‘Downton Abbey’ has become the most successful British costume drama since ‘Brideshead Revisited’
In the dark, cold evenings immediately after Christmas and the New Year, I spent time in front of the television watching the box set of Downton Abbey. The series is the creation of Julian Fellowes and has attracted many awards and nominations. With over 10 million viewers for each episode, it is the most successful British costume drama since Brideshead Revisited in 1981 and the Guinness Book of Records describes it as the “most critically acclaimed television show.”
Downton Abbey is set in the early 20th century on a fictional North Yorkshire estate that is home to the Earl and Countess of Grantham. Highclere Castle in Hampshire provides the location for Downton Abbey, with other filming in the Ealing Studios and the village of Bampton in Oxfordshire.
The story follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants. The first series, at the end of 2010, begins with news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The second series last autumn runs from the Battle of the Somme (1916) to the Spanish ’flu pandemic (1919). The 2011 Christmas Special is set in December 1919 and January 1920. ITV has commissioned a third series for next September.
Following the storyline
‘Downton Abbey’ shows that snobbery exists at every level
The first series tells of the need for a male heir to the Grantham estate, and Lady Mary Crawley’s troubled love life as she searches for a suitable husband. The estate is entailed, so that Downton Abbey is inherited with the title of Earl of Grantham. The estate was saved from near-ruin when the present earl married a rich American heiress.
Lord Grantham, who has three daughters but no son, arranges for his eldest daughter, Lady Mary, to marry her cousin to keep both the title and the estate in the immediate family. But the heir dies on the Titanic, and a third cousin once removed, a young solicitor from Manchester, stands to inherit both the title and the estate, to the exclusion of the three daughters.
The second series deals with social divisions (many of them now petty), sexuality, Easter 1916, the Russian revolution, redemption and death. The heir, Matthew Crawley, and two servants fight in World War I, while Lady Sybil Crawley defies her father and joins the Voluntary Aid Department. In the Christmas Day special, the relationship between Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary takes a twist when she jilts her fiancé and accepts his proposal of marriage.
Although the first series is beautifully made and artfully acted, critics think the second series races through plot lines that are difficult to believe. The Guardian describes it as “an institution that began life as an upstairs-downstairs costume drama and ended as pure comedy.”
A house party in 1901 at Oak Park, the Co Carlow home of the Breun family. House parties were a significant feature of ‘Big House’ life (National Photographic Archive, Dublin)
Downton Abbey is a reminder of a by-gone era and that the snobberies of the past remain with us. It is a comment too on life today: the disdain for a newspaper proprietor brings to mind the disdain for the Murdoch Empire; the introduction of the telephone parallels the introduction of broadband to many homes. Nor is it accidental that Brideshead Revisited was a success at the height of the Thatcher government, while Downton Abbey is a success when the Tories are in office once again.
Some of the characters are Irish, including Branson the chauffeur and the mother of Bates the valet, while many of the actors are Irish too or with Irish parents. Allen Leech (Branson) is from Killiney, Co Dublin; Robert Bathurst (Sir Anthony Strallan), went to school in Dublin and Kells, Co Meath; and Maria Doyle Kennedy (Vera Bates) is from Dublin. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Brendan Coyle (Bates), Siobhan Finneran (Sarah O’Brien, the lady’s maid) and Joseph Molesley (Matthew Crawley’s butler) have Irish parents, and Coyle also studied acting in Dublin.
Women taking part in an otter hunt at Curraghmore, the Co Waterford home of the Beresford family, in 1901 (National Photographic Archive, Dublin)
Indeed, Downton Abbey could have been set in Ireland, as I was reminded by a recent exhibition at the National Photographic Archive in Dublin. “Power and Privilege: Photographs of the Big House in Ireland, 1858-1922” captured life in the “Big House” in Ireland at the same time as Downton Abbey. It was a period of radical change and the exhibition captured people fast losing their position in Irish society.
Saved by the ‘belle’
Imogene Wolseley has charted the story of American heiresses marrying Irish and English aristocrats, including the great-grandparents of her husband Sir Charles Wolseley (Photograph: Daily Mail)
Lord Grantham’s marriage to the American heiress Cora is typical of the stories of many landed aristocrats at the time, in both Ireland and England, when marrying American heiresses helped many to save their indebted and entailed estates.
The most famous marriages at the time involved the three daughters of Leonard Jerome, a New York stockbroker – one married a leading English aristocrat, and two married Irish heirs.
In 1874, Jennie Jerome, with a dowry of $200,000, married Lord Randolph Churchill, younger son of the Duke of Marlborough, and was the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.
Castle Leslie, home of Sir John Leslie who married Leonie Jerome, one of the three Jerome sisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In 1881, Clara Jerome married the charming Moreton Frewen, who gambled away his wealth in America, where he was known as “Mortal Ruin.” He returned to Ireland to inherit the Innishannon Estate in Co Cork, and was elected a Home Rule MP, although he was an uncle of Sir Edward Carson and he later signed the Ulster Covenant. His daughter, the sculptor and writer Clare Frewen Sheridan, lived for some decades in Comerford House beside the Spanish Arch in Galway.
In 1884, the youngest sister, Leonie Jerome, married Sir John Leslie of Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan. The Leslies, with over 70,000 acres, were one of the largest landowning families in Ireland.
Other American heiresses also married into the Churchill family. In 1888, Lord Randolph Churchill’s brother, the divorced George Churchill, 8th Duke of Marlborough, married Lillian Price, a New York heiress with a fortune of $7 million. In 1895, his son, Charles Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, married yet another heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt, godmother to Moreton Frewen’s daughter, Clare Frewen Sheridan. The matchmaker was Minnie Paget – another American heiress, Mary Livingstone of Georgia, who was the third wife of Henry Paget, 4th Marquess of Angelsey.
Comerford House beside the Spanish Arch in Galway was home for many years to Clare Frewen Sheridan (1885-1970), cousin of Sir Winston Churchill and both daughter and goddaughter of two American heiresses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Pagets were near neighbours of Sir Charles Wolseley of Wolseley Hall, a Roman Catholic baronet. In 1882, Esther Grehan wrote from London to her husband in Dublin, Stephen Grehan, a solicitor, describing how Sir Charles came to London to look for an heiress and was introduced to two Irish-American Murphy sisters from San Francisco, who were “vulgar but pretty.” He fell in love, but had a reputation as a fortune hunter, and was distraught when he was rejected. But in 1883 he married the elder sister, Anita Theresa Murphy.
Her inheritance at first was put at $2 million, but Wolseley never got his hands on it. By the time the marriage contract was signed, her father, Daniel T. Murphy, had died and her sisters contested his will and endowment. When she received the money, it was for her personally and not for her husband.
Imogene Wolseley, wife of the present Sir Charles Wolseley, says the marriage was relatively happy to begin with. But Anita soon tired of life at Wolseley Hall and began travelling abroad alone. She sent Charles a regular allowance, but this dropped steadily. By 1919, he had to sell almost all the contents of Wolseley Hall and several hundred acres of his estate. He moved to Surrey a broken man, Wolseley Hall fell into disrepair and it was finally levelled in 1995.
In 1885, another New York heiress, the divorced Ann Reid, married the widowed Sir Arthur Percy Fitzgerald Aylmer of Donadea Castle, Co Kildare. He was her second husband, she was his second wife, and she brought a fortune of $250,000 with her, but they were divorced again a year later. The marriage failed to save a family estate that once totalled 16,000 acres. When Miss Caroline Aylmer died in 1935, Donadea passed to the Irish state. The castle has been left unoccupied, and its roof was stripped off in the 1950s.
Kilkenny Castle was sold to the people of Kilkenny in 1967 for a nominal £50 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Lord James Butler married Ellen Stager of Chicago in 1887, but her $1 million fortune was not enough to save Kilkenny Castle for his family either. When he became the fourth Marquis of Ormonde in 1919, the estate’s financial burdens included £166,000 in death duties. The castle contents were sold off and it was forlorn for decades before being sold by his son to the people of Kilkenny in 1967 for a nominal £50.
Leinster House ... once the Dublin townhouse of the Dukes of Leinster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Some “Big Houses” still belong to the original families, including Lismore Castle, Currgahmore and Castle Leslie, a few were burned, others fell into ruin or were sold. But the Butlers are long gone from Kilkenny Castle; the FitzGeralds from Carton House and Kilkea Castle, Co Kildare, Leinster House in Dublin and Johnstown Castle, Co Wexford; the Conollys from Castletown House; the Wingfields from Powerscourt; the Maxwell-Barrys from Newtownbarry and Farnham; the Prestons from Gormanston; the Taylours from Headfort House, Virginia Lodge and Ardgillan Castle; and the Wolseleys from Mount Wolseley.
Many “Big Houses” are now hotels, golf courses, schools, heritage sites or wedding venues. Ten years ago, Castle Leslie was the venue for the wedding of Paul McCartney – to an American heiress.
Dealing with snobbery
The domed cast-iron glasshouse at Ardgillan Castle, near Skerries, once home to the Taylour family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
When the Irish Wolseley title – but not Mount Wolseley – passed to a Merseyside cobbler in the 1950s, the popular press hailed a change in society that challenged generations of presumptions and snobberies. A recent television programme on RTÉ claimed to have discovered the 11th Earl of Mayo – although there was never any doubt about who Charles Burke is.
In previous decades, landowning aristocrats were prominent members of the general synod and diocesan synods. Some must have wondered whether they were elected merely because of their social rank; the peers, for their part, may have wondered whether anyone valued them for their personal contributions and skills rather than their titles.
Gormanston Castle, Co Meath, once home to the Preston family, is now a boarding school (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In 1848, Cecil Frances Alexander wrote:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
In the 1980s, many schools banned this verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful. But, rather than imputing God’s sanction for the Victorian social hierarchy, Mrs Alexander wanted to convey the all-embracing inclusiveness of God’s love.
Farnham House, Co Cavan, the last part of the Maxwell-Barry family’s large estates, is now a luxury hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Downton Abbey shows that snobbery exists at every level, and that people are too easily accepted or too easily dismissed because of their social status. It works both ways.
Because Ireland is a democratic republic does not mean we have freed ourselves from social snobberies and discrimination. Some of the present discussions about fee-paying schools reveal inherent snobberies, many expressed as inverted snobbery. We can disagree with social structures, we can see them as vain and self-serving, we can challenge them and seek to change them. But we cannot change where and when we were born.
Powerscourt House, once the Dublin townhouse of the Wingfields of Powerscourt, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Castletown House, near Celbridge, Co Kildare, the former home of the Conolly family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)