Friday, May 27, 2011

The Tighsolas Era as Reflected in Downton Abbey

Harper's Bazar image 1913


I watched the 7 episodes of Downton Abbey all at once, a 2010 British mini-series that takes place between the Titanic and the Onset of WWI, starring Hugh Bonneville (who was so good as the Dad in Lost in Austen) and Maggie Smith.


In Lost in Austen Bonneville had all the droll lines and delivered them with aplomb, this time Maggie Smith has all the potentially funny lines and nails them, each and every one.


Well, Downton Abbey is a cross bewtween a Jane Austen Novel (about marriage prospects and entailments) and Upstairs Downstairs, and is written by the screenwriter of Gosford Park.


It's a bit Soap Opera-like then, but just a touch. In period pieces the fashions are the star and here is no exception, although the fashions worn by the younger women in Downton Abbey are a tad twenties-ish - at least I think. I suppose that means they are supposed to be cutting edge, but those v-necks during the day seem wrong.

The pic above is from Harper's Bazar, 1913, so it was a coming trend.

And to save money, I guess, the producers of Downton Abbey show lots of autos, not many horse-drawn carts and carriages. The streets of the small Yorkshire? town near the Abbey tend to be empty most of the time, not chock-full of activity as was the case, I imagine.


In this Downton Abbey miniseries there are three girls competing for husbands and they appear weight conscious, but in a contemporary way.

I thought of this, because the Nicholson girls were certainly weight conscious, but not exactly in the way we are today. Mother Margaret worried when Flora was too thin, and exulted when she gained weight at Macdonald. With weight came 'colour' which meant she was healthier and less likely to die from La Grippe, as so many did.

Edith gives her weight as 138 (in her clothes I guess as she weighed herself at a store). She does not say she is fat. (She was about 5 foot 5 inches.)

Marion's weight Yo Yo's. She too gives her weight, at 19, as 130 pounds. She's 5 foot 2. In 1912, she is under great stress and loses a lot of weigth, everyone comments. This is not considered a good thing.

Maybe there was more pressure of the wealthy to be thin, even then, before the First World War, but I don't think so. Full-figured women were still desirable, if not going out of fashion. Adele Blood was deemed "the most beautiful blond on the stage" and she was more Mae West than Kate Hepburn. In fact, my own grandmother had a similar build.

Remember, that skinny twenties look was called 'the garconne' as in the female boy. So they believed thin women looked 'boyish.' Today, all actresses are ballerina thin, but they are not seen as boyish at all.

Today,there are few plump young actresses, if any at all. Taboo.

Many reasons have been given for this trend, which tracks against real life, where everyone is getting fatter and fatter. Some feminists believe, the more power women have, the less female fat they are allowed to have. I suspect it has to do with an invention back in the 1900/1910 era, the motion picture. Skinny women look better on film, their faces anyway, and the body followed

Anyway, I liked Downton Abbey a lot, (I watched all 7 hours at one sitting). My only problem, in retrospect, is the one pivotal scene, a seducation scene that seems more of a rape scene. It happens to the eldest daughter just hours after she meets a handsome exotic stranger. I can't quite figure it out in relation to the very prudish 1910 era.

And at the end a miscarriage happens because the Mom, played by Elizabeth McGovern, falls coming out the bath. From what I know, such things don't happen, baby is well-protected in these cases.


Having just watched the first two series of Upstairs Downstairs (and Gosford Park!) it was fun to compare. There is a clearer line between the good servants and the bad servants in Downton Abbey than in U/D.

The cooks are similar. The young maids and footman are similar. (My Yorkshire grandfather was a footman, supposedly, before being shot off to Malaya, because an Earl's daughter fell for him. Footman had to be tall and presentable, it seems, so they were bound to attract female attention, despite their lowly position in life. )


The Butler and Housekeeper are not as pivotal -or as captivating- in Downton Abbey as in U/D, but similar.

In the opening scene, when Hugh Bonneville's character learns about the sinking of the Titanic, his thoughts immediately go to the steerage passengers, who he assumes, (correctly) have mostly drowned. This is to show, right away, that he is a good sort. He says,"Poor souls, travelling to make a better life," he says. Ironic statment, since from I can see from the 1911 Canadian Census, many of these young Englishman and women were going to work as domestics in Canadian homes, since there was a dire shorthage of help and English people were preferred over all others. So instead of working in an elegant home, they get to be Jack and Jill of all servant trades for middle class people like the Clevelands,in a Victorian townhouse on Lorne Avenue. They employed a young English girl fresh from overseas.


Adele Blood. Flora sees her in 1912, in Everywoman. I will include this in Flo in the City, my book about Middle Class Canadians in 1910. The Nicholsons had no maids, but lots of upper class pretentions, all the same.