Frances Osborne on Downton Abbey: the Twenties are roaring in

Cocktails, jazz and divorce – it was the decade that allowed women to love, work and play, says the novelist

Matthew Crawley is all but forgotten. Halfway through the fourth series it seems the only nod to the would-be Lord of the Abbey’s untimely demise are Lady Mary’s black gloves. Despite her initial heartbreak, it seems she is reluctantly moving on, which means there are now three young, unmarried Ladies at Downton in early 1922, a time that saw immense changes for women socially, professionally and politically both above and below stairs. Viewers beware – the Twenties are roaring in.


The name of the period alone – the Twenties – is evocative of a near-frenzied abandonment of pre- First World War social strictures. It conjures up images of women with short skirts and hair, in fast cars, dancing until the early hours, smoking in public, and taking lovers outside of marriage; Lady Edith has already embraced this loosening in morals! But it was also a time of more serious change. Indeed, one of the fundamental reasons women could behave in this manner was that they were earning the money to spend in this way.

Before the war, less than a third of women had jobs. Even then these were limited. Working-class women were laundresses, seamstresses, factory workers, shop girls or joined the lower ranks of domestic service. Further up the social scale were higher-ranking domestic servants, teachers and nurses. However, the accepted aspiration was to keep house – or being kept by the man they were married to. Thus 90 per cent of these women gave up work upon marriage. This left them economically and socially dependent upon their husbands. If they didn’t marry, they had to rely on fathers or brothers to keep them; the plight of impoverished spinsters is the making of 19th-century fiction.

It’s commonly thought that the war alone led to greater equality between men and women. However, while it’s undeniable women’s involvement in the war effort tipped the balance, the sands had started shifting many decades before. The first women’s suffrage organisation in Britain had been founded in Sheffield in 1851, and by 1869 women who owned sufficient property were allowed to vote in local elections. The following year, the Married Women’s Property Act entitled women to hold property in their own name rather than their husband’s, and in 1876 a law was passed allowing women to be admitted to universities; it was not until 1908 that British universities saw a woman professor. And women still could not vote in Parliamentary elections.

Thus the years that led up to the First World War saw increasing outbursts of violence from part of the women’s suffrage movement. The movement itself was divided between the more famous “suffragettes”, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, and the more numerous “suffragists”, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The suffragettes were the ones who smashed windows on Bond Street and who burned public buildings to the ground. However, by the time war broke out in 1914, neither suffragettes nor suffragists had succeeded in their aims.

The women’s movement made a sharp turn with the war. Even Emmeline Pankhurst – who had been exhorting her followers to hunger strike to the death in prison – told her supporters to lay down their banners and join the war effort. But initially, women’s offers of help were turned down. In 1914, the first British nurses who went to the Western Front went to Belgian field hospitals, not ours.

This rejection of female help appears to have prompted a revolution in a different direction – a sexual revolution. In the absence of being allowed to join in any war work, women made the contribution to the war effort open to them: they gave the soldiers returning home as good a time as they could. Darkened door- ways became filled with couples, and park bushes rustled to the extent that Women’s Patrols were introduced to monitor the morals of young women in contact with soldiers billeted locally. The play- wright Laurence Housman wrote to a friend that: “absolutely respectable and virtuous young women have given themselves day after day to different soldiers as if it were a sort of religious duty.” Indeed, such was the downfall of Downton housemaid Ethel Parks, who became pregnant after a liaison with an officer who was being treated at Downton Abbey after it was turned into a war hospital.

Eventually, as more men disappeared over the Channel, women from all classes began to take on men’s roles, ranging from motorcycle couriers and ambulance drivers to munitions workers and nurses. In so doing, these women found social – and in some cases economic – independence. When Lady Sybil started nursing wounded soldiers at Downton, her experiences and the men she met reinforced her radical political views. She felt the injustice of class differences increasingly strongly and this reinforced her resolve that women should have the vote.

It was an argument she won: in February 1918, women were given just that. The following year, and as a direct consequence of this, women were admitted to the legal profession. They were now both able to make laws from within Parliament, and apply them outside. This achieved, Lady Sybil broke class boundaries, too, when she ran off with Branson, the family’s chauffeur.

For a moment it seemed the women’s movement had succeeded. But as the war ended, those hard-won freedoms began to be rolled back. A disbanded army came home looking either for new work or to reclaim their jobs, and the women who had stepped into their shoes were almost universally ousted. The rationale was that men had families to keep, and the women they kept therefore had no need of the money. This point of view was even stretched as far as single women – who were regarded as not needing a proper salary as they had no dependents. Within a year of the war ending, 750,000 women had lost their jobs.

However, as much as there was a desire to return to the golden era of the pre-war years, nothing could ever be the same again. The women who slipped back into domesticity did so wearing thoroughly different clothes and for many, there was no longer any chance of starting a family. A million British fiancés and potential fiancés had been killed; another two million had been wounded, many past the possibility of marriage. The number of spinsters would become too many for the conventional family structure to support. As Julian Fellowes, writer and creator of Downton Abbey explains to me: “There was a real issue of providing for unmarried daughters and sisters, and so the social barrier against their working started to be relaxed.”

Thus, in the early Twenties, even upper- and middle-class women entered the workplace, though primarily to the arts and museums, and education. There was still a taboo about married women working, but it became accepted that single women might no longer have a brother or father to support them. If they did, then the family’s acceptance of a daughter working might be less forthcoming – as was the case with Lord Grantham when he learnt of Lady Edith’s journalistic ambitions – but in the outside world it was becoming increasingly commonplace. In any case, as we saw in Series 3, the Crawley family finances are not as secure as they might be.

One effect of the War that continued into the Twenties was the increase in extramarital affairs. There was the risk of pregnancy, but this could be hidden by long stays abroad, and children passed off as orphaned nieces or nephews, or even much younger siblings. As Fellowes puts it, “Many single women who would never have a husband must have the need to find out what the fuss was about.” And it is Lady Edith again who we see publicly embark on an affair with an unhappily married man – her editor, Michael Gregson.

The newspaper editor is far from the only unhappily married character in Downton Abbey. Interestingly, in the Christmas episode Lord Grantham asked his cousin Shrimpy why he hadn’t got a divorce. Could divorce be on Lord Grantham’s mind? His marriage to Cora dulled enough to take him to the brink of an affair with housemaid Jane Moorsum. As attitudes change through the decade, it will be interesting to see what happens to the marriages in Downton Abbey. As Fellowes hints, “If people were unhappy, there was a diminishing sense that they had to stay together for the look of it.”

Significantly, it became easier for women to escape an unhappy marriage. There was a divorce boom in the wake of the First World War but the most significant change is both social and legal attitudes to divorce came with the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act, which for the first time enabled a woman to divorce her husband on the grounds of his adultery alone. Until then, a wife had to prove either desertion or one of a list of socially abhorrent sexual offences in order to obtain a divorce. It was far from easy, and the public view of most divorces was that the wife had been unfaithful which, extraordinarily inequitably, allowed a husband to divorce her on the spot.

But the 1923 Act meant that a woman could free herself from a philandering husband and unhappy marriage. In fact, the real Lady of Highclere Castle (where Downton is set) divorced her philandering husband in the early Twenties. Perhaps there’ll be another single Lady at Downton by the end of the series.

Downton Abbey continues Sundays at 9:00pm, ITV