language (for example, the fact that someone’s young man was referred to as her “boyfriend” – which was not used in those days), and comments about costumes and whether so-and-so really would have worn tweeds, or whatever.  While I like to see authenticity, we have to remember that this is a story, and in a story sometimes to keep the viewer engaged, one has to sacrifice fact to get to the truth.  And I don’t think the overall truth of the time period was compromised – the series focuses on a family in the upper echelons of society, with only brief glimpses of those on the ladder’s lower rungs.  The impact of war is a bit rosier than it might have been, but you get a sense of how some aspects of life will never go back to the way it was before, no matter how much the Dowager might want the pre-war status quo established again.

I still think, though, one of the most poignant moments is when the young Lady Sybil says, Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.”   And that’s what interests me and brings me back to this period in history time and again:  750,000 young men killed in Britain alone, 1,350,000 severely wounded, and – according to the latest estimates – over 200,000 profoundly shell-shocked.  And after the war, two million women of marriageable age for whom there was little chance of finding a partner to share life and have a family, were considered “surplus.”  Now I’m looking forward to Series 3 – I want to know what happens to those Crawley girls.  And of course there’s – uh-oh, better not say any more ...

Enjoy your visit to Downton Abbey this weekend.  I'm expecting the DVD of the "Christmas Special" which aired on December 25th in Britain to arrive any day now.  Waiting was never my strong suit!

Next week:  Those Magnificent Women & Their Flying Machines.


  1. I watched it online and loved it! The Christmas episode was really great too!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Breeza - now I really can't wait for that Christmas episode to arrive!

  3. I've been giving some thought to the term "shell shocked" recently (I just finished the new Charles Todd mystery) - is it similar to what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome?

  4. That's a really good question, Katie. Broadly speaking, yes it is, however, in each war, the "traumatic stress" caused by combat is a bit different. In the American Civil War there was a condition known as "soldier's heart" which was a type of arrhythmia brought on by the stress of battle. "Shell shock" was a term first used in the press in WW1 (the Great War), and which was quickly adopted by the soldiers, though for a long time the Army medical corps was forbidden to use it. It manifested in different ways, dependent upon whether the person suffering was a soldier or an officer - and there are indications that the family life of a soldier had bearing on the type of "shell shock" suffered. Other terms used in the Great War include War Neuroses and Neurasthenia. Many soldiers suffered from a type of percussion shock, where the sound of battle had been too much for them to bear, and they cracked before they'd even been near the front line. Whatever the terminology used, I would say that any soldier returning from war has a level of post-traumatic stress - and let's not forget the mental anguish of civilians caught up in war.

  5. I loved both the first and second series and adored the Christmas special! I'm looking forward to the next installment...I hate waiting too :-)

    Donna Post

    1. One of the criticisms in the NY Times review of Downton Abbey (published last week) was that Matthew's presence on leave was highly unlikely, a stretch of the imagination, too convenient but necessary to keep the romance alive. I was curious about how often British soldiers were allowed to return home during the Great War and whether the criticism was true. I found a fascinating collection of stories at the BBC History site which I hope you and your other readers might enjoy. There are short biographies of various soldiers, most of them very ordinary, who happened to write letters home that happened to be saved and given to the War Memorial Museum in England. The biographies are written by Helen Cleary. Here is the link: I was not able to answer my question to any satisfactory extent. Do you know? From what I read it appears that soldiers did come home on leave once or twice a year and it seemed credulous that an officer like Matthew could have been recruited by a general to do a "tour" to recruit young soldiers. (Better than white feathers, still deeply sad how young men were persuaded that they should enlist.) Anyway, I'm curious if your research has touched on the practice of giving home leave during the Great War. Belle Zars

    2. Thank you for taking the time to comment here on the blog. The first thing to remember is that Downton Abbey is supposed to be entertainment, and that as such it deals in "truths" to be compelling (and not necessarily facts). Having said that, the leave accorded an officer in the 1914-18 war (as opposed to a soldier) could depend on several factors - the number of days spent on the front line, the availability of other officers to take over, the geographical area in which the officer was situated and the actual year and month of the war. During the middle years of the war, more leave might have been taken than earlier in the war or later, when officers were very thin on the ground (field-based officers led from the front, so they were more likely to be killed, leaving a smaller pool from which to delegate leadership). The timeline for Downton Abbey in this series was actually quite broad - they skipped quite a few months between scenes - so the number of leaves taken by Matthew would have been possible, and it was also possible that he would have been seconded for recruitment duties - and that would hardly have been a long engagement, perhaps only a week (I can't remember the details). It's interesting to note that it wasn't unknown for aviators in the Royal Flying Corps to nip back to England for a day or two - home was, after all, very close. I am very familiar with the archive at the Imperial War Museum, and have spend many hours reading the letters and diaries of men who served in the war - the museum has a huge collection, as ordinary people have been donating correspondence collections for decades. I think the thing to remember about Downton Abbey is that it is a story, and as such there is an audience to be captivated. Although I have spent a considerable time over many years delving into the social history of the Great War, as a follower of the series, I can appreciate that the story comes first - that they have given viewers enough of a sense of the war to ask questions speaks to the fact that the characters and the story are so engaging.

  6. I just downloaded the first episode. I can't wait to watch this series!

  7. In reply to SyriaTrip2007: I know for a fact that my Great Uncle William Munro from Scotland was given home leave while he was a soldier in the Great War. Unfortunately he was killed in France in 1915. (And his brother Jack was killed in France four months later in 1916.)

    In reply to Katie: Yes, what was known as shell shock in WWI and battle fatigue in WWII is known now as PTSD.