Downton Abbey steps into the Roaring Twenties

The world is changing and the Crawleys are going to have to change with it, says creator Julian Fellowes

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Downton Abbey steps into the Roaring Twenties
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Julian Fellowes

Series Three of Downton Abbey opens in the spring of 1920. Mary and Matthew are engaged to be married, and the date for the wedding is fast approaching. The girls’ American grandmother, the redoubtable Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine), is on her way over from New York to join the festivities and all is right with the world. Or is it?

The war has altered these people. They are no longer the automatons that they were before the fighting began, men and women so hemmed in by expectation that they need only be wound up like a clockwork toy and set on a path from which they would never stray. For the Crawleys in 1920, the world is changing and it is soon fairly clear that they are going to have to change with it, if they are to survive. As the series unfolds, the family will be split between those who are able to embrace the new society that beckons, and those who fear it; and below stairs between those servants who can see the possibilities of what is on offer in this different future, and those who huddle together, faces set against the new order.

The Roaring Twenties have always enjoyed a fairly specific image in the public mind, the Jazz Age, the Day of the Flapper, the Year of the Charleston, but in fact all that came later. Like the Swinging Sixties, which didn’t properly begin until about 1966, the Twenties didn’t start to roar until a few years in. At the beginning, there was more a feeling of puzzlement as people began finally to accept that the war really was over, to wonder if the country s broken bones were mending, to explore what was happening on this curious post-war planet.

Power & Politics

It was an odd time and very like our own, in that pundits everywhere were trying to second guess how things would go, because the men and women of the 1920s, like us, had no idea really of what was coming. To start with, it was a time of political disruption and trouble, with ancient institutions dropping on every side, and even where the loss did not seem great, the replacement often felt so much worse.

The Imperial Monarchy of Russia fell in 1917, and the Romanov family was murdered in 1918, but the Civil War, between the old order and the new, would rage until October 1922 before surrendering, to the dictatorship of Lenin. In that same month, Mussolini led the. March on Rome to snatch Italy from the little King and impose Fascist rule. This was more than ten years before his later helpmeet, Adolf Hitler, would pull off a similar trick in battered postwar Germany, where in the early 20s the Weimar Republic, successor to the fallen House of Hohenzollern, had gone into a spiral of hyper-inflation, requiring wheelbarrows of money to purchase a loaf of bread.

While the German people found themselves tied to a worthless currency with no idea what to do about it (which may seem familiar), the Turkish Empire fell and Mehmed VI, the last Sultan, set off on the well-trodden path into exile. China, too, was in the throes of Civil War and civic disruption, as were Greece, Albania and any number of other states, while the death in exile, in April 1922, of the last Austrian Emperor, Karl, finally took the Habsburgs out of European history where they had been so central a thread for so long. The message from all this was clear: there would be no going back.

Airplanes & Automobiles

Into this lack of social cohesion and dissolving structures came the new inventions, cars and cocktails, gramophones and plastics and radios and aeroplanes, shrinking first the country and then the globe, freeing people from the rules that governed society in the pre-war years.

Lord Ernest Hamilton, a younger son of the Duke of Abercorn, blamed the motor car for breaking up the rhythm of the old “Saturday-to-Mondays”. Before the war, with wonderful British logic, these country escapes had in fact stretched from Friday to Tuesday and were in many ways the quintessential social mechanism of the old upper class. The hostesses would plan them down to the last detail, sometimes for sport, sometimes to promote marriages, or liaisons, or any number of other activities, but always with no margin for deviation or error. The rapidly increasing popularity of the motor car changed all that. It was no longer possible to regulate when people arrived or when they left, or what they did while they were there.

According to Lord Ernest, cars “make extempore radiations during the visit too easy. The party is in a ceaseless state of metabolic flux. You come down to breakfast to find that your charming neighbour at dinner the night before has gone off in her car to some other country house a hundred miles away.” But anyway, too many people worked for the Saturday-to-Monday to survive. Whether Violet Grantham would have liked it or not, the weekend had arrived.

Foreign travel became not just possible for more than the rich, but easy and even relaxed. Scott and Zelda FitzGerald persuaded the hotel owners in the South of France to stay open during the summer months. The weather, which had always been thought too hot to be civilised, became the area’s chief attraction. Of course, much of this took time to catch on, one must not forget that the newspapers dwelt on the modern flapper types and their louche beaux, long before there were more than a few operating around town. In Downton Abbey, we have Lady Mary Crawley complaining in episode two that: “You couldn’t be in Cannes in the summer. No one could bear it.” Which I suspect was a typical response until several more years had passed.

Freedom & Friendship

Increased mobility when it came to travel also ushered in the beginnings of a social mobility immediate and that was a real break with the past. Unmarried young women, as fiercely protected as an endangered species until 1914, found that so many things once forbidden had become possible by the time the guns were silent.

In the old days, eating in any public establishment, other than a hotel when staying there, had been out of the question. Now, Lady Diana Cooper recorded that her mother, the Duchess of Rutland, no longer seemed to object when she suggested she might get up a party of young people and have dinner in a restaurant, perhaps even progressing on to a club, where they would dance the night away, all of which would have been completely forbidden when their mamas were girls. And in these clubs and restaurants, at these race tracks and resorts and house parties, they were meeting people and making friends who would have existed in an entirely different sphere only a few years before.

A lot of it was the war. These men, officers and serving soldiers, had gone through untold horrors together and, to many, the old social barriers seemed false and meaningless in the face of the bitter truths of the front. Also, there was the straightforward matter of familiarity. Everyone knew people who had been conditioned by different backgrounds from their own, far better than they had ever known them before. One officer remarked, after he had seen his men at their ablutions, that he “never knew their bodies were so white.” The ignorance of the way of life of different types and classes was washed away for many by the mud of Flanders, never to be entirely resurrected again.

In Downton Abbey, Matthew has no problem making friends with the former chauffeur Branson, largely because of his own experiences at the front. Had they met as brothers-in-law in 1912, it might have been a different story.

Love & Lust

Mrs Meyrick was a more or less genteel Irishwoman, who had upgraded her name to Meyrick, and arrived in London just after the war, to manage “tea dances” at Dalton’s in Leicester Square. In 1922, she opened her first club, The “43” in Gerrard Street, which was an enormous success. She would follow it with others, including the Silver Slipper in Regent Street, and during a career that was colourful to say the least of it, she would amass a large fortune and spend a couple of terms behind bars, before dissolution and ruin would eventually claim her.

All of which is par for the course perhaps when engaged in this kind of enterprise, but what may come as a slight surprise, even to modern ears, is that her daughters became, in order of age, Lady De Clifford, the Countess of Kinnoull and the Countess of Craven. Before the war, this could simply not have happened. One daughter, maybe, a Gaiety Girl gathered up from the chorus line by an enraptured peer, like Rosie Boote, Marchioness of Headfort, or even Gertie Millar, Countess of Dudley, but not three sisters from so curious a background.

When I am challenged about the likelihood of Sybil Crawley running off with a chauffeur I usually reply that it is based on a true story from this time, when the daughter of an earl eloped with a groom, but in fact there were plenty of examples to choose from.

Probably the greatest - or at least the most famous - inter-class love story of all, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by DH Lawrence, was also a product of this new thinking. In the book, Lawrence explores the relationship of Constance Chatterley, trapped in a marriage to her impotent and angry husband, Sir Clifford, and her lover, Mellors, the gamekeeper. It is a story that was supposedly inspired by the affair between Lady Ottoline Morrell, a sister of the Duke of Portland and her paramour, Tiger, a stonemason who had come to carve plinths for the statues at Garsington Manor.

Published in Italy in 1928 (there would not be an unexpurgated British version until 1960), the novel was an immediate sensation. In the story, Constance and Mellors are both aware they are playing with fire in breaking the rules of their society, but at the same time, tellingly, she at least discards those rules as no longer relevant.

“I don’t care what happens to me,” said Constance.

“Ay, you think that! But you’ll care! You’ll have to care, everybody has. You’ve got to remember your Ladyship is carrying on with a game-keeper. It’s not as if I was a gentleman. Yes, you’d care. You’d care.”

“I shouldn’t. What do I care about my ladyship! I hate it really. I feel people are jeering every time they say it. And they are, they are! Even you jeer when you say it.”

“Me!”

For the first time he looked straight at her, and into her eyes.

“I don’t jeer at you,” he said.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was seen as seditious and dangerous, an opinion the Establishment was slow to revise. As late as November 1960, when the first English full edition was on trial for charges of obscenity, the prosecuting lawyer, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, would assure himself of immortality by asking a witness if it were the kind of book “you would wish your wife or your servants to read.”

But the point was, the novel was a kind of marker that a way of life which had seemed, more or less, to have survived the war, was in fact, on closer inspection, coming to an end. The values and rituals and customs of pre-war society were revealed as increasingly anachronistic.

Gold & Great Houses

As if to confirm this, the practicalities of the old life were beginning to seize up. The rents of the great estates, which had started to collapse in the agricultural depression of the 1880s, continued to plunge. In the words of Lord Leconfield: “Being a landlord is no longer the fun it used to be.” And if the plutocrats and newspaper kings, like Sir Richard Carlisle in Downton, would keep the illusion going of a flourishing landed aristocracy for a few more years, for many members of the real McCoy, there was no point to it any more.

Added to which, this way of life had ceased to make economic sense. A lot of the owners, encumbered with debt from the fall in value and rents, had hoped for a miracle upturn but by the time the 1920s began, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the miracle was not about to happen. In a way, this is Robert Grantham’s position at the start of the new series. Knowing how many houses were victims of those years, it seemed wrong not to have some trouble at the Abbey, itself, and trouble there is.

One of the problems was that the government had vastly increased taxes on agricultural income but profits from a sale of agricultural land, as a capital gain, were still then untaxed. The temptation to be free of an over-taxed source of revenue and to replace it with a tax free capital sum proved too strong a temptation for many. Nearly a quarter of the agricultural land in England was sold between the defeat of Germany and the end of 1922.

If the owners had been brilliant with their newly acquired fortunes, this might have ensured a rosy future, but many were not, meaning that enormous numbers of country houses were left without their land, and so without the income to support them.

Struggles & Strikes

But if it was a hard time for the formerly-rich, it was a terrible time for the poor, with wages falling in many areas. This would result in the General Strike of 1926, interesting to us today as an early example of uncomplicated class warfare.

Up until that time, the different classes of society had on the whole tended to assume that what was good for one was good for all. But the response of the privileged to the General Strike, the feeling that it was their business to defeat it, created, or rather underpinned, a rift that has never really healed.

The better off, especially the young, saw it as “fun” to drive the trams and direct traffic and to serve on trains and in restaurants, not really for the most part, I am absolutely convinced, addressing the fact that they were destroying the workers’ bargaining power and, in so doing, taking the food out of their mouths and also those of their families.

My mother’s eldest sister, Phyllis, was a clippie on a bus which was driven by her boyfriend, then up at Oxford and reading Greats. She thought it was a hoot, they all did, and when they had finished their shift, they would dive off to dance at the Embassy, but the struggle divided the country in a way we are still living with today. Some politicians, notably Winston Churchill, have succeeded in forging a single unit out of the British for a time, but thus far at any rate, and it is sad to say it, when the crisis is over, we invariably fall back into our component parts.

Hope & Hollywood

Perhaps more than anything, the 1920s was the first great age of Now. The idea that one should live in discomfort to keep an ancestral pile going was not in tune with the zeitgeist of the day, and nor did it appeal to a whole new generation, heady with having survived the war and the flu that followed it, that they should slog away at the same old tasks with no hope of redemption.

For many, as the Twenties got into their stride, that hope came with the movies, gathering steam as the world’s favourite form of entertainment, making Hollywood the factory of the dreams being dreamed all over the globe. The larger-than-life vigour of these new stars, their beauty, their love affairs, their scandals, their everything, was bigger and grander and more fascinating than whatever had gone before.

And best of all, these were ordinary men and women who had no special start in life to help them get there. Girls like Clara Bow, born in a slum tenement in Brooklyn, or Joan Crawford, daughter of a labourer and a hotel drudge in Texas, or the bartender’s son, James Cagney, who spent his childhood in a walk-up coldwater flat. These were real people, and the world was in love with them. It was no longer necessary to imitate the posh to cut a figure. Nobody bought pin-ups of Lady Helen Vincent or the Countess of Warwick any more. They wanted to look at Mary Pickford and William Haines.

These early stars gave birth to a culture of celebrity, a dream of fame for the average Joe, which is still with us today and stronger than ever. Of course there are times when it seems draining and trivial, but then it was a liberating force, taking young men and women away from servitude and the concept that they were not good enough, and giving them hope. For that we should all be grateful.

What of the future?

These then were the years of the 1920s, an era with a million parallels to our own, with their wavering sense of social identity, with the inbuilt contradictions of injustice and glamour, of tradition and cutting edge, with their financial chaos and their loss of faith in government, with their abandonment of restraint and sexual decorum, and their ambition to “have it all”.

It is hard not to admire them, this gutsy generation that fought and survived the war and then set about having a good time, who had to deal with politicians they mistrusted and customs that had outlived their usefulness, and, in many ways, it is hard not to see ourselves in them.

Which is perhaps why it is alarming to remember that for many countries, if not this one, the end of it all was Fascism. Primo de Rivera, Franco, Mussolini, Salazar and of course Hitler, were hovering in the wings and some were already on stage. While those who saw Communism as the only effective combatant against Fascism, would soon find themselves held tight in the iron fist of Stalin. Let us hope that wherever our present crisis leads we are not headed in the same direction. 


Downton Abbey starts tonight at 9:30pm on ITV1.

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