Julian Fellowes on Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes talks about the upheaval of the early 20th century, and what the Crawley family might make of Caitlyn Jenner.
By Shanee Edwards.
“Another clang in the march of time.” – Mrs. Patmore.
With less than 3 months of filming left at Highclere Castle, the stand-in location for Downton Abbey, the show’s sole writer, Julian Fellowes, sat down with us to talk Season 5 and discuss the shocking challenges he masterfully wrought upon the Crawley family, in the costume drama that’s now popular on six continents.
If each season of the smash hit, Downton Abbey, has a theme, there is little doubt Season 5’s motif, both visually and theoretically, was the march of time.
Of course, society was changing as a whole in the 1920s, but it seemed like it was the women’s characters, particularly Mary (Michelle Dockery), Daisy (Sophie McShera), and Edith (Laura Carmichael), who were most affected by the societal changes that emerged after the devastation of the First World War. We asked Julian Fellowes if focusing on the women and reflecting the female journey in early 20th century England was something he intended to explore last season. He admits it was, and in fact, and he had a great field source on the topic – his own aunt.
“I think it was a terribly important time for women, but it was also quite a bewildering time if you were in the middle of it,” said Fellowes.
The actor-turned-writer remembers talking to a great aunt who was born in the 1880s, and was in her thirties in the 1920s.
“She had been widowed in the First World War, her husband had died of wounds and so on, so she was fairly of her time. She said what was strange was, immediately after the war, 1919 to 1921, it wasn’t clear that all that much had changed because servants came back and maybe people had two footmen instead of four, but nothing had changed seismically.”
But the wealthy and middle class’s attitude began to shift when it came to the property they owned and inhabited, and that led to other cultural transformations.
“You started to realize that some people were selling or demolishing their houses, that things were changing, particularly for women. The vote [for women] had started, and originally you had to be over 30 and there were property qualifications and you couldn’t be in domestic service, and all that sort of nonsense, but my aunt said that everyone knew that that was the beginning. Sometimes it’s now represented like ‘Oh, that’s never going to happen’, but she said it wasn’t like that. Once the government had given in, they knew it was a matter of time before women’s suffrage was exactly the same as men’s. In fact, I think it took ten years, but it didn’t take much longer.”
Of course, women getting the vote was an extraordinary change for the better, but beyond that, other less positive changes were afoot. People’s earnings had taken a serious hit during the war and on top of that, taxes increased drastically as England was struggling to pay for the war effort.
“It was clear that people’s income had radically changed. For a lot of families, that meant that women had to earn, even in the middle classes. Unmarried women had to start earning, becoming secretaries, later called personal assistants, or become managers, which they started in the first World War, running factories and things when the men were on the front lines.”
It was no surprise that the British government wanted to roll back these changes and encouraged women to all to go back to their pre-war roles.
“There was a strong push to leave the seats empty for the boys and go back to being a wife and mother. The same thing happened in the 1940s, back in America. Messages like, ‘Put on your frilly aprons, he’ll be back in a minute,’ all that sort of stuff. After about four or five years, they realized it wasn’t going to work, women were not getting back into their frilly aprons, unless it suited them to do so.”
So, when exactly did British society realize they were in a whole new era?
“My aunt said by the middle 20s, you sort of realized that the world had changed. Even though the top families were rattling about, much as they did before, in a funny way, 1929 put the seal on that, even though it wasn’t felt as much in England as it was in America. I mean, it was hard times, but it wasn’t like here [in America], a dust bowl sort of thing. She said they entered the 30s knowing that they were in the modern world now.”
Fellowes said it was these conversations with his aunt that set the stage for the world of Downton Abbey and characters like Mary and Edith Crawley.
“I sort of wanted to get that sense into the show. You’re sort of torn, even as a woman you’re torn – in one way, you think, ‘Oh, this is getting much better, I’m able to do this and that.’ But in another way, all that ‘I have security’ and ‘I’m protected,’ knowing that you would be looked after – that was going away, too.”
One female character that had a big awakening in Season 5, was Daisy Mason, the Crawley’s cook. We all watched enthusiastically as she began pursuing an education in her spare time then were stunned when she questioned whether or not her studies were worth the effort. We asked Fellowes to help take us through her journey.
“Daisy has grown up in a village and come from the farm. She’s been taught a trade — she’s a cook and she’s actually quite well off in that society because she has a skill that is marketable. In a way, that’s fine, and probably in 1750, she would’ve gone on to be a top chef in some household and that would have been her life. But she’s come at a time of change. She starts to read books and she starts to study and she starts to talk to people — something is awakened in her and she starts to feel that this way of life is unjust because she’s not getting the opportunities she’s entitled to. I feel that was truthful for a great many people. These people didn’t know they were unhappy until they were told. But it doesn’t mean they are not.”
Fellowes sees the 1920s as a strange and puzzling era, particularly for the people of Robert Crawley’s (Hugh Bonneville), generation, making things challenging for men, too.
“Robert was born in the 1860s and had grown up as young man in a completely established Victorian age, which was one of those periods, sort of like the 1950s in America, which had total confidence in itself. In the 1880s and 90s in England, if a man was born an Englishman, he had a winning ticket in the lottery of life.”
Fellowes felt that for a man like Robert to see these changes coming down the pipeline, it must have been a bit unsettling at first. Ultimately however, his generation took them in stride.
“After the first war the puff had gone out of it. And everyone started to realize this was only a matter of time. And when Gandhi came along in India, many people said, ‘Oh, here he is.’”
We asked about Thomas Barrow’s difficult journey as a closeted homosexual, dealing with quack medical “cures” to make him more “like other men,” something we also saw Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), dealing with in 2014’s The Imitation Game. And if Britain was unique in administering these kinds of pseudo cures. Apparently, they were not.
“While there was a cottage medical industry in America to medically ‘treat’ homosexuals, there was more of a religious component to it — that in a sense, you were being tested by the devil, to see if you could be drawn over to the dark side. Your job as a Christian was to resist, fight back and go Jesus’ way.”
For Fellowes, researching the electrical treatments was the most disturbing part.
“There was a kind of quackery industry in curing you of homosexuality, with electrical treatments and all that went right on into the 20th century, lest we forget that thing where you’re shown a photograph of a naked man and zap! Then you’re shown a naked women and woo-oo-oo [Fellowes hummed a rousing tune], I mean, that was still going on in the 1950s.”
Our generation, a hundred years later, is facing it’s own changes and challenges. The emergence of Caitlyn Jenner has our entire society rethinking gender. We asked Fellowes what the people in Downton Abbey’s time would have thought about her transition from man to woman.
“I think, that was then and this is now. I don’t think they would be able to deal with it, but one of the reasons is because they couldn’t do it! So in a sense technology brings its own acceptance. Because once something is possible, whatever people think, it will be done. And once it’s done we have to have an attitude to it, and our attitude then has to fit with our own morality. Because we are the generation who likes to feel that were liberal about everything. It’s difficult for us to condemn a serial killer, so we would feel uncomfortable condemning a life choice, and that’s in us now. For the Victorians or Georgians, where it wasn’t physically possible to change a man into a woman, they didn’t have to have an attitude to it other than, ‘What a terrible idea. Why would you want to do that?’ So I don’t think one can look to them for attitudes on things that belong exclusively to our own society.”
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