Downton Abbey as History

What the Show Got Right About Life in a Country House

Downton Abbey, the television series coproduced by Carnival Films and WGBH, has set off a volley of debates about how we see the past, and about how much any drama, even a well-researched one, can contribute to historical understanding. Downton Abbey is, of course, entertainment, not documentary. Even so, Julian Fellowes, the show's creator, had a definite historical goal. He conceived of the series as an illumination of country-house life in the early twentieth century, particularly of the separate but interconnected orbits of the aristocracy and the servants. In that goal, Fellowes succeeds with panache.


Downton Abbey, the enormous Jacobean style country house in the show, is the seat of an Edwardian-era earl who is married to an American heiress. In real life, the indoor staff of such an earl's household would have included a butler, several liveried footmen, and a dedicated valet; outside, there would have been grooms, gardeners, gamekeepers, and so on. The female servants who reported to a head housekeeper would have been even more numerous. At Welbeck Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Portland in North Nottinghamshire, in 1902, there were no fewer than fourteen housemaids alone. At Goodwood House, the home of the Dukes of Richmond in Sussex, there were still seven housemaids into the 1920s. 

In Downton Abbey, the number of servants was deliberately reduced to simplify the narrative, and jobs that would have been filled by several people were condensed. The show portrays a butler, two footmen, a valet, and a chauffeur. The cast of female characters includes a housekeeper, a lady's maid, housemaids, a cook, and a kitchen maid. The kitchen maid, Daisy, also cleans the bedroom fireplaces. In effect, Daisy is an amalgam of a junior housemaid, a kitchen maid, and a scullery maid (cleaner of pots and pans). 

Such simplifications aside, the press' main criticism of the accuracy of Downton Abbey was that the show presented the two classes of people -- the servants and the served

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